The Science of Workplace Design.™
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Biophilic design and its productivity boosting potential.

Andrew Bartlett, Director

Environments that are disconnected from nature and the great outdoors can have a detrimental effect on our health and wellbeing so, as more employers strive to think about the holistic needs of employees, it raises the question:

Why aren’t more workspaces using biophilic design?

The concept of biophilia refers to our inherent need to be close to nature due to its psychologically restorative powers. Thanks to urban sprawl over the last 50 years, many towns and cities have all but forgotten the value of green space and so we have become disconnected from the natural world. Consequently, biophilic design has emerged as a way to lessen this separation and give greater consideration to important factors such as air quality, lighting, acoustics, views, visual interest, proximity to greenery as well as scents and sounds.

Workplace wellbeing is one of the biggest drivers of biophilic design as the links between reconnecting with nature, improving productivity and increasing health, particularly in relation to stress and mental health become known.

There is plenty of data to support this too. A European study found that inclusion of natural elements in the workplace sparked a 13%[1]  increase in wellbeing and an 8%[2] increase in productivity. It is also proven that fresh air and natural light boost productivity by up to 23%[3], that views of the outdoors can aid memory function by 25%[4] and that green-certified offices can reduce employee absence rates by 30%[5].

The importance of air quality, natural light, visual interest and natural elements.


Conversely, employers that fail to recognise the importance of air quality, natural light, visual interest and natural elements will only limit their own capacity to be productive and profitable and will put their people at risk of reduced engagement and sickness. It is, therefore, quite surprising that 47%[6] of employees still lack natural light in their work environment, 58%[7] have no access to plants or greenery at all and 7%[8] don’t even have a window.

For businesses interested in actively improving employees mental and physical wellbeing, particularly in terms of minimising stress and creating a more positive and engaging place to work, biophilic design could be the answer.

Incorporating plants into office space is perhaps the easiest way to use biophilic design and their potential use is varied. Plants on desks, living plant walls, indoor herb gardens as well as onsite allotments and terrace gardens (space permitting) are just some of the ways that nature can be brought into the heart of the workplace. These ideas offer sensory experiences and provide a very visual, relaxing and tactile connection to the outdoors. Widespread use of plants can also help to improve air quality.


Sights, scents and sounds, such as bird song in relaxation areas and nature-based artwork, as well as the use of natural materials and colours rather than hyper-modern finishes, all build on this further by adding warmth and offering immersive experiences. As most office workers have very limited outdoor time during the typical workday (a study by Ambius found that 35%[9] don’t get more than 15 minutes) it’s even more important to give employees a sense of both place and space during the working day.

Natural light is an important component of biophilic design yet a lack of it effects 33% [10] of UK employees and is a big part of the problem of ‘sick building syndrome’ – where occupiers experience acute health effects as a result of working in the building. Unsurprisingly, bright artificial light causes problems for employees too – all adding to workers’ propensity to suffer from headaches, dizziness and eye strain. Although not the simplest workplace challenge to fix, it can be achieved by re-planning floorplates to locate employee workstations where natural light is abundant and move ancillary spaces such as printer rooms, cafes and meeting rooms towards the building’s core, where natural light is typically compromised. Locating employees where they have access to outside views (which makes them 25%[11] more productive), choosing light paint colours and using glass for internal partitions and meeting room walls are other useful design responses. Once addressed, better access to natural light alone has been found to improve productivity by 18%[12].

As the subject of wellbeing becomes firmly engrained in the workplace conversation, it’s become vitally important that employers understand and leverage all of the tools at their disposal. Biophilic design may at first glance seem frivolous and irrelevant, however our innate need to feel connected with the sights, sounds, smells and space of the outside world should not be underestimated, particularly when quantifiable productivity gains can be so easily achieved.

Download a copy of Harmsen Tilney Shane’s Annual Workplace Research Report 2018.

We have summarised our workplace research findings from the last 12 months of work with our clients across a range of industries. Our Annual Workplace Research Report focuses on the relationship between people, productivity and the workplace.

Useful reading & references.

[1] Interface research quoted in Forbes

[2] Interface research quoted in Forbes

[3] Research from The Economics of Biophilia, Terrapin 2012 as quoted on Workplace insight

[4] Research from The Economics of Biophilia, Terrapin 2012 as quoted on Workplace insight

[5] Research from Harvard University as quoted on



[8] From the Human Spaces Report quoted in:

[9] Research quoted on:

[10] As quoted in Workplace Insight

[11] Statistic from World Green Building Council

[12] Statistic from World Green Building Council

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