IDR Sustainable Workplace

Psychologically, commercially and environmentally viable organizations

Sometimes I suspect that people ask me to comment on articles just to watch the springs tighten across my shoulders and the twitch flicker along my top lip. So when Steve Maslin asked for my opinion on “are nature-starved offices affecting employee well-being?” he may already have been wearing his tin hat while writing from behind the sofa.


In truth there isn’t immediately too much to say.  The small report begins by highlighting some established scientific research and cites the excellent Cary Cooper’s results as he returns from the well trodden path which shows that an enriched workspace is better in just about every way than a spartan alternative. 

That it remains necessary to point out that working in natural light surrounded by greenery is better than working in artificial light surrounded by nothing much is quite an indictment of our employers.  Yet as long as political and business leaders continue to promote ascetic workplaces as somehow worthy environments ― where the desk plant is a symbol of unnecessary extravagance ― it will remain the job of scientific workplace investigators to demonstrate that spartan spaces are in fact the creations of the miserly, the hubristic and the ill informed.  The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that lean offices cost the UK billions of pounds every year. 


I suppose that it is at this point where my shirt tightens, buttons pop and skin turns green.  It is a common flaw amongst organizations that sponsor research, to conflate what the science tells them with what they want the science to tell them.  A little like informing a family that beetroot is good for you and that beetroot is used in some ice cream.  It is but a small step driven by misplaced desire for parents to assume that all children therefore like beetroot while the kids insist that ice cream is nutritious and must become a mealtime staple.  In much the same way this article misinterprets the data by insisting that green plants make a good workplace.  This is not the case.

It is people that make a good workspace; autonomy for those people that makes a good workspace; happiness for those people that makes a good workspace.  Were you to take away crèche facilities at work, reduce holiday allowances but give people potted plants in an attempt to alleviate their distress, you would be using a method that would not work.  You would deserve to end up wearing the plant, probably in a place where it would struggle to photosynthesize.


There is proper psychology but no psychological tricks to be had for managers or designers in the development of a fine workspace.  It is therefore specious to go into the realms of psycho-babble and talk about particular colours “...reflecting our biophilic connections with the natural world.”  No colours consistently “...evoke various feelings of enthusiasm, creativity, productivity, motivation and happiness.”  It is without scientific foundation to suggest that they do.

Developing plant installations is an excellent and inexpensive way of making workspaces more psychologically engaging, but other methods are available.  You may consider using carpets, art, lighting, smell...any number of things.  Thus “...employees immersed in settings rich with botanic and organic conditions” (to quote the article) are more likely to be settling down into something inspired by Boardroom baloney than into a top quality environment.

The science is clear cut.  Enrichment improves a spartan space. Yet enriched spaces are not the best spaces.  The best spaces are those where the employees hold sway over their own working conditions, where workplaces evolve from the bottom up and are not imposed by those further up the hierarchy who lack necessary workspace knowledge.  It therefore takes managerial bravery to make a good space; not a trip to B&Q in the company estate car.


So this irritating article conflates good research with snake oil.  It then compounds its error by leaping to erroneous conclusions.


OK Steve, you can come out now.

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Comment by Steve Maslin on January 2, 2015 at 23:09

Yes Craig, I'm emerging from behind the sofa (metaphorical pot plant in metaphorical tin hat converted to planter).  As I mentioned in my reply tweets, your blog resonates with my concern about trendiness rather than enabling attitude driving design and management of workplaces.  I agree employees need to hold more sway over their working environment.  I believe this is because we need an approach to design and management that understands, amongst other things, diversity in the workplace. So I come at this as an architect and access consultant, learning from the experiences of disabled people.

Lately I have been finding that the work of occupational therapy academics on sensory integration and processing provides a number of very valuable insights to design... beyond the solely heuristic level, but nevertheless connecting well with people experiences.

I look forwards to a  really good conversation and getting more of the psychologist's perspective when we meet up again.  Hopefully we can utilize some systems thinking around our subject of interest.

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