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As research highlights the link between nature, wellbeing and productivity, we call for employers to consider how they can use biophilic design in the workplace.

It has been suggested that there is a human need for connection with natural surroundings – a concept also known as ‘biophilia’. The notion was first introduced and popularised by American biologist and theorist, Edward O. Wilson in the 1980s, and has since been widely supported by scientific research.

Wilson’s hypothesis was validated in a 2004 study, where the majority of survey respondents opted for rural characteristics when tasked with depicting their preferred choice of environment. The rapid increase in urbanisation, however, means that by 2050, two in three people are likely to live in towns or cities – according to a report by the United Nations. This shift from rural to urban living is incompatible with the human preference for nature, which research continues to validate. Moreover, it presents a real challenge for employers who must seek to find ways of connecting employees with nature to avoid negative organisational outcomes.

And there are real incentives for employers to act. The employee wellbeing agenda has taken off in a big way in the UK with many organisations making it a strategic priority. The wellbeing benefits of creating workspaces that contain natural elements, wood, water, plants and natural light are well evidenced. But a biophilic approach to workplace design may also help to address two major problems that bedevil UK businesses.

According to research by Health and Safety Executive (HSE), stress is a leading cause of sickness absenteeism, costing employers a huge £5 billion each year. Repeated studies have shown that being in natural environments significantly reduces stress levels. Meanwhile, the UK’s desperately poor productivity levels – currently lagging at 15 percentage points below the average for the G7 – are a major headache for both economists and the government. There is significant evidence to suggest that when people are working with more exposure to nature, higher levels of productivity can be achieved.

In a notable study conducted at a call centre in Sacramento, California, an annual productivity saving of $2,990 per employee was achieved by positioning workers’ desks towards windows that provided access to views of vegetation. Call centre operators who were seated in this way handled a higher volume of calls – and did so six to seven percent faster – than those who were without access to natural views.

More recently, the Human Spaces Global Report (2015) confirmed that biophilia positively impacts employee wellbeing, productivity and creativity – based on analysis of research data spanning 7,600 workers across 16 countries. It was found that employees who work in nature-inspired environments – where there is presence of sunlight, greenery and other natural elements – have a 15% higher level of perceived wellbeing; are 6% more creative; and have a 15% higher level of productivity than those who don’t. What’s more, the report reveals that 33% of respondents say workplace design would influence their decision to work for a company.

Such significant numbers indicate the measurable impact of biophilia in the workplace. For this reason, forward-thinking companies are making biophilic design a priority. The Bank of America is a good example, where the construction of its Tower at One Bryant Park in New York provides views of green space for 90% of their employees. Their rationale – if biophilic design brought only a 1% uplift in productivity, it would save the company $10 million. Other companies that have taken a lead include Etsy, Airbnb, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google.

However, despite quantifiable evidence of its many benefits, biophilic design is underutilised by the majority of businesses, as is indicated by the Human Spaces Global Report, in which 58% of respondents reported having no natural greenery in their workplace, and 47% reported having no natural light. Why would this be when the benefits of biophilic design are so apparent?

It’s likely that some businesses are slow to catch on, waiting to see how it plays out for the early adopters. It’s also possible that some businesses are constrained by their building design; operating within old premises that were built before biophilic design was conceptualised. But even for those companies, biophilic design needn’t be out of reach.

How employers can harness the power of nature

There are simple steps employers can take to incorporate biophilic design in the workplace, at little cost:

Introduce plants into offices and workspaces. Employers should invest in a mixture of real and artificial plants in designing for optimal impact on wellbeing and productivity. In a 2010 study, office plants were found to have reduced stress levels by 37%, with a 38% reduction in fatigue. Research also suggests that plants can reduce sickness absence levels by up to 50%.

Maximise natural light in the workplace. By positioning workers’ desks near windows and opening the office blinds to provide access to sunlight, employers can improve employee performance and satisfaction. Additionally, this can help to reduce risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which can have a significant impact on levels of sickness absence.

Decorate the office with natural colours. Employers should seek to infuse bright colours such as yellow, green, blue and brown into office design. Such nature-resembling hues have been identified as having a significant positive impact on employee productivity and creativity.

By adopting measures like these, businesses can expect to see improved levels of employee wellbeing, productivity, creativity and decreased absenteeism – all of which will positively impact the bottom line.

As more people become disconnected from the natural environment, businesses simply can’t afford to ignore the value of biophilic design. Bringing nature into the workplace ought to be a priority on the business agenda.

The Bank Workers Charity website contains a range of material and interactive tools to support positive health and wellbeing.


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