If you work at Google, you may have spent time coding with a light meter hanging around your neck. The company wants to figure exactly how much natural light you’re getting as you sit at your desk, and how that’s affecting your work. Google is one of a growing number of companies experimenting with “biophilic design inverventions,” small nature-inspired changes that can have dramatic impacts on productivity, focus, and stress.
“We’re constantly experimenting with our workplaces,” says Anne Less, who manages the innovation program for Google’s environmental team. “A few recent tests have included pursuing 100% daylight by introducing more than 60 skylights in a single building. Another test involved solar tubes in interior conference rooms to naturally light interior spaces.”
Though Google can’t yet share the final results, the company says the changes have been noticeable. “We know anecdotally that Googlers feel deeper focus, more creative and more productive when they have more access to natural light and biophilic elements in their workspace,” says Less.
Scientific studies have said the same thing. Having a view of nature out the window, a plant, or even just a picture of the natural world improves focus, mood, and lowers blood pressure. It makes us physically healthier; hospital patients with a natural view, for example, recover faster than those who have to stare at a wall. Natural light has similar impacts.
Though an ideal office might be designed from scratch with huge windows, skylights, and green space, it’s possible to gain most of the same benefits by making smaller changes in an existing building.
“Google is one of the big labs for this right now,” says Mikhail Davis from Interface, a carpet company that has provided nature-inspired carpets for several of Google’s design interventions. “They’re mostly using leased space, so they have to figure out, with the limitations of it being an existing space, what they can do to make it more biophilic.”
“That can mean everything from putting in giant fish tanks and skylights, which are a much bigger investment, to just changing the wallpaper,” he explains. “Then, of course, they do all of this testing to see how it affects productivity and perceptions of wellness, to see which of these actually moves the needle, and what doesn’t. It’s this quick sort of launch and iterate method they’re using to gather data and build what works.”
Something as simple as carpet can change a space by imitating natural patterns, or by changing textures in an indoor environment that’s usually a little bland and sterile. “One of the big differences between office environments and being outdoors is the amount of variability in the sensory stimulation,” says Davis. “A traditional office environment is a constant temperature, lots of the same colors, same textures, same humidity…If you’re outside, these vary throughout the day, and that’s what’s producing a lot of these benefits.”
The benefits, from improved mental stamina to helping employees focus on work, are all issues that are critical to companies like Google. “Because these factors all contribute to our goal to develop a happy, healthy, productive workplace, we see biophilic design as a tool in our toolkit,” says Less.
The company has already started using the results to make new guidelines for office design. “We have launched actionable performance metrics for biophilic design, which are now used by Google’s design and construction teams to implement biophilic design that is in line with Google’s goals,” Less explains. “Our goal is to provide enough guidance to be able to evaluate performance success, but still encourage creativity in design.”