1. Biophilia and the well-being advantage
The great management theorist Maslow was examining the aesthetics of the workplace, and their impact, as long ago as the 1950s. His studies found that the quality of office design influenced office workers, with aesthetically pleasing spaces having a positive impact on energy levels and well-being. Further to this, research shows that the presence of natural elements indoors can evoke the same benefits as the outdoor environment, supporting the case for biophilic office design.
Across Europe, research has shown that the simple presence of natural elements in the work environment can act as a buffer against the negative impact of job stress and positively impact general well-being. It’s a connection which has been made in many settings, including the healthcare profession. For example, in patient waiting rooms with murals depicting natural scenes such as mountains, sunset, grassy areas and stone paths patients felt significantly calmer and less tense than those sat in a waiting room with plain white walls. In the work environment our research presents similar findings, showing that the use of mute colours (brown and grey specifically) were associated with greater reported levels of stress. In contrast, employees in offices with bright accent colours (red, yellow, purple, orange, green and blue) reported lower levels of stress. Ultimately it is important for organisations to recognise the particular colours that have the best impact in terms of employee well-being and consider how these colours can reflect the natural elements that inspire us.
When EMEA office workers’ attention is focused on demanding tasks, disruptive environmental factors may lead to mental fatigue, whereas environments that provide a possibility for more effortless attention, such as one with natural elements, offer an opportunity to restore mental capacity. These surroundings, dominated by elements of nature, are thought to be restorative.
In the work environment, the benefits of nature have also been recognised, with research in Norway finding that natural elements within an office space, such as plants, can prevent fatigue when completing tasks that demand high concentration or attention.
Similarly, we found that across countries, the presence of natural elements was consistently associated with higher reported levels of happiness at work, in comparison to work environments void of nature. Further to this, employees working in offices with both internal and external green spaces along with plenty of natural light reported higher levels of well-being, in comparison to those working in environments without these natural features. Our study reported levels of well-being and productivity that were 13% and 8% higher, respectively, for those EMEA office workers in environments containing natural elements. However, despite the benefits that natural light and space can provide, it was found that 30% of workers do not work in environments that provide this sense of light and space. Findings such as this should urge organisations and designers to consider how existing and future workspaces can be built or modified to provide light and space and in turn increase levels of well-being and productivity within the workforce.
Other studies have suggested that such natural elements do not necessarily have to be “real”. Research has shown the positive effects of even an image of greenery over other aspects of the obvious workspace such as walls, furniture and flooring can also have positive benefits if elements of the outdoor environment are effectively re-created indoors.
These findings show that there are specific design elements linked to workplace well-being which provide organisations with another lever to pull to create a positive work environment. The recent upward trend in so-called ‘presenteeism’ – the tendency of employees to report to work, but be less focused due to low well-being or disengagement with their role – presents employers with an imperative to consider biophilic design as an option which can boost well-being and provide areas in the workspace for respite and renewal.
Presenteeism is a relatively new area of study. Global figures to estimate its cost to employers do not yet exist, but figures from the UK suggest the scale of the issue, costing businesses £1 billion a year according to the significant Foresight study into mental capital and well-being. This cost is estimated at 1.3 times that of absenteeism, a clear indicator of the benefit for businesses who can tackle the issue through a range of measures, including workplace design.
A concept related to presenteeism and engagement in a job role is that of employee perceptions. Specifically, an employee’s perception of how valued and supported they are by their employer can be a key determinant of well-being at work. This perception is accounted for in many validated psychological tools that seek to measure well-being in the workplace and it represents a possible inherent benefit of biophilic design – that the act of providing a purpose-designed environment for employees can boost those perceptions of value and support and in turn impact well-being.
Given the economic imperative for organisations to provide positive work environments, and the wealth of academic evidence that shows the impact of biophilia, surprising percentages of EMEA office workers still have no natural light (42%), greenery (55%) or window view (7%) within their environment. Such findings highlight a relatively simple opportunity to improve workspaces and increase well-being. Our research suggests that the simple incorporation of natural elements into the workplace can substantially impact employees’ reported well-being in a positive way. For organisations, this represents an opportunity to integrate a consideration of the natural environment and the provision of ‘green’ spaces with other initiatives that form part of their health and well-being strategies. This could, for example, mean linking biophilic design with health and fitness programmes at work or with simply encouraging more movement for those in predominantly sedentary roles. Improving the integration of the work environment with the outside world, and encouraging employees to move between different purposely-designed spaces, has the potential to break the inactivity which is an ingrained element of many desk-bound roles.
World-leaders in bio-technology, Genzyme Corporation recently designed a new corporate headquarters that when it was built was only the third building to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum status.
Features of the building include natural light; a clear glass exterior; a central atrium with chandeliers at the base, which reflect sunlight; indoor gardens, and windows.
18 months after the structure opened, a survey found that:
• 88% said having direct views and access to the natural elements indoors improved their sense of well-being
• 75% said the building’s design increased their feeling of connection to their other office workers
Across Europe, it has been shown that viewing urban landscapes has a less positive and in some cases negative effect on health, whereas scenes of natural elements, such as lakes or mountains, are shown to have positive health effects and improve people’s long term health and well-being.
In the same way, the impact of a green window view in a work environment also poses many benefits. Research shows positive psychological well-being was greater amongst employees who had a window view of natural elements such as trees or green landscapes, over those who had views of nearby buildings.
Just 58% of EMEA office workers have natural light and 7% have no windows at all. The impact of a view of the outside world (or lack of) isn’t just confined to how people feel at work, it can also influence whether they turn up at all.
In an existing research study conducted in 2010 on office workers in an administrative office building, it was found that, for those 39% of employees with no outdoor view, 10% of their absence could be attributed to the impact of office design providing no contact with nature.
Our analysis has shown that people with a view of natural elements such as trees, water or countryside reported greater levels of well-being than those with views of buildings, roads and construction sites. Further to this, those with a window view that regularly sees nature, were found to have the greatest levels of well-being overall. Finally, when it came to the motivation of EMEA office workers, any window view was found to be more beneficial than no view at all.
However, it may not always be feasible to provide each employee with outdoor views. In these cases, studies have suggested that those who do work in a windowless office should have a workspace that contains visual décor, dominated by materials with natural elements to replace the reduced or complete lack of nature contact.
Although investigation into the benefits of biophilia for individual well-being is relatively new, there is clearly mounting evidence that biophilic design can have a positive impact, from reducing stress and anxiety, to improving the quality and availability of respite from work and in increasing levels of self-reported wellbeing. There are clear links between these findings and areas of organisational psychology which merit biophilia as a consideration within organisations’ wider well-being strategies.