Feeling good often equates to being able to do more. In addition to the abundance of research that confirms the relationship between well-being and productivity30 there is also clear evidence directly linking biophilia with an organization’s output.
One of the more recent, and most relevant, research studies looking at these effects was carried out in the UK (a study called ‘The relative benefits of
green versus lean office space: Three field experiments’), where university researchers in Cardiff compared the levels of productivity of two groups of office workers who were exposed to different levels of nature contact. They found that those who worked in offices with natural greenery saw a 15% rise in productivity over a three month period, in comparison to those working with no greenery or natural elements within their immediate environment.
This research has found similar relationships between the presence of natural elements and productivity, made more interesting by cultural differences. For example, in the UK, the Netherlands and the Philippines, it was found that the presence of indoor plants was positively associated with productivity. In contrast, workers’ productivity in India and Indonesia was linked to the presence of green office colors. In Germany there was less focus on office color, instead it was the use of stone elements that was most strongly linked to employees’ performance. In Australia, it was the use of wood within the office design and furnishings that contributed to greater levels of productivity, yet in Canada the presence of greenery indoors was most crucial for ensuring high levels of employee productivity. Further detail on specific cultural preferences from the Human Spaces research can be found in Appendix Two.
The variance in the impact and prevalence of office design elements from region to region is expected and the likely influence of cultural factors to explain these differences can be noted. However, more research is required to comment definitively on the drivers of specific employee preferences in workplace aesthetic and design. What the results do emphasize clearly is the diversity and depth of workplace design considerations. For a multinational firm expanding into a new country or region, it’s likely that a form of cultural compatibility testing will be undertaken on the existing operating model, product or service, corporate culture and so on. This research demonstrates a clear case for office environment and biophilic design to be included among this list – in addition to domestic firms taking a more in-depth approach to examining the impact of their work environments.
For the first time, this research is showing universal links between productivity and office design. Despite the various cultural differences surrounding work and workspaces across the 16 countries that contributed respondents to the survey, the following elements were positively linked to productivity in all cases. They present a template for biophilic design in the workplace, which can be further tailored to match an organization’s unique context.
Natural elements positively linked to productivity at work – Nature views: Viewing external nature scenes from the office space had a positive impact on workers’ productivity.
Accent colors: Colors such as blue, green and yellow were associated with higher levels of productivity.
Nature within the workspace: Ensuring the presence of natural elements within the workplace, such as plants, green space, plenty of light and elements of water predicted greater levels of productivity.
In the US, our findings show that workers without views of nature have impaired levels of productivity. Another survey in the US found 40% of people agreeing that natural greenery within their indoor environment made them feel calmer and more relaxed. Furthermore, those residing in environments that incorporate external green space indicate that having this space is important for their well-being. Taking this investigation into the office environment, employees also report that plants make them feel calmer and more relaxed, frequently stating that an office with plants makes it a more desirable place to work. Similarly, in the UK, live plants in the office have a positive effect on productivity – specifically, people who have access to this greenery within their workspace report higher levels of productivity than those with an absence of these elements.
Although the US and the UK can be considered as countries that are much more advanced in their understanding of biophilic design and the benefits it can have for employees and the organization’s productivity as a whole, the findings here suggest that they still lack in implementing this type of design within their office environments. This is clear from the fact that both the US and the UK reported the lowest levels of natural light, the element that is rated as the top most wanted element within the workplace.
When we look at the Australian workforce, according to a National Health survey by Medibank, the population can be considered a high-risk group with more than half of people reporting stress at work. Stress-related claims cost Australian businesses over $200 million annually and exactly 53% of Australian workers surveyed say that they feel overwhelmed with pressure a significant proportion of the time that they are at work. Considering the positive benefits posed by biophilic design efforts, the findings reported here may be greatly beneficial to those organizations that relate to these alarming figures and want to take action to improve both the well-being and productivity of their workforce. Specific areas of focus, based on the findings, would be to provide windows with views to outside nature, as these have emerged as strong determinants of both happiness and productivity among workers. The use of green and blue within the office color scheme may also be beneficial in contributing to higher levels of creativity.
China is another country of interest when it comes to the field of biophilic design due to the fact that it is urbanizing faster than anywhere else in the world. Existing research conducted on school children in China tells us that, even from a young age, people living in urban environments are not being provided with the nature contact they require in order to meet their innate biophilic needs. Our research indicates that for the Chinese, above all else, natural light is the most important factor in maintaining healthy levels of well-being and productivity. The figures show that natural light was particularly more important in China than in other countries around the world. Interestingly, in comparison to other countries where the use of bright accents within the office color scheme, such as blue, green and yellow are found to be related to employee outcomes, in China the color brown appears to be significant in relation to both employee well-being and productivity. Although the reasoning behind these findings is not clear, what they show is that there are evident cultural differences and preferences in terms of specific elements of biophilic design that influence people in a positive way.
The global scope of this report is a unique feature in that the research has been conducted on a large scale to investigate the impact of biophilic design. This means that the research has identified cultural differences in the impact and preference of biophilic design elements that have not been investigated before.
In summary, biophilic design has an overall positive impact across the world, but there are significant cultural differences that must be taken into consideration when designing workplaces in a way that incorporates biophilic design practises.
The deep appeal of color is an attribute of people’s adaptive response to the natural world which, through evolution, has assisted in the location of food and water, and with way-finding. While many colors can have cultural meanings that vary significantly from place to place, there is also evidence that some colors engender deeper universal physiological and psychological responses, such as enhanced creativity, better cognitive focus, or a calming effect.
A space with a color palette that feels connected with nature may also be perceived as being a healthy place to dwell, in which one can feel stimulated or calmed. Evolutionary psychology and related research suggests that humans have a preference for colors familiar to savanna settings, particularly colors found in healthy vegetation. Colors commonly found in healthy natural landscapes are indicative of the presence of clean water, nutrient-rich vegetation, or fruits and flowers. Not all hues of a color elicit the same response, and those that are typically found in stressed or dying vegetation may be perceived as less beneficial to human health and well-being.
There is evidence that different colors are tied to specific outcomes. For instance, viewing dark to medium greens can lower the heart rate and blood pressure to alleviate stress, whereas orangey, weakly yellowed, or brownish greens, which are typically found in stressed or dying vegetation, are the least desired. In addition, the color red can support mental engagement and attention necessary for cognitively intense tasks, and the color blue and some medium greens can support mental capacity for tasks requiring creativity.
As previously stated, we found that across a range of different occupations, in workplaces that incorporate natural elements such as greenery and sunlight, employees reported productivity levels 6% greater than those without these elements.
Understanding the range and complexity of factors that can impact employee productivity is key for organizations wishing to prioritize performance initiatives and Human Resources (HR) strategy. It’s important then to put biophilia and workplace design into context when looking at how they can drive individual and organizational outcomes. So, how does this 6% gain compare with other concepts in organizational psychology, well-being and performance?
Work performance is heavily driven by factors that are personal to each employee, including sense of purpose, non-work pressures, psychological well-being, and personality. While these factors can contribute to performance gaps of up to and over 40%30, the individualistic nature of these factors can mean they are more difficult to manage in order to elicit productivity increases of this scale. Looking then at the 6% increase in productivity for those working in environments that incorporate nature, employers and designers alike are presented with an option for increasing productivity that is less specific and much easier to implement in order to increase productivity organization-wide.