It’s a jungle in here

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From Derrick Banks Mashore
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Will Biophilia untangle the mystery of productivity in the workplace?

Biophilia (literally, “the love of life”) is the name of both Björk’s eighth studio album and a seminal 1984 book by biologist E.O. Wilson. Wilson introduced the “biophilia hypothesis,” which states that, subconsciously, humans have a deep connection with and affinity for natural systems and life forms. 

The emerging field of biophilic design seeks to connect people with nature through the built environment. Biophilic design solutions can range from cladding the exterior of a building with foliage to installing a garden in the lobby. 

Biophilic design is already popular in hospitals, thanks to its medical benefits. Studies have proven that surgery patients recovered faster and required less pain medication when they could see trees out of their windows instead of brick walls.

Biophilia’s popularity in design circles is a recent phenomenon. The concept, along with mindfulness and wellbeing, resonates with the values of Millennials. It’s also in vogue for corporate headquarters, as architectural designer and biophilic guru Oliver Heath, founder of Heath Design, explains: “It is emerging science and style… Those at the forefront of workplace design have grasped the idea, so companies like Apple, Amazon and Google are running with it.”

Wi-Fi in the Wilderness

Google employees now enjoy swimming pools, bowling alleys and a crazy golf course. Facebook is building a giant shed with a 10-acre park on the roof for working in the California sun. Amazon’s new office playground, though, is entirely indoors — a giant greenhouse.

Amazon workers from the surrounding office towers can meet, eat, and work inside the LEED Gold sustainable bubble-like building. Imagine sitting in a warm garden, surrounded by mature trees and a stream, typing peacefully on your laptop as rain smacks the glass above you.

“Many exotic plants, literally thousands of different species, will be inside,” says John Savo, partner at NBBJ, Amazon’s architecture firm. Universities and conservatories have donated seeds for rare plants they hope will thrive in the spheres. The indoor plant life will form the equivalent of a four-story forest.

With environments that optimize sunlight, allow trees to grow to full height, and simulate montane ecologies found around the globe, Amazon wants to give its employees a better chance at coming up with the next Prime or Kindle.

Biophilia is the common design denominator of Apple’s tree-filled UFO-donut in Cupertino, Google’s translucent eco-dome in Mountain View, and Amazon’s green-space biosphere bubbles in Seattle. In each light-filled, high-tech structure, nature will run free, around and through.

“There’s scientific evidence that just looking at and being near plants enhances your ability to think,” NBBJ design principal Dale Alberda says. “Stress-inducing cortisol levels go down,” adds Alberda’s partner, Savo.

Research reinforces their conclusions. One study shows workers performed better when plants were added to their office spaces, and another one found that people working in an office with windows performed better on certain tests and had better overall sleep than those working in windowless offices.

We’re from HR and we’re here to help

The growing interest in biophilia’s contribution to health and well-being is an opportunity for HR professionals, who soon may make the business case for it, explaining how it makes workers more productive and helps retain talent.

Like many “sustainable” benefits, the first hurdle to acceptance is providing the proof and crunching the numbers. Biophilia’s already impressive underpinning of hard facts is rapidly accumulating: peer reviewed science, national reports and academic studies on healthy buildings support arguments in its favor. Moreover, economic assessments suggest $2,000 a year can be saved per office employee.Health, Wellbeing & Productivity in Offices, a major study published in 2014 by the World Green Building Council in collaboration with JLL as part of the Better Places for People campaign, is especially influential in cataloguing biophilic design’s benefits.

“Part of biophilic design is about bringing plantings into the office space, where the cost element is completely manageable, but in terms of improving internal air quality and reducing stress for workers, the impact has been well documented,” says Beth Ambrose, Associate Director — Upstream Sustainability Services at JLL.

“A plant-rich environment has positive qualities not often found in a typical office setting,” according to NBBJ, a global architecture group that built headquarters for Reebok and Boeing and is currently working on one for Samsung. “While the form of the building will be visually reminiscent of a greenhouse or conservatory, plant material will be selected for its ability to co-exist in a microclimate that also suits people.”

Corporate wellness programs administered by HR departments are ubiquitous, with research filtering through to the business sector from medical and psychological disciplines. This now enables HR professionals to talk to corporate real estate managers about what workers need. As one HR manager put it, “the top two causes of absenteeism last year were depression and mental health conditions — biophilic design can help.”

