Green Spaces Create Happy Workplaces

The importance of incorporating biophilic design into the modern working environment

First impressions count. And creating aesthetically pleasing workspaces, through well-maintained buildings and attractively landscaped grounds, is vital in helping to create a positive impression of your wider organisation. However, as important as image may be, there are arguably more significant benefits to be gained by optimising the environment in which your staff work on a daily basis.

The rise of biophilic design

The notion that access to good quality green and open space improves wellbeing and productivity at work is not a new concept. During the 19th Century industrial era, wealthy factory and mill owners would create parks to ensure their workforce had access to clean fresh air and places to relax when not working. And this idea has evolved into the post-industrial age: Today, this relationship between humans and nature, and understanding of the essential human need to connect to a natural environment in the workplace is being taken increasingly seriously by architects, developers and employers, and is described by the phrase “biophilic design” or “biophilia” – the practice of incorporating nature into the built environment.

So why take this approach? While we all appreciate a more pleasant environment, it may seem a luxury given the cost pressures on most organisations. Certainly as urban environments in particular become ever more densely developed, green space per se is at a premium. In spite of this, economic drivers are actually one of the main reasons for the growing interest in biophilic design, which is being understood as a sound economic investment into employees’ health, wellbeing and performance. Employers are placing greater emphasis on improving employee wellbeing in order to achieve greater productivity, retain staff and, ultimately, profit.

Making biophilic design effective in this way – as well as overcoming the limitations of locations – is a matter of ingenuity. Many companies are introducing innovative schemes, such as retro fitted monoculture systems. These might include the likes of dynamic landscape features such as urban wild flower meadows, which provide colour and interest, while attracting pollinators and wildlife. In areas where external space is lacking, companies are creating innovative features such as living walls and roofs, or looking to make the most of internal spaces and plant species.

The science behind the feelgood factor

Although biophilic design is a relatively fresh concept, and investigation into the benefits of biophilia is relatively new, there is sound evidence in support of the suggestion that access to good quality green and open spaces improves health and wellbeing, reduces stress, and improves creativity and cognitive function. As long ago as the 1950’s the management theorist Maslow was examining the impact of aesthetics in the workplace. His studies concluded that the quality of office design influenced office workers, with aesthetically pleasing spaces having a positive impact on energy levels and wellbeing. Further to this, research shows that the presence of natural elements indoors can evoke the same benefits as the outdoor environment.

Across Europe, research has shown that the simple presence of natural elements in the work environment can act as a buffer against the negative impact of job stress and positively impact general wellbeing. One such study in Norway found that natural elements such as plants within an office space can prevent fatigue when completing tasks that demand high concentration or attention.

Similarly, the presence of natural elements is consistently associated with higher reported levels of happiness at work, in comparison to work environments where these are absent. Further to this, employees working in offices with both internal and external green spaces along with plenty of natural light report higher levels of wellbeing, in comparison to those working in environments without these natural features.

A further study by ‘Human Spaces’ reported levels of wellbeing and productivity that were 13% and 8% higher, respectively, for those office workers in environments containing natural elements.

Making the business case

Employers and facilities managers need to think about green spaces in the same way as the building itself; they should be approached as a lifetime asset, rather than an area that requires constant maintenance at a cost to the business.

During the recent period of austerity we have seen ongoing budget cuts in public and private sectors, which have resulted in many organisations looking to reduce spends and save money on non-essential areas. Green and open spaces often fall into this category, which has meant a decline in the quality of landscape asset that we have access to.

In order to secure more funds and resources, property and facilities managers need to be able to persuade their client that the outside space has much more to offer than just kerb appeal. They need to put forward proposals that highlight what benefits a dynamic green space has to health and wellbeing, as well as the ecological improvements can be achieved such as increased biodiversity, improved air flow, reduced heat island effect and reduced flood risk through grey water harvesting and management.

The assumption is that all this costs vast sums, however the reality is that retrofitting landscapes to improve biodiversity can be implemented with no increased budget or investment. Indeed this can often be delivered as a cost neutral benefit in line with a landscape management and maintenance plan or over an agreed period of time. For example, planting a wildflower meadow in place of lawn may involve some initial investment, but it will ultimately require far less ongoing maintenance than a lawn that has to be frequently mowed. In this example, the cost impact of adopting a different, more strategic approach to the landscape is neutral despite the improvement in both appearance and biodiversity.

Implementing and managing outside green spaces

The most effective way in which these type of schemes can be implemented and maintained is through consultation with a specialist landscape manager or landscape architect. This will help drive innovative ideas and ways in which to maximise your green and open space potential. This consultation will involve a detailed landscape survey across your portfolio to gain an understanding of what green assets are on site and what condition they are in. From this a detailed management plan can be established.

Unfortunately the grounds maintenance industry in the UK is extremely fragmented, with many of the established firms having been around for 30 years or more and providing a very traditional service based on a fairly rigid maintenance regime that does not offer much in the way of real innovation.

There are however a new breed of companies such as Gritit Grounds Maintenance, which are bringing a fresh approach to place keeping. By implementing innovative technology GRITIT GM is able to offer reporting and mapping technology to provide clients with real time information about their sites and the service provided throughout the year. Because this is automated, GRITIT’s landscape managers are freed up to work in a more in a more consultative manner with the client enabling us to create real partnership relations.

Advice to FMs that want to create an outside space for their employees

  • Create a landscape management plan for the site to include a vision along with short medium and long term aims and objectives and budgets
  • Be realistic with plans and factor in ongoing maintenance costs.
  • Where external space is lacking consider living walls and living roofs. High quality interior planting is also known to have a positive impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing.
  • Creating a high quality green and open space for the benefit of the work force and stakeholders should be key on the agenda of any CSR committee within your client’s organisation. Get them to feed into plans and help you communicate with the wider workforce.
  • Improving the green and outside space isn’t just a about beautification. You should consider improvements that will increase the biodiversity a value of your site as well as looking at elements such as trees, living walls and living roofs that help reduce the urban heat island affect and harvesting grey water and reducing flood risk.

For further information contact Adam Ralph on 0800 0432 911, or email