Is Open Office vs. Closed Office the Wrong Question?

12/12/2018 By Kadie Yale

While the elements of office politics have been hotly debated in the last decade, especially the pros and cons of open offices versus closed, findings in the study Human Spaces: The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace point to the idea that we aren’t asking the right questions about what’s beneficial to employee productivity and well-being.

Human Spaces analyzed data collected from 7,600 respondents in 16 countries around the world. What resulted was a holistic and global view of the ways in which biophilia impacts human health and wellness, particularly when it comes to office interiors.

The largest proportion of respondents were between the ages of 25 and 44 (58 percent), with 40 percent of the total respondents saying they work an average of 40 to 49 hours a week in the workplace; that’s approximately 25 percent of the average respondent’s week.

With how much time employees are spending in the workplace, health and wellness has increasingly become the focus of office interior design. Human Spaces shows that biophilia is a human necessity that deserves the focus of office designers and company managers.

Key Findings

Researchers defined well-being as the participant’s feelings of happiness, inspiration and enthusiasm as it pertained to the office environments.

The survey found that, overall, well-being and lower levels of stress were achieved when employees had:

  • Window views
  • Interiors that utilized natural color pallets such as green, blue and brown
  • Natural light
  • Live plants, greenery and water features incorporated into the interior
  • A work environment that provides a sense of light and space

Interestingly, a third of respondents stated that the design of the office would affect their decision to work for a company. However, that number is skewed when looking at the overall response versus only the respondents from the U.S. Employees from India, Indonesia and the Philippines responded with 67 percent, 62 percent and 60 percent, respectively, in favor of office design influencing their decision to work for a company. In contrast, 27 percent of the U.S. respondents agreed.


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While these numbers differ wildly, it’s important to note that the U.S. percentage has increased from 22 percent a decade ago. As companies become increasingly owned and operated by those in the Millennial population (those born between 1980 and 1995), and Gen Z (those born between 1996 and 2010) begins to enter the workforce, health and wellness will become more common and necessary elements of the workplace. Both Millennials and Gen Z are more understanding of their physical and mental needs, and mental health is less stigmatized by those populations. These generations will be drawn toward spaces that make them feel better, more productive, and provide amenities that align with current research.

An Answer to Open Office vs. Closed Office

When asked about trends toward open and closed offices, the result was eye-opening: 39 percent of workers felt most productive at their own desk in a private office, while 36 percentfelt most productive at their own desk in an open plan office.

Read It Next: 4 Office Must-Haves for Employee Wellness

As it has become better understood by the design community, the answer to open office vs. closed office relies entirely on the individual. A blanket statement for or against a particular office layout isn’t supported by the research.

In contrast, research can quantify the importance of biophilia in the workplace, showing that more important than the debate of layout is the materials used and employees’ ability to have access to natural lighting and elements.

The Impact of Biophilia

The Human Spaces report found that of the respondents, 47 percent didn’t have access to natural light, while 58 percent didn’t have plants. Conversely, 44 percent of respondents stated that natural light was their most wanted biophilic element of the five listed, and 20 percent said indoor plants were the most important.

The additional three elements were quiet working spaces (19 percent), views of the sea (17 percent), and bright colors (15 percent).

By including natural elements such as greenery and sunlight, the researchers found up to a 15 percent increase in levels of well-being, including increased attention span.


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The Attention Restoration Theory posits that viewing and experiencing nature engages a different part of the brain from that used in high attentional focus. By including biophilic design in offices, researchers have found that individuals are able to focus better on the task at hand and suffer less mental fatigue.

This is a boon to office managers as simple biophilic additions to an office interior have been found to lower incidents of employee sickness, increase productivity and performance, increase retention and lead to overall customer and user satisfaction.

Real vs. Simulated Nature

According to one of the study’s authors, Bill Browning, simulated nature showed positive effects. “A number of studies in hospital environments have found that showing pictures of pleasing landscapes to patients just before or just after surgery resulted in lower stress levels and better recovery rates.”

While he concludes by writing, “Finally, the psychological response (i.e., perceived recovery) to the real window was similar to that of the simulated window, and the physiological response to the real window was significantly better than the simulated window,” if the real-deal is not available, simulated elements show an increase in wellness over a lack of nature entirely.

Particularly in recent years as technology has advanced, design manufacturers have been able to increase their biophilic offerings. Large-scale scenery printed across wallcoverings, LVT flooring identical to real lumber, and color pallets that skew toward natural landscapes provide easy solutions to office environments that can’t provide natural lighting and greenery.

Office Conclusion

Biophilia is understood to be an important aspect to current interior design, but the implementation of biophilic elements is still in its beginning stages.

Luckily for the wellness-focused designer, research and statistics are on the side of focusing a client’s attention toward including natural elements and color schemes into their interior.

With advancements in technology allowing simulated nature to be easily available, and in research which shows what is needed by employees, designing for health and wellness has never been easier. When designers are armed with the facts, it’s easier to convince clients to invest in the biophilic aspects of their offices.

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