Is Biophilia Enough? Part 1: Why workplace well-being isn’t just about design
Biophilia and biophilic design are promoted as effective ways of improving well-being in the workplace, bringing with them benefits such as greater engagement and increased productivity. There is certainly a lot of evidence to show that a workplace enriched with natural elements such as plants, along with other design features associated with the practice of biophilic design can have some very positive effects on people and the organizations they work for. Furthermore, established building standards (e.g. WELL and Living Building Challenge) have an explicit requirement for biophilia, specifically recognizing how biophilic design can have an impact on well-being.
But could the benefits of the physical manifestation of biophilia – described and defined by notable experts such as the late Stephen Kellert, Oliver Heath, or the team at Terrapin – be supercharged by creating great psychological environments and strong organizational frameworks alongside?
In this article, we will argue that biophilia on its own is not enough. It’s certainly better than nothing, and it’s probably better than an enriched space designed along conventional lines, but without the right organizational culture, companies are not realizing the full potential of their human estate.
Interactions and Synergies
Research has shown (e.g. Craig Knight’s and colleagues’ research) that, when compared to lean, unenriched spaces, workplaces enriched with seemingly ephemeral decorations, such as plants and art, are more productive and psychologically more comfortable.
Knight and his colleagues tested assumptions espoused by adherents to the various flavors of lean space management, that objects in the workplace, such as plants and art, were ephemeral – pointless at best and distractions at worst. Unlike functional items, such as desks, chairs, and lights, which have a direct impact on comfort and someone’s ability to carry out their work, decoration was thought only to serve a minimal function, and may even be detrimental to performance.
However, the experiments carried out under controlled conditions in real offices showed that enrichment led to across-the-board improvements in productivity, engagement, and psychological comfort, including various scales relating to well-being. To a biologist, this makes sense. Animals kept in unenriched spaces are stressed, ill, and behave in ways that indicate a poor quality of life. Anyone keeping lab animals or zoo animals in unenriched environments would be prosecuted for cruelty.
It appears that the brain can’t be kept fully occupied with work. This is especially because the parts of the brain most concerned with typical office work will seek distraction and stimulation.
“Enrichment led to across-the-board improvements in productivity, engagement, and psychological comfort, including various scales relating to well-being…”
Why enrichment with plants and other natural elements is especially powerful
Since the early 1990s, researchers have been interested in discovering why plants are especially good at improving office environments. Plants in buildings seem to have a miraculous ability to reduce symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome. Initially, plants’ metabolism and physiology were identified as the key factors. Indeed, when grown under perfect conditions, indoor plants can remove common pollutants found in office buildings. However, an objective measurement of office environments often shows that plants have a minimal effect on indoor air quality. Indoor plants are often not physiologically active enough to have a significant effect.
Nevertheless, indoor plants do seem to result in a reduction in symptoms associated with sick building syndrome.
Furthermore, research has shown that plants and other biophilic elements have an impact on other aspects of health, performance, and perceptions of environmental quality. As far back as 1997, Rentokil Initial supported some post-graduate research at the University of Surrey in the UK that demonstrated a reduction in stress in participants carrying out a variety of office tasks when interior plants were present. More recently, research at Harvard University has shown similar reductions in stress following exposure to a biophilic environment, as well as reductions in blood pressure, improvements in short-term memory and increased positive emotions.
“Plants in buildings seem to have a miraculous ability to reduce symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome.”
Empowerment and optimizing the psychological benefits of design
The research carried out by Craig Knight, Alexander Haslam, Marlon Nieuwenhuis and Tom Postmes (and colleagues) over the last few years looked not just at enriched versus lean environments, but also examined the effects of empowerment (and disempowerment) in workplaces in terms of the way that workspaces are designed and managed. When office workers had some agency over the design process of their immediate working environment, there were positive outcomes in each case. Productivity and well-being improved significantly beyond that which was achieved by an enriched environment. By involving workers in the design of their space, including the final decisions, workers tended to have more identification with colleagues and their organization, and also greater senses of comfort, well-being, and job satisfaction.
As Prof. Haslam pithily put it in a recent Tweet: “There’s a big difference between telling someone ‘you no longer need a desk’ and them saying to you ‘I no longer need a desk.'”
Empowerment in the workplace can be expressed in many ways. As far as interior design and space management is concerned, there is a spectrum. Empowerment could be as straightforward as allowing personal memorabilia on the desk (a family photo, for example) or offering the choice from a selection of office plants. It can then go as far as allowing employees to manage light, temperature and even desk height with smart, web-connected office furniture.
“The evidence is quite clear, though. Empowerment, even at the most simple level, can have significant benefits on well-being and performance.”
The evidence is quite clear, though. Empowerment, even at the most simple level, can have significant benefits on well-being and performance.
Empowerment is very much a reflection of corporate culture. Organizations that have a culture of trust and allow people to do their jobs with the required tools and resources, without over-monitoring and micromanagement, are those that create psychological environments that are comfortable and enable people to thrive.
In part 2, we will unpack how biophilia and empowered office spaces, when combined with evidence-based design and a supportive and empowering corporate culture, help organizations find their optimal potential by balancing efficiency, wellness, and physical and psychological well-being.
Interested in learning more about biophilia and biophilic design? We recommend Why Biophilia Matters.
1) International WELL Building Institute (2018). WELL v2
2) International Living Future Institute and Cascadia Green Building Council (2016). Living Building Challenge 3.1
3) Marlon Nieuwenhuis, Craig Knight, Tom Postmes, and S. Alexander Haslam (2014). The Relative Benefits of Green Versus Lean Office Space: Three Field Experiments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied
4) Craig Knight (2009) The Psychology of Space: Determinants of Social Identity, Well-being and Productivity. PhD thesis, University of Exeter
5) Craig Knight and S Alexander Haslam (2010). Your Place or Mine? Organizational Identification and Comfort as Mediators of Relationships Between the Managerial Control of Workspace and Employees’ Satisfaction and Well-being. British Journal of Management
6) Helen Russell (1997). The effect of interior planting on stress. MSc thesis, University of Surrey.
7) Jie Yin, Shihao Zhu, Piers MacNaughton, Joseph G.Allen, John D.Spengler (2018) Physiological and cognitive performance of exposure to biophilic indoor environment. Building and Environment 132, Pages 255-262