09/08/2022 • 6 min read

Activating Biophilic Design in the Workplace

Designing with nature has become the new norm

by Kamilia Dzulkifli

Have you ever wondered why the human race has relied on nature for centuries—and now more than we ever thought we would? When a challenge arises, we tend to seek answers from the natural environment around us to solve, or at the minimum, guide us in managing uncertainty. This is the reason you may have heard so much about how biophilia or biophilic design can offer solace and inspiration in spaces for people returning to the workplace following the COVID-19 pandemic.

But what is biophilic design? And how can we activate it in the workplace?   

A way of tapping into biophilia is simply through actions such as adding greenery or making use of natural elements like sunlight and fresh air. The idea of biophilic design has been around for quite a while and received recognition as early as the 1980s by biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson, who pioneered a new school of thought focusing on the importance of “bringing humans back into contact with nature.” 

“Biophilia is not a single instinct but a complex of learning rules that can be teased apart and analyzed individually. The feelings molded by the learning rules fall along several emotional spectra: from attraction to aversion, from awe to indifference, from peacefulness to fear-driven anxiety.”

E.O. Wilson

The Biophilia Hypothesis

E.O. Wilson’s 1993 book, The Biophilia Hypothesis, puts forward a powerful argument by which biophilic design has biological diversity and does not simply rest in the form of physicality, but also charms our senses and provides a profound connection with the emotions and well-being of each individual. The principles are tangible and can be implemented, at different scales, in several kinds of spaces—both exterior and interior.

 It is every designer’s priority to be able to create beautiful and functional spaces for the people who use them, but what is more significant is to grasp a meaningful direction and notion for each space.

Exterior Space – Architecture

Within the architectural context and the larger aspect of design—particularly in an urban environment—nature has become rather estranged to us. This has driven architects to thoughtfully consider ways to combine nature with human-made environments, focusing on creating a strong connection between the two. From a research standpoint, we can look at the work of two prominent architects: Frank Lloyd Wright and Antoni Gaudi. Both were awarded for the early adaptation of biophilic design principles in their masterpieces.

Interior Space – Workplace

As people return to the workplace, we are seeing how significant biophilic elements can be. Employers are keen to explore and upgrade the office environment for their people, bringing forth a new norm and creating a post-pandemic standard that integrates biophilia within the workplace. Multiple elements have been introduced to create distancing, separation, and an agile working environment. In parallel, these elements also support and benefit the mental health and well-being of employees. In other words, biophilic design serves as a key feature and prospect to designers and decision makers in creating a renewed environment.  

Implementing biophilic design does not have to be a major undertaking. Guided by social ecologist Stephen Kellert’s 6 principles, an organization could start by making minimal changes to a space, which on its own could impact the environment and users positively. These biophilic design principles include:

1.    Environmental features
2.    Light and space
3.    Natural shapes and forms
4.    Natural patterns and processes
5.    Place-based relationships
6.    Evolved human-nature relationships

A good place to start incorporating biophilia in the workplace is to embrace the first three principles. Adding greenery, making better use of daylight, utilizing natural ventilation, and adding water features within a space can help bring some of nature’s key elements into the office.   

The New Ecosystem: Work from Anywhere

Spaces designed before the pandemic might not be the right fit for the future. Learn more by downloading the 10 in 10 from our virtual summit.

With easy execution for organizations preferring to start with a simpler approach, the principle of natural shapes and form can be applied simply by using images of nature, introducing nature-inspired forms, color, shapes, and patterns. With the expertise of a designer, on the other hand, a more in-depth approach may be taken. Driven by a professional background and knowledge in the utilization of space and materials, designers are skilled at adapting natural elements, textures, and colors within the built interior environment. 

Biophilic Design for Social Sustainability

Using natural materials not only promotes sustainable behaviors in the workplace, it also impacts the social environment. Positive contact with nature taps into our emotions and can enhance our health and well-being. It acts as a calming element and stress reliever for those in its presence.  

Social sustainability has a significant role in the digital era of space design, unfolding opportunities in digitalizing natural elements. This proves that even now, in the digital era, nature is paramount to us.

Future Work – Biophilic Design in Digital Footprints

Even when confronted by the recent pandemic, interior designers never stopped thinking about workplace design. Many surrealistic spaces emerged in the digital world, taking the place of physical spaces. Nature was brought into these spaces—either in lifelike forms or in their dreamlike interpretations—once again shining the spotlight on nature and our need to be unified with it. Haworth Europe’s Work from Anywhere virtual spaces, for example, allow visitors to tour digitally designed third spaces driven by biophilic design principles and a sustainability approach. Inspired by the essence of nature—from the selection of natural materials in the built interior, to sustainable fabric choices such as Oceanic, these are truly spaces in which people can “work beautifully.”  

People often say that everything old becomes new again, in time, but nature inspired designs have never even grown old. Although time has passed and seasons have changed, Antonio Gaudi’s masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia from the 1930s, remains biologically inspirational—with its interior featuring columns that look like trees engulfed in beautiful stained-glass colors from natural light. 

Biophilic design has stood the test of time and will continue to influence designers and the future to come. Whether we choose to hold on to the principles traditionally or futuristically, nature will remain a principal element in the eyes of humankind. It is and always will be profound in our lives—and in our spaces. Biophilic design deserves recognition even more so now, as a key element of the new norm in workplace design.  

More on the Benefits of Biophilia

Find out how building a connection to nature in the workplace can improve employee well-being and performance.