Blast from the past

Blast from the past

CCER’s Desiree Blackett explains how our prehistoric ancestry affects the way we work.


I recently heard Nigel Oseland, an Environmental Psychologist, speak about two concepts – evolutionary psychology and biophilic needs.  After hearing him explain their impact, I wondered why these concepts aren’t common knowledge.


So what are they and why are they important?


Evolutionary psychology is the study of our “innate” preferences, dating back to when we were hunters and gatherers.  It explains why we like, and don’t like, certain environments.  For example:

  • We like daylight and being able to see natural light – it means warmth and growth
  • We don’t like having our backs to open spaces and others – it means we can’t see danger approaching
  • We like a sense of enclosure – it means safety
  • We don’t like complete quiet – it could signal danger if a predator is around (which is also why we like the sounds of birds)
  • We love colour – plants, water, rich earth all mean an abundance of food



This explains why most of us don’t want our backs to the door or corridor when working, why we like sitting near a window, and why working in grey, drab offices can get us down.  We’re not being difficult, it just goes against our innate, or subconscious, preferences.


This is where Biophilia comes into play.  It’s the belief that people have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life, and that doing so results in improvements in our wellbeing.


In a study published in the Economics of Biophilia*, researchers found that views of nature improved employee productivity by $3,000 per annum and decreased hospital stays by 85 percent.  Furthermore, they found that when we exercised outside as opposed to indoors, our blood glucose levels reduced by 40 percent as opposed to 21 percent.


In addition, employees in office environments with natural elements such as sunlight and greenery had:

  • 15% percent higher levels of well-being
  • were 6% percent more productive, and
  • were 15% more creative.


This highlights to me how our physical environments – where we live, work, learn and play, have a subconscious and innate effect on us that can unknowingly impact our mood, our productivity and our happiness.



So what can we do if we want to change our environments to better suit our evolutionary and biophilic needs?  It doesn’t need to cost a huge amount of money.  Consider:

  • Are your spaces cold and grey, and if so, could you paint areas to make the space more bright and colourful?
  • Do you have any plants inside? If the environment is not conducive to real plants, can you put in fake ones or put up photo’s or wall coverings of greenery and nature?
  • Do you have easy access to natural light?  If not, can you create spaces with different levels of light to suit a more natural environment of light and shade, and provide imagery of the sun with TV images or projection
  • What does your office sound like?  Is it too quiet or too noisy?  Would some areas benefit from playing the sounds of natures, such as birds and running water?


These are also small things we can do that can have a significant positive effect on our well-being.  Surely this makes it worth getting back to our prehistoric roots.


Desiree Blackett is the Director of Operations at CCER.  She is reporting from the Smart Workplaces Design summit in Amsterdam.


*Economics of Biophilia, by Bill Browning, Chris Garvin, Catie Ryan, Namita Kallianpurkar, Leslie Labruto, Siobhan Watson, Travis Know

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