Bees by the watercooler?

To bring more coherence and meaning to the workplace for returning employees, more firms are integrating nature into offices, based on ideas about the origins of mental health.

Aerial view of Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., Oct. 28.

For some employees who worked at home during the pandemic – perhaps rediscovering nature and a different rhythm of life – a return to the office may come with a surprise. Forward-looking companies are trying a new way to attract and retain workers: workplaces where nature transforms former cubicles and meeting rooms into tranquil alcoves and flexible communal spaces.

The idea is not new. Think spider plants near office windows. And it builds on a deeper concept called biophilia, a term coined by social psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm in 1964 that assumes an innate human connection to and love for nature and all living things. Yet in recent years, more architects and designers have been translating biophilia into commercial buildings. The pandemic has accelerated the trend.

Its promoters put a focus not only on the mental effects of nature but also on the origins of health. In a CNBC interview, Rick Cook, biophilic pioneer and architect in the New York borough of Manhattan, describes linking humanity and nature through design as “enjoying the richness and complexity of nature and using the amazing ecosystem as a stress reduction tool to make our lives better.” More than livening up the office with a scattering of potted plants, biophilic design brings the outside in with immersive experiences.

Companies with deep pockets such as Google and Amazon are blazing the biophilic path: Google’s Manhattan campus – designed by Mr. Cook’s firm – welcomes birds, caterpillars, and bees (and honey); in Arlington, Virginia, a 350-foot plant-covered tower rises in the shape of a double helix above Amazon’s new headquarters. Biophilic buildings can feature air-cleaning green walls, natural materials like wood, calming ponds and waterfalls, circadian lights that mimic daylight, and sounds and scents found in nature. Flexible open space can foster collaborative creativity and more mobility; individual cocoons, as in Etsy’s Manhattan offices, nurture sustained focus.

“We’re looking to create workplaces that reduce stress, improve cognitive function, enhance creativity – all of these make our employees healthier, happier and more engaged in their work,” Michele Neptune of Google’s sustainability team told the Financial Times.

Another concept sits at the heart of this front line of design. Named salutogenesis, it emphasizes the origins of health rather than the pathogenic causes and treatment of disease. At its core is a measurable “sense of coherence,” or a recognition of life as meaningful and manageable. This affirmative approach arms people against stress and can be found in nature experiences such as regular forest walking. In its broader application, salutogenics augments biophilics by including everyday surroundings – physical, social, cultural, and technological – all potentially resting in a coherent relationship.

A lofty goal. Meanwhile, returning workers can relax. “We’re blurring the line between work and home,” Asheshh Saheba, managing partner at architecture firm Steinberg Hart in San Francisco, told CNBC. “Your office doesn’t have to be enclosed at your desk.” It can also lead to a rediscovery of the mental origins of health.

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