Watch the second installment of our Biophilic Office Research Project video series with the project’s lead interior designer, Oliver Heath, of Oliver Heath Design. The video discusses biophilic design in the built environment and the importance of nature in our lives and our buildings. Discover what his team aims to achieve through design during the BRE Biophilic Office Project.
The BRE Biophilic Office Project is a unique study into the impacts of biophilic design on the workplace. Unlike many studies looking at the impacts of design interventions on workplaces, this study is carried out in a real office, with real office workers, taking part over a period of two years.
Unlike case studies, often the favored choice of design firms and architects, this study collects vast amounts of data. The data will be analyzed dispassionately by academics with a record of objectivity to defend. And unlike many university-based psychology and behavior studies, which rely on carrying out tests and observations on university students (often in return for a small reward), the BRE Biophilic Office Project is monitoring the health and behaviors of real office workers who already work in the test building. This gives the data produced a great deal of credibility.
The problems with monitoring “real” people: ethics and demographics
All experiments are subject to confounding factors. For this project, it is necessary to take into account the fact that the office workers know that they are being observed and may adjust their behavior as a result. Participants may change their behavior in a way that they believe would be ‘helpful’ to the experiment while some may wish to subvert it. This is known as the Hawthorne Effect (1). This is a well-known psychological artifact, first observed by Henry Landsberger and interpreted by Elton Mayo. The Hawthorne Effect has been observed in workplace experiments since the 1950s.
Case studies produced after immediate post-occupancy studies sometimes fail to take this into account or deliberately ignore the effect. The studies then make claims to show a remarkable improvement in behaviors (e.g. productivity, engagement scores, well-being scores, etc.) in the period immediately after a change has been made. However, without conducting or reporting any follow-up research from months or years after the changes are made, there is no way of knowing from these case studies whether the benefits of the change in the workplace were sustained.
Fortunately, the Hawthorne Effect is usually a short-term phenomenon. Once the participants are used to the situation, behaviors tend to revert to their normal state. By understanding this, unexpected sudden changes in behavior immediately after a change in workplace conditions can be accounted for. By designing an experiment to run for a year before and after changes are made, such effects can be minimized.
The project is designed to measure and quantify the effects of designing a workplace along biophilic design principles. Those effects include changes to the physical environment, which can be monitored by sensors placed in offices. These sensors measure temperature, light, noise, and pollutants. However, for a workplace, the effects on health and well-being are very important. After all, the aim of the project is to discover whether biophilic design really does improve health, well-being, and behaviors sometimes called “corporate citizenship,” or how people help each other out, for example.
Those human factors, as opposed to building factors, require the gathering of a large amount of personal information. These data are obtained through surveys and observations as to how the office is being used. Direct measurements of physical health and well-being also provide data for further study. Participants are given wearable devices that monitor heart rates and sleep patterns. Occasionally samples of saliva are also taken to measure the presence of stress hormones, such as cortisol.
Naturally, some people might be concerned about how such data may be used, especially by an employer. To combat concerns, robust procedures were put in place to ensure that the anonymity is assured. No one is rewarded for taking part, or sanctioned for not participating. Participation is entirely optional, and participants may withdraw from the study at any time. Furthermore, an independent ethics committee approved all the human factors experiments.
Fortunately, any ethical concerns have been addressed and participation rates are very high. The participation rate is greater than 90%, ensuring the reliability of the data collected.
One aspect that is harder to control is the demographics of the participants. Ambius’ own experiments and surveys over the years have given strong indications that preferences for types of interior landscaping vary by age, gender and seniority in an organization. And although there may be interactions between these groups, many organizations have a disproportionate gender balance at different levels. Men and women often appear to have different preferences for plant types, and there is no reason to assume that because there are differences in preferences for plants that there may not also be preferences for other design features in an office. Furthermore, there may also be differences in preferences between people with different personality traits. There is then a risk that the designers prejudge those preferences without having strong evidence for doing so. A good example of this effect was observed when Ambius and researchers from the University of Exeter carried out studies in a care home for older adults (2) – one of the unexpected results of the study was that older adults chose plants and artwork that confronted the prejudices of experienced designers. Participants chose bold, bright colors, architectural shapes, and contemporary plant containers and artwork over the expected more traditional styles.
Controlling for demographics is difficult. Even within a large sample population in an experiment, once you start dividing the group and try to observe differences between age, gender, personality type, place in the organizational hierarchy, and others, you end up with tiny numbers in each demographic segment. Sample sizes become too small to determine whether differences are due to the innate preferences of each segment, or merely random chance.
The approach to human factors research taken in the BRE Biophilic Office Project sets the project apart from previous studies. While we may be impatient to see the results of such groundbreaking research, the wait will be worth it. Long-term studies and robust data collection and analysis will help to ensure that the outcomes of the project give reliable and useful evidence to designers and employers alike.
If you haven’t yet, make sure to check out Empowering Workspaces: Behind the BRE Biophilic Office Research Project that’s Breaking New Ground.
Further information on the BRE Biophilic Office Project can be found here: https://bregroup.com/services/research/the-biophilic-office/
- Ambius White Paper: Health, Happiness and Higher Returns (https://www.ambius.co.uk/working-with-us/white-papers/)