Biophilic design and why plants are an important part of the modern employee experience.

April 11, 2019    Ann Clarke   

As mindfulness and wellbeing grow in importance for people-centric employers, so too does the appeal of biophilic design in the workplace.

Biophilic design refers to the concept of increasing our connection to the natural environment within the spaces we occupy, something that is all too often lacking in our work as well as home environments and in many towns and cities across the UK.

While some large employers have embraced the idea whole-heartedly in their office design, Apple’s Californian tree-filled HQ and Amazon’s on-site green houses are some of the most well-known examples, many are only just taking their first steps towards ‘bringing the outside in’.

Living plant walls and office gardens and roof terraces are among the most common features to appear, but true biophilic design emulates outdoor environments in more comprehensive way and includes looking at the location, height, texture and type of plants as well as a workplace’s air quality, light quality and sensory experience, including sights, sounds and scents.

While biophilic design can certainly be highly creative and add aesthetic appeal to a workplace, the real driving force of its uptake comes from the distinct psychological and bottom-line benefits that a greater connection with nature offers – namely reducing stress, increasing productivity, boosting creativity, reducing sickness and staff attrition as well as lessening noise.

Data bears this out.  A study from Exeter University[1] found that employees were as much as 15% more productive when just a few plants were added to their work environments and other European studies have shown similar results, with a 13% increase[2] in wellbeing and an 8%[3] increase in productivity thanks to the inclusion of natural design and fresh air in the workplace.   Yet despite these statistics, 47%[4] of employees still lack natural light, 58%[5] don’t have access to plants and 7%[6] don’t even have a window.

At the heart of biophilic design is the idea that our surroundings stimulate a response in us – a drab, dreary and stark work environment where fresh air is in limited supply will elicit a far less engaging workplace experience than one where there is visual interest, natural light, plants and a wide variety of stimulus.  The more employees are actively engaged with their surroundings, the more productive they are as workers.

With mindfulness and wellbeing one of the biggest people-concerns for employers, harnessing biophilic design becomes an important means to boost engagement.  Here are seven ways to introduce biophilic design in order to actively promote and foster a happy, healthy and productive workforce:

  1. Natural light – Make sure employees are as close to a source of natural light as possible. Locate desking and activity-based work zones on the perimeter of a floorplate to maximise this and move meeting rooms and other services to the naturally darker core areas.
  2. Outside space – Not every office has access to outside space, but it is becoming a more popular design feature for architects and developers when designing new buildings. Where access is possible, make the outdoors inviting with the use of seating areas and access to power points so that employees can use it to relax and work as they see fit.
  3. Plants and greenery– Use plants and living walls and to add visual interest, divide up workspaces and soften the overall interior. Plants can help to reduce noise transfer in open plan spaces and importantly, increased oxygen levels improve concentration levels and help to keep employees focused.
  4. Standout/inspiration – Talk Talk’s Salford Quays office features an indoor picnic area and a roof terrace as a way to forge a greater connection with the outdoors and bring fresh air into the workspace. Shoosmiths’ Manchester office features nature-inspired artwork, textures and a living plant wall. The inclusion of stand-out features like these is memorable and inspiring and makes a statement about the importance of wellbeing for employees.
  5. Colour and visual interest – Introducing colour into the workplace can help to set the mood, whether it’s a calming colour for quiet contemplation or a bright colour to spark innovation and creativity. Using nature’s colours, shapes and textures in artwork and graphics can bring workspaces to life.
  6. Use natural materials – A greater connection with the outdoors can be forged through the use of natural materials. The use of wood, stone, exposed brick and even grass-effect flooring can all achieve this and reduce the reliance on super modern, synthetic finishes.
  7. Consider the senses – Workplaces can be noisy and bustling places which is not always conducive with concertation and wellbeing. The introduction of scented plants and even piped bird music in relaxation areas can all help to evoke the outdoors, instil calm, aid concentration and create a greater connection with nature.

As much as 90%[7] of our time is spent indoors, which lessens our connection with the wider world and the natural environment.  As we put greater focus on improving our individual and collective wellbeing and health, it will become even more important to find ways to recharge, relax and reconnect. Biophilic design is an important response to that, particularly in a fast-paced, always-on technology-led world.  For businesses striving to keep their people engaged, happy and healthy, bringing the outdoors in has never been more relevant, effective or timely.

To discover how biophilic design could benefit your employees and create a compelling and wellbeing-focused environment download our ‘War on Talent’ Whitepaper 

[1] http://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/featurednews/title_409094_en.html

[2] Report by Human Spaces http://blog.interface.com/

[3] Report by Human Spaces http://blog.interface.com/

[4] [4] http://blog.interface.com

[5] [5] http://blog.interface.com

[6] From the Human Spaces Report quoted in: https://www.forbes.com/sites/karenhigginbottom/2014/10/21/employees-working-in-offices-with-natural-elements-report-higher-well-being/#242ecf2162e1

[7] Figures from the US Environment Protection Agency.

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