Windows are the primary interface between the office worker and the external natural environment. As such, they provide a simple way of giving people the connection to nature that they need in order to avoid the discord associated with environments devoid of nature.
Research in the US24 has shown us the benefits of window views within the workspace. In an office of 90 people, it was found that workers who had a window that afforded a view of a nature scene recovered from low-level stress at a much quicker rate than those who only had a view of a blank wall. Further to this, the longer participants spent looking out the window at nature, the more rapidly their heart rate tended to decrease. This highlights the simple effect of nature on a human’s physiological response to stress and how nature can help people to be less negatively affected by day-to-day pressure at work.
As well as having the power to reduce the negative effects of stress, other research25 shows that a green window view that provides natural lighting to employees’ workspaces had a big impact in reducing sickness absence rates among an organization’s employee population. This was compared to those with a view of a gas station, for example, or those at desks in interior spaces with no view at all. The health benefits afforded by natural lighting and a connection with nature are taken as the explanation for the lower levels of sick leave reported among those with windows within their workspace. Natural light has emerged as a particularly important element of biophilic design throughout this report. It has not only been reported as the top preference on a list of many natural elements that individuals would like in their workplace, but also found to be linked to productivity in a number of countries in Europe (Germany, Sweden, UK and the Netherlands) and India, where it is by far the strongest predictor of high levels of employee productivity. Such findings emphasize the need for organizations to provide access to natural light through either office redesign where more open spaces are created, or through the creation of social areas within the workplace that provide people with access to natural light and a place for respite.
Investigating exactly why people derive such great pleasure from viewing a dramatic and changing vista, research has shown that these scenes of nature may stimulate a reward structure in the brain that seeks information through the senses. Further to this, it has been shown that those scenes with the greatest amount of variety and randomness should produce the greatest amount of activity in the brain and, as such, be of the greatest pleasure for the viewer. Conclusive research in this area is ongoing. Research suggests that, in order to positively stimulate workers, employers should consider the visual environment surrounding each employee and evaluate the potential benefits for employee well-being and performance when this environment is perceptually stimulating16. Access to window views is a simple way of providing this stimulation. However, as research shows us that it is the variation in patterns, textures and colors of nature that brings us pleasure, we can take this knowledge and think about how we might re-create this within the indoor environment when access to a window is not feasible.
A number of studies in hospital environments have found that showing pictures of pleasing landscapes to patients just before or just after surgery resulted in lower stress levels and better recovery rates. Similarly, wall-mounted video screens displaying images, or real-time video of natural scenes, resulted in reduced stress rates in windowless environments. These beneficial results therefore lead to the question of whether there is a difference in response to real versus simulated nature. In a study at the University of Washington, participants were subjected to a stressful experience and given one of three different recovery period conditions. These were sitting at a desk facing a wall of gray curtains, or facing a wall with gray curtains with one segment open to reveal a window with a view to a water feature and some trees, or facing the wall with gray curtains with one segment open to reveal a high-definition flat-screen television of the same dimensions as the window and displaying real-time video of the view out the aforementioned window. The recovery response with just the gray curtains was slow. The recovery response to the video monitor was better both psychologically and physiologically. Finally, the psychological response (i.e., perceived recovery) to the real window was similar to that of the simulated window, and the physiological response to the real window was significantly better than the simulated window. Essentially, we have come to learn that, while simulated nature has value, real nature is better.
The consequences for workers who don’t have access to a window view are more predominant in Germany and India, where office workers with no windows reported lower levels of happiness at work. Research findings showed that productivity was much higher when German workers had a view of nature, while in India a view of wildlife was linked to greater levels of creativity. Overall, the growing evidence base supports biophilic design as a factor that can positively influence the well-being of workers within an organization, and the findings presented here provide further evidence for this.
Studies reinforce that access to both daylight and a view out of a window to nature are important in supporting our well-being and productivity. However, we should be aware that these are different strategies with different responses. While quality daylight is important, studies by Heschong and Loftness of a utility company call center, highlight how views to nature can enhance the benefits of a good daylighting strategy. The call center is located in a LEED Gold certified building, with extensive windows looking out on trees. The space is well lit, however the positioning of workstations perpendicular to the windows required occupants to turn their bodies away from their computer screens to access the view outdoors.
By shifting the position of the workstations to an acute angle to the windows meant that the movement of leaves, birds, butterflies and weather patterns would now be within the peripheral vision of the occupants. These occasional distractions cause occupants to look away from the short visual focus of their computer screens and observe the nature outside. This short pause results in a relaxation response that then supports better attention on the work task. Moving the workstations cost about $1,000 per occupant, but resulted in a 6% increase in call processing capacity, or about a $3,000 return per occupant.