Insight 2 February 2020

From tiny seeds grow mighty trees

Many companies are now investing are investing in ‘biophilic design’

By Michael Roskams

While this saying may seem synonymous with child development, it also relates to the impact that nature can have on us all, especially in the working environment. Plants essentially do the opposite of what we do when we breathe: releasing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide. This not only helps to freshen the air but also goes some way to eliminating harmful toxins. Studies have proven that indoor plants improve concentration and productivity by up to 15%, reduce stress levels and boost mood, making them perfect for the workplace.

Yet companies have historically paid little attention to keeping plants around the workplace, at best having a beautifully designed flower arrangement on reception to greet visitors. However, with companies better understanding that mental health affects productivity as much as physical health, and needing to attract and retain the best talent, employee wellbeing has moved up the corporate agenda.

Companies are now exploring ways to boost employee wellbeing and, realising the benefits that indoor plants can bring to their workforce, many are investing in ‘biophilic design’.

Green fingers

Biophilia is defined by Professor Edward O. Wilson, the ‘father of biodiversity’, as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”, and so the idea behind workplace biophilic design is re-connecting employees with the natural environment. This goes further than simply decorating offices with potted plants – other aspects of biophilic design involve using natural rather than synthetic materials for office furnishings and considering strategies to maximise natural daylight.

Proponents enthuse about the benefits of biophilic design, but sceptics question if plants really can increase employees’ productivity and whether company money could be better spent elsewhere.

However, academic research has shown that plants and other forms of nature really do have benefits for employees. Results highlight that those working in rooms with plants have quicker reaction times, greater information management and processing capabilities, and better attention capacity than those working in rooms without plants.

Other studies show that benefits go beyond cognitive performance and that exposure to nature has a real and significant impact on people’s health. Hospital patients with a window view of nature had an 8% faster recovery time and used less pain medication than patients with no window views. In Japan, studies on the practice of Shinrin-yoku (‘forest-bathing’) have demonstrated that taking a 30-minute stroll through a forest, rather than a city, lowers several physiological indicators of stress and improves immune system response.

Rocket science

Several theories have been offered to explain the remarkable benefits arising from exposure to nature. Originally, it was thought that the benefits were because indoor plants can clean the air of pollutants. This theory was based on an extensive study by NASA which found that certain houseplants were effective in removing pollutants called “volatile organic compounds” from the air, removing up to 87 per cent of air toxins in 24 hours.

However, more recent research suggests that these benefits have been overstated. The NASA study was conducted in an air-sealed chamber, but real indoor spaces have drafts and additional sources of pollution. The air-cleansing effects of houseplants in these environments are negligible, to such an extent that scientists estimate you’d need to put 1,000 plants in a small office to have the same air-cleaning capacity as an average office ventilation system.

Back to nature

More recent theories have suggested that the benefits of nature are a result of psychological processes, focusing on the role of nature in human evolutionary history. Humans have walked the earth for more than 200,000 years, but the first ‘cities’ only came into existence 6,000 years ago, and on a mass scale only 400 years ago. Researchers believe, therefore, that we are psychologically adapted to natural (rather than urban) environments.

As a result of this innate connection, spending time in nature prompts a positive emotional reaction which in turn leads to more effective recovery from stress. It has also been argued that viewing nature helps our depleted resources for attention to recover, because we naturally find these environments to be “softly fascinating” and are able to view them passively.

Regardless of the exact causes of the benefits, the bottom line is that biophilic design in the workplace helps to improve employee well-being and productivity, which can only be beneficial to the company.

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