Where the wild things aren’t: how the workplace can learn from the zoo

How can the zoo teach us to create more humane workplaces? Ari Kepnes of workplace occupancy company Density looks at how organisations can benefit from adaptive and flexible workplaces

‘The city is not a concrete jungle, it’s a human zoo’, wrote anthropologist Desmond Morris in 1969. He went on to point out that there is one place where you do find animals behaving unnaturally – when they are locked up in a cage. So why do humans lock themselves in offices – the most robust of cages – for the entirety of the working day?

Over the last century, zoos have replaced barred cages with enclosures designed to replicate the optimal habitat for every animal. Zoology guides the allocation of space and resources and cross-disciplinary teams adjust the controlled environment to ensure that an animal thrives, not just survives.

Offices have evolved to a lesser extent. Many offices are still designed on the whims of an architect. Cost savings dictate the allocation of space and resources. Once workplaces are built, they are rarely adjusted to meet changing employee needs.

‘Why is it that some office spaces operate more like cages than like zoos?’

Many companies still see workplaces as cost or overhead, rather than a strategic investment. They believe the work environment has a neutral impact on employees. This creates workplaces optimised for cost efficiency, not employee efficiency. Workplace strategy initiatives are rarely implemented unless they provide short-term cost savings.

Whereas, the best workplace teams use inventive methods to provide work environments optimised for human needs instead of cost alone. Their vision for future workplaces accounts for the behavioural, psychosocial, and health outcomes of building design and operations. In this paradigm, the workplace is a strategic asset to attract and retain top talent.

A natural habitat

Effective workplaces are designed around the fundamental belief that the built environment impacts its occupants. They include specific attributes such as proper ventilation, plants and sunlight. Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment found an eight per cent increase in productivity when ventilation is increased. Research has shown a 15 per cent increase in productivity after plants were added to offices.

A 2018 study by the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell Univrsity found that optimising exposure to natural light led to an 84 per cent drop in symptoms of eyestrain and headaches. This has led to innovations in companies like RGA who have installed lighting which adjusts to match the sunlight outside and align with human circadian rhythms.

‘We spend millions on understanding what makes humans sick, we should be equally focused on studying what makes us well’ – Judith Heerwagen, author of Biophilic Design 

From a zoology perspective, each of these features appear obvious. They are rooted in the belief that humans, like animals, possess an innate tendency to affiliate with nature, or ‘biophilia’. In the corporate real estate industry, this concept is relatively new.

The WELL Building Standard, which validates building features that support and advance human health and wellness was founded in 2014. As the scientific research into employee productivity continues, standards like WELL will become a requirement instead of a nicety in office buildings.

The anti-camera

Data collection from study participants is no longer enough to guide workplace decisions. Employers need to collect data on their own employees to adequately meet their needs. Measuring how people use the physical space can steer workplace design to tailor experiences for the employees working within it.

Unlike in zoos, privacy and security concerns complicate monitoring humans at work. Short of installing a camera, there are few ways to accurately measure how efficiently a particular space is used and if it’s being used as intended. However recent advances in computer vision and artificial intelligence have made solving this problem possible. Companies such a Density provide a device and an analytics platform that can accurately count the number of people in a room without compromising their privacy. This allows organisations to measure the interaction between people and place.

Cross-department collaboration

After data is collected, communication between cross-functional teams dictates how well physical environments are designed and managed. The European Association for Zoos Aquariums (EAZA), outlines the following example of an organisational structure:

EAZA recommends weekly meetings between zoo management from different departments to ‘keep everyone up to date… and give everyone the feeling they are involved in running the zoo.’ Daily meetings are scheduled to report on the needs of each animal.

Zoo management explicitly does not use a siloed team to develop a one-size-fits-all approach to animal wellbeing. Collaboration allows the team to change the zoo environment to meet the needs of individual animals. Most workplaces are not structurally equipped to achieve this level of flexibility. While workplaces impact all major department of an organisation, they are traditionally managed by only one: real estate.

Emerging workplace leaders are enlisting the help of multiple departments in their workplace strategy. Anthony Parzanese, Head of Workplace Innovation at American software company, Red Hat describes the need to ‘raise awareness and education around the collaborative partnerships between Real Estate, IT, Finance, and HR’.

Parzanese solidifies these partnerships through a shared company goal: ‘We need to help each department understand how much the workplace contributes towards talent attraction and retention.’

Ironic isn’t it, that to captivate the attention of humans at work, workplace teams must first look to animals in captivity.

Ari Kepnes is the director of market research for workplace occupancy company Density.
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