Back to nature: how businesses can exploit the benefits of biophilic design

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The question of how to enhance worker wellbeing is one which is increasingly demanding the attention of employers. When it comes to discussions about how to overcome common staffing challenges, such as attraction, retention, absenteeism and presenteeism, the many benefits of bringing the outside world into the workplace are becoming a key area of focus.

For many, office plants may be the first thing that spring to mind on hearing the phrase ‘biophilic design’. However, in reality, this nature-inspired trend can be implemented far more subtly and in a variety of different ways. By making small changes which complement both existing office layout and the needs of employees, businesses can have a significant impact both on the happiness and productivity levels of their workforce without breaking the bank.

Biophilic design is an area of design which satisfies humans’ deep and fundamental need to feel connected with nature. While this can involve individuals experiencing nature directly, for example, through close proximity to plants, animals or water, it can also be achieved indirectly, through the use of natural colours, materials, replicating natural forms and structures or even images of nature.

While in a general sense, the wellbeing benefits of elements such as greenery and natural light have long been recognised, a mounting body of research findings is now making the case even more strongly for businesses to implement biophilic features in the workplace. A global report conducted by Robertson Cooper reveals that indoor environments devoid of nature may create discord amongst staff, directly impacting levels of health and wellbeing. Moreover, workers in office environments which incorporate natural elements such as greenery and sunlight reported a 15 per cent higher level of wellbeing.

As well as being shown to have a positive effect on workforce morale, plants can improve air quality for workers and help to absorb excess noise, an increasing problem in open-plan and co-working spaces. In particularly noisy areas, living walls can form a good natural barrier against sound and have the added benefit of being aesthetically pleasing for guests and employees alike. However, as man-made solutions such as dampeners are proven to be more effective in mitigating unwanted noise, it may be worth combining plants with other acoustic materials to best combat sound-related distractions.

In order for businesses to effectively leverage the benefits of ‘getting back to nature’ without compromising existing office design, it is also important to work closely with architects and understand the constraints of the building. This involves establishing where workplace ‘stress points’ lie and what can practically be done to improve the environment for employees. For example, in dark meeting rooms without windows, adding glass walls could prove an effective way of introducing natural light and boosting staff’s creativity levels.

Robertson Cooper’s report also found that natural materials, for example, wood, granite and marble, can have a calming effect on employees, while mimicking natural forms such as overhanging branches, twisting vines and ice crystals can inspire creativity. Failing to take existing design elements into account, for example, ultra-modern furniture, could also result in a clash of aesthetics, causing staff to feel a sense of unease.

With the findings citing natural light as the most wanted office feature amongst staff, a key consideration is looking at how best to take advantage of existing light sources around the office. Other cost-effective biophilic methods include using natural colour schemes, such as blues, greens and whites, and installing artificial plants over living ones, which often require minimal maintenance. Similarly, where is it not possible to introduce greenery into a room, images of plants and natural landscapes can have a similar effect on employee mood, often at a lower cost.

Whereas historically, elements such as office plants, natural colour schemes and materials were viewed in isolation, businesses are increasingly recognising their essential role in promoting the health and happiness of the workforce. By implementing biophilic design as part of a holistic approach to employee wellbeing, businesses can have a valuable impact on staff absenteeism and retention levels whilst allowing everyone to enjoy an attractive, greener office environment.

Paula Marshall is head of furniture and category sales at Office Depot UK & Ireland.

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