Sustainable meets profitable

GeekWire reporter Jacob Demmitt noted that Amazon’s campus — to be completed in 2017 — is located next to the Westin Building Exchange, one of the nation’s largest internet data centers. The heat generated by 34 stories of data servers will be used to warm nearly 4-million square feet of Amazon office space.

“[The data center] used to take that heat up to the roof and release it into the atmosphere,” Demmitt said. “Now, they’re going to take that heat, kind of capture it in water, pump it underground to Amazon’s office towers and use it to warm the office towers.”

The recycled energy should save big bucks and millions of kilowatts of energy each year. “Amazon will literally be heated with the internet,” Demmitt said.

At the heart of this Amazon is a new urban oasis

“The energy and excitement from employees being in an urban environment — I hear it daily,” said John Schoettler, Amazon’s real estate director, who walks to work. “A lot of people don’t even have a car. They want that urban experience.”

Schoettler said environmental considerations were an important factor in Amazon’s decision to remain in Seattle, as was the type of employee that an urban location attracts.

Rather than transition to a suburban setting with a Microsoft-style campus, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos will do things differently. Amazon will build a dense urban campus, where real estate is more expensive, but a new generation of employees can find the walkable amenities they crave. An urban setting with access to good restaurants, nightclubs and cultural attractions has become as important a recruiting tool as salary or benefits.

While Google has huge urban spaces from Paris to Pittsburgh, most urban pioneers are smallish, at least in their real estate and staffing needs. Twitter and Dropbox have made San Francisco home, while Tumblr and Etsy are in New York. But Twitter, one of the largest, employs only about 1,500 workers in San Francisco.

Amazon, by contrast, is both local and global. If its employees live within walking distance of where they work, Seattle could come closer to its energy efficiency and conservation goals, city officials said. And as part of its development agreement, Amazon will pick up some traditionally municipal expenses such as a new streetcar for the light rail line that runs past its properties, and a stretch of dedicated bicycle lane.

Brave New World?

Amazon Tower I, a 37-story office building opened in December 2015. The nearly identical Amazon Tower II is projected to be finished in September, and Amazon Tower III will be completed by decade’s end.

These towers will change Seattle’s distinctive skyline, but it’s the Amazon spheres that are getting all the attention. The spherical utopia is conceived as the “social heart” of Amazon world, covering 3.3 million square feet over three city blocks. In total area, it is one of the single biggest development projects in Seattle’s history. When they’re built, the three intersecting spheres will give employees 65,000 square feet of green space to walk, talk, lounge, eat, meet, brainstorm, and do whatever else Amazon employees do.

Amazon wants to “build a neighborhood rather than a campus,” reflecting its “community-focused culture.” Its biophilic spheres will therefore be anchored by publicly accessible retail spaces and includes an off-leash dog park.

“We care about the whole person.”

“People will give up some pay to work at a place where they thrive” — Diane Adams, Qlick HR chief

While her co-workers reviewed budgets back at the office, Holly Pickering was wandering in the woods at a yoga retreat. Ms. Pickering, a yield analyst at a travel company, wasn’t on vacation, or taking a mental health day. She was indulging in “me-time,” and her employer was all for it.

The Wall Street Journal recently noted that a handful of companies offer workers paid days off to spend on themselves, in addition to vacation, personal and sick days.

At Waterford Research Institute, staff members get twice-a-year “Ferris Buehler” days, named for the 1986 movie about students who skip school — and get outside — spending an antic day in Chicago. Outdoor outfitter REI’s 13,000 employees get two paid “yay days” annually — to commune with nature — and document their doings on social media.

Software maker Qlick Technologies touts “24-For-U,” a day dedicated to learning and self-improvement. Qlick HR chief Diane Adams expects the benefit to show “we care about the whole person.”

Even turnover is affected. G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip grants one paid day a year for self-development and reports, “Turnover has declined to less than 5% since the company implemented ‘me-time’ days.”

Instead of career longevity, employees now seek opportunity and purpose. Space Matters. Your enterprise’s mission and objectives will be most effectively achieved when there is a focus on the importance of creating a physical and cultural space where the employee — the whole person — can be fully engaged.

Biophilia has a potentially transformative role to play in untangling the mystery of workplace productivity. Bjork and E.O. Wilson were on to something. Now you are, too.

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