Updated: Jul 7
The coronavirus pandemic prompted a huge shift in many workplaces around the world, as employees were made to adhere to strict social distancing measures. Suddenly, working from home became the new normal, and workers found themselves no longer having to remain at a single desk, enclosed office, or uninspiring cubicle.
However, 2021 has seen the emergence of COVID-19 vaccines, causing businesses to slowly start allowing employees back into the office. With this slow return back to pre-pandemic normalcy, companies are now looking at new ways to embrace health and wellness in the workplace on a larger scale.
This has prompted a push toward biophilic design, as employers want to bring the benefits that nature and the great outdoors have to offer into their offices –—and for plenty of good reasons, too.
What is Biophilic Design and Why is it Important?
The term biophilic is derived from the Greek words “bios” and “philia," meaning love of life or living things. The term rose to popularity in 1984 with Edward O. Wilson’s book, titled the Biophilia Hypothesis. In it, the author proposed that the strong connections humans have with other life forms and nature as a whole are deeply rooted in our biology.
In architecture, biophilic design is a sustainable strategy that aims to reconnect people with the natural environment. At its very essence, biophilic design incorporates aspects of the natural world to contribute positively to human health and wellbeing. It utilizes elements such as air-purifying plant walls, natural light, water features, and sustainable materials, including wood and stone.
Why Should You Embrace Biophilic Design in Your Return-to-Work Strategy?
Thankfully, this increased focus on biophilic design isn’t just a trend. Instead, it’s a sign of what’s to come, as companies turn to the design as a part of their return-to-work strategy and as a means to redefine the workplace as we know it.
Biophilic-designed offices provide a wide range of benefits to both companies and employees as they make the shift back to their place of work. Let’s look at each of these below.
Attracting and Retaining Staff
With the upheaval and job uncertainty caused by the pandemic, employers are focused on how they can nurture their existing talent and attract top candidates to their company.
An office’s design speaks volumes about a company’s commitment to the wellbeing of their staff, and also acts as one of the most important factors toward talent acquisition and staff retention. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that employees would much prefer an inspiring office full of greenery and bright, natural light rather than a lifeless, grey box.
Don’t just take our word for it though. In a Human Spaces global study, which surveyed 7,600 office workers across 16 countries, one-third (33%) said the design of an office would affect their decision to work at a company.
Another study of 1,614 North American office employees discovered that access to natural light and views of the outdoors are seen as the most important attributes in a workplace, outranking features like onsite cafeterias, fitness centers, and childcare.
After a turbulent 2020, workers returning to the office will no doubt be experiencing feelings of anxiety, unease, and despondence. Employers face the risk of having a mental health crisis on their hands like never before. Yet, biophilic design provides an effective remedy to boosting an employee’s mind and soul.
In the same global study by Human Spaces, two thirds (67%) of office workers reported that they feel happy when walking into a bright, naturally-lit office environment accented by colors closely associated with the outdoors, including green, yellow, or blue.
Studies have also found that walking among nature decreases anxiety, negative thoughts, and low mood, while increasing memory performance. In fact, research has even gone so far as to suggest that being surrounded by nature can be helpful for people with major depressive disorder.
Improving Physical Health
It’s not just an employee’s mental health that will have taken a battering during pandemic confinement. Companies have always been somewhat mindful of their employees’ physical health, but after the emergence of COVID-19, it’s a major priority.
The pandemic has increased the demand for high quality air filters and ventilation systems as a means of battling infectious disease transmission. However, the answer to this workplace problem simply lies in plant life and its natural ability to absorb pollutants, toxins, and airborne bacteria (just ask NASA!).
Airborne viruses aside, biophilic design also provides plenty of other health benefits to workers, particularly through the bright and natural light it incorporates. Research reveals that workers in office environments filled with natural light reported a 51% drop in the incidence of eyestrain, a 63% drop in the incidence of headaches, and a 56% reduction in drowsiness when compared to an artificially or inadequately lit office.
As employees return from their work-from-home situations, they must adapt to louder, employee-filled workplaces that can detract from their concentration and focus.
Thankfully, research shows that workplaces that integrate natural elements into their design are more effective at staving off mental fatigue than those that don’t.
This is because contact with nature and naturally-occurring elements has been reported to have psychological benefits, such as reducing stress, improving attention spans, assisting with mental restoration, and coping with attention deficits.
Increased productivity is another benefit biophilic office design provides, as there is clear evidence directly linking biophilia with an organization’s output.
In a study called "The relative benefits of green versus lean office space," university researchers compared the productivity levels of two groups of office workers who were exposed to different levels of nature contact. Those who worked in offices with natural greenery saw a 15% rise in productivity over a three-month period, in comparison to those working with no greenery or natural elements within their immediate environment.
Research by Harvard also states that 70% of employees believe access to natural light and views onto nature improve their work performance.
Enhancing the Return to Work Through Biophilic Design
Although many offices may continue to operate with a work-from-home option, all companies stand to benefit from prioritizing employee health and wellness through biophilic design. Now is the perfect time to be proactive about what the future of work will look like. It doesn't have to be more of the same. It can be better, brighter, more beautiful, more grounded, and healthier for employees, employers, and the world.