Sep 21, 2012
THEME: Workplace

Workplace Hills and Habitats

Offices need more hills. Let me explain.

Not long ago, I came across research in a Science Daily article about butterfly populations that resonated strongly with workplace design strategies. It described how data collected hundreds of miles above the earth’s surface had identified the relationship between stable butterfly populations and habitat diversity. Using advanced satellite imagery to capture data on 150 habitats that were home to 35 different species of butterflies, scientists were able to prove that varied landscapes produce more resilient insect populations, likely from greater availability of resources and microclimates. For the butterflies, the ability to select from a range of habitat types acted as a buffer against decline in tough times. The most successful of these habitats exhibited both a choice of habitat types as well as a variety of terrain, including hilly landscapes[i].

Nature’s capacity to produce resilient populations in ever-changing environments is not unrelated to design problems facing many human habitats, and the workplace is no exception. As many workplaces adopt open plans as a means to increase collaboration, sustainability, and efficiency, the real challenge for designers is in the creation of microclimates. A “hilly terrain” strategy in the workplace provides the diversity of space types needed to respond to the dynamics of economy, technology, sustainability, and individuality, while also providing individuals and groups with the opportunity to choose the right space for the task at hand.

Linzi Cassels, a principal in our London office, sees this shift towards variety and choice happening even in typically more conservative industries, such as banking and law: “Historically our more traditional clients were restricted by rules and standards, but we are starting to see even the most conservative move away from this and seeking alternatives that break down the scale of the workspace into more intimate settings.” Many of our clients are beginning to explore desk sharing as a means to offer greater choice and variety, in lieu of desk ownership. The most successful of these mobility programs are implemented by and for individual business groups, where users are invited to think about “how they spend their space.” Ultimately, opening up this conversation as a matter of choice has been remarkably successful.

The connection between habitat research and workplace design has become even more relevant since the publication of Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, earlier this year[ii]. As a result of her work, the popular press, clients, and co-workers alike are questioning the effectiveness of the open office and how it falls short as a singular solution for introverts and focused tasks. Rightfully so—the open plan on its own is a field and is particularly detrimental for those who are tied to that one habitat type. Not to be forgotten, however, is that this open field serves an important purpose when offered in conjunction with a number of other micro-climates.

Instead of focusing the conversation on the short-comings of the open plan, we need to focus on the power of diversity and choice for all walks of life.

This post was authored by Roshelle Ritzenthaler.

[i] Science Daily. Conservation from Space: Landscape Diversity Helps to Conserve Insects. February 2010. Retrieved from

[ii] Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Crown: January 2012.

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