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Using nature’s blueprint to design healthier workplaces

A woman sits at a desk on a sunny, tropical beach

This article was original published in the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management's (IWBI) Facilitate Magazine.


Most offices have a sound problem... but that’s probably not news to you. Sound has been the number one complaint about workplaces for many years. For many employees, working from home has highlighted just how poorly offices function in this respect. So why hasn't anything been done?

Historical approaches have been negative and one dimensional; reduce the volume here, eliminate noise there. But this often causes more problems than it solves. Spaces can end up being unnaturally quiet and, counterintuitively, even more unproductive. We need to go back to the drawing board and start considering the office soundscape from a holistic perspective.

One place to go for inspiration is the great outdoors. Humans didn't evolve for survival in buildings. Most of us feel our best when we’re in nature. Nature is restorative, diverse and ever-changing. It’s commonplace to integrate visual elements of nature into workplace design––like natural light, organic materials and greenery. This practise, biophilic design, has a legitimate scientific grounding, and the biophilic principles and benefits apply not just to sight, but to hearing as well.

Hearing the sounds of nature, even in the built environment, can address some of the most pressing challenges faced in today’s workplaces. It can improve creative thinking and collaboration. It can reduce the physical and psychological symptoms of stress. It can improve focus and promote optimal cognitive functioning––even better than silence. And, just like lighting, it can even cue our bodies’ circadian rhythms. Sound is an amazing way to reconnect and reap nature’s therapeutic benefits.

Another of the problems with the historic “war” on office noise is that some people actually thrive in livelier spaces. Everyone has different sensory sensitivities, depending on how their brains are wired or which activity they’re engaged in. It’s not natural to be subjected to the same soulless soundscape each day. Workplaces should be dynamic ecosystems of sensory experiences through time and space––from dynamic and lively through to calm and comforting.

It's time to rethink the office soundscape. It should be characterised by far more than a noise level. Instead, we need to start considering the quality and content of that soundscape. By learning from nature, we can turn the sound of our workplaces from a painful afterthought into a positive, exciting design opportunity.

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