14/10/2013 10:56 BST | Updated 14/12/2013 05:12 GMT

Employee Well-Being Through Biophilic Interior Design

There has been a lot of debate recently about the value of interior landscaping - especially large installations in public buildings. It is true that the headline costs of interior plants, their purchase and on-going maintenance, can seem high for what many people perceive as being decoration...

There has been a lot of debate recently about the value of interior landscaping - especially large installations in public buildings. It is true that the headline costs of interior plants, their purchase and on-going maintenance, can seem high for what many people perceive as being decoration. However, for less than one per cent of the typical annual running costs of an office building and an understanding of a range of disciplines brought together under the umbrella term of biophilic design, those green ornaments can be made into something far more powerful.

A tough economy, stricter requirements on the environment and the need to ensure that employees are able to perform at their best all place organisations under increased pressure. One area that companies can look at to improve effectiveness and performance is well-being of their staff and linked to this is the working environment. There is plenty of evidence to show that well-being at work affects efficiency and productivity. We know, from the research literature, that physical and psychological comfort has a direct impact on it, and it's directly influenced by the management of space in the workplace.

Well-being is a difficult concept to define. We probably have an instinctive idea of what well-being feels like, but how do we quantify it and know how it is composed? Martin Seligman, a well-known psychologist, has broken the concept of well-being down into five distinct elements of positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement. It is not inconceivable to recognise that all five of those elements, and especially the first three, can be can be affected by the way workplaces are managed.

So, what has all this to do with interior plants? One way to improve well-being is to ensure that the working environment is designed and managed in such a way as to encourage people to thrive, and an effective way to do that is to bring together some ideas developed over the last few years by psychologists, biologists, architects and designers.

Research carried out by Craig Knight and Tom Postmes (and their colleagues) at the universities of Exeter (UK) and Groeningen (Netherlands) has shown that enrichment of spaces with items such as plants and art (or even fragrances) enables people to realise a sense of their own identity, which brings about improvements in productivity, engagement and well-being. Furthermore, a degree of choice by office workers in the way that such enrichment is implemented raises productivity, engagement and well-being even more. Independently of this research, work carried out in the 1980s and 1990s by Roger Ulrich and his colleagues has shown significant health and well-being benefits (mainly in terms of recovery from illness) when people are exposed to scenes of nature or views to gardens or plant displays. We also know from this, and other research, that enrichment of the environment with nature (plants, scenes of nature, views into gardens, etc.) is more effective at increasing well-being (and health) than enrichment and empowerment with abstract objects. There is a huge body of scientific literature showing that complaints associated with symptoms of sick-building syndrome (SBS) are reduced when interior plants are brought into buildings. Such effects were initially thought to be related to the physical characteristics of plants (and these do occur), but the main benefits seem to be psychological.

Simple pleasures such as a walk in the woods or a visit to a park or garden have been shown to reduce stress and feelings of anxiety. Anti-social behaviour in inner cities has been linked to the lack of access to open green space (so-called "Nature Deficit Disorder") and doctors are even prescribing walks in the countryside as part of a healing regime. In the built environment, such connections with nature can be re-built through the use of landscaping in and around buildings.

Our need for nature was identified by the American biologist, Edward O Wilson, who developed a hypothesis called Biophilia, which he defined as "the innate affiliation people seek with other organisms and especially the natural world."

Wilson's research shows that, when given complete freedom to choose the characteristics of their ideal environment, people gravitate towards a location that combines three major features: positioned at height, overlooking the landscape (with open terrain with scattered trees and copses), and being close to open water, such as streams or lakes. Effectively, what has been described is the landscape of our distant ancestors from the African plains, and that is the sort of landscape where we instinctively feel at home and safe: Humanity's natural habitat. Other features frequently also included as key elements in the choice of an environment are refuge, use of natural and local materials, dynamic and diffuse daylight, visual connections between the interior and exterior and natural odours and scents.

Wilson's ideas have been adopted by architects and designers for some time. In a book by Stephen Kellert (Biophilic Design), we see how architects have used the principles of biophilia to make their buildings more humane and connected with nature. However, there are easier ways than designing new buildings that can bring biophilic design into the workplace (or other buildings). By using combinations of plants, art, lighting and sound effects as well as a more naturalistic style of design it should be possible to make significant improvements to well-being and employee engagement at a very low cost.

Creating a healthy and nature-connected working environment can pay huge dividends in terms of well-being, productivity and business effectiveness - a real return on a relatively small investment in interior design.