How can you design workplaces where people feel at ease and work to the best of their ability? This is a relevant question for a growing number of organizations. And it’s an important one too, as most people spend a lot of their time in buildings that could harm their health. Gary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University, was asked by carpet manufacturer Interface to look into these matters more closely. When he combined the results with practical experiences from a number of countries, he gathered some really interesting data.

The need for nature is universal, yet workplaces are still not green

In 2014 Cooper studied the relationship between people’s sense of wellbeing and a natural environment. The assumption being that each person needs to have a connection with nature. This is called the biophilia hypothesis. When environments are created from the need of people to have natural daylight and a green view, with the aid of natural materials and patterns, their sense of wellbeing will increase while their stress levels decline. This is important for different environments: in offices there will be more creativity and productivity, while sick leave numbers go down. In schools pupils will be able to concentrate better and get better results and in health care institutions people will feel better and get well sooner. And in shops sales numbers rise when shoppers feel at ease, while people at home are more relaxed.

Cooper specifically looked at the workspace and asked over 3,000 individual employees from England, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Denmark, Spain, Sweden, France and the Netherlands about their preferences for biophilic design and its impact when those preferences were taken into account.


Source: Human Spaces Report: Biophilic Design in the Workplace

A significant conclusion from the study was that there is often not enough green, space and natural light available at the workplace. Over 55% of the respondents didn’t have a green view, 40% had no daylight and 7% didn’t even have a window. However, employees who worked in a green environment where natural elements and daylight were available, saw an increase in wellbeing of 13%, while productivity grew with 8%.

Different preferences per country and ‘fake’ nature already makes a difference

Although the need for nature is universal, there are specific differences in the preference for certain views, natural elements or colours at the workplace. In the Netherland we become happier mostly if we have more daylight, greenspace outside and can look at trees. We become more creative from yellow, blue and white colours in the workplace and our productivity increases if there is daylight and living green plants. In England however, where there is also a preference for daylight and green plants, the use of stone and wood makes the workforce happier and employees get more creative from purple and green colours, while in Germany green plants make people creative and stone materials benefit productivity.

Source: Human Spaces Report: Biophilic Design in the Workplace

It’s not always possible to bring more green or daylight to the workplace without spending extra. For this reason Cooper looked into possibilities to achieve the same positive effects by taking simpler and less expensive measures. And it turned out that ‘faking’ nature, for example by hanging pictures of natural images on the wall, appeared to have a positive impact too.

Insight on a global scale

In April 2015 the earlier study by Cooper was complemented with a worldwide survey in 16 countries in Europe, Asia and North and South America of 7,600 employees who live in – strongly- urbanized regions. About 85 % of the respondents in the survey worked in an urban area; most of these spent about 40 hours per week in an office.

The findings from the earlier study were confirmed. On a global scale as well there is often insufficient green and natural light in working environments.

Poster: Global office landschap

Source: Human Spaces Report: Global Research into Biophilic Design

Natural light, green plants, a quiet spot, a view on the sea and bright colours are in the top-five of things employees would enjoy most.

top 5 elements most wanted in offices

Source: Human Spaces Report: Global Research into Biophilic Design

Investing in a more natural working environment pays of. On average labour productivity will increase with 6% and creativity and wellbeing with 15%. And these effects could be achieved with rather simple measures: daylight and using colours and living plants in the interior. But simulating natural surroundings by using sounds, scents, images and natural materials works wonders as well.

workers in office environments

Source: Human Spaces Report: Global Research into Biophilic Design

Although there is a great need for natural elements in the workplace, the researchers observed substantial differences in the preference of employees for different kinds of nature, just like in the earlier study. With the data, that almost cover the globe, the study contributes to our knowledge of the effects of biophilic design and at the same time delivers a ‘design scheme’ for a more natural, productive organization that works for the people who carry out their job there. To accomplish the largest possible effect, it is necessary to translate cultural differences in preferences for types of nature and natural elements for specific working environments in various countries.

If only, with organizational self-interest in mind. Because which organization doesn’t want to enhance productivity by keeping their employees happy?

Want more information about the effects of green in the workplace? Check out the site of Human Spaces for reports, articles and videos.

Are you interested in cultural differences in the preference for each type of natural workplace that relates to wellbeing, creativity and productivity, check appendix 2 of the report.

Curious about your ‘nature nationality’? You can do this test on the Human Spaces website.