Evolutionary Psychology Meets Office Design: Nigel Oseland's Vision for Modern Workspaces


December 18, 2023

This blog is inspired by our chat with workplace guru Nigel Oseland on the Workplace Geeks podcast. Have a listen.

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People have often referred to the office as a 'chicken coop', but have we ever considered it as a zoo? Our interview with Nigel Oseland explores the concept of the Human Zoo and its implications for workplace design.

In his book, "Beyond the Workplace Zoo: Humanising the Office", Nigel draws inspiration from zoologist (and presenter of 1950’s show, Zoo Time) Desmond Morris's work, especially The Human Zoo, where Morris observed that people in densely populated urban environments exhibited behaviours akin to animals in enclosed cages – restlessness, violence and poor reproduction (!).

Nigel reflects on Morris's idea, stating,

"He was suggesting that people in highly dense built-up cities start to exhibit behaviours of animals in closed cages".

This analogy suggests that certain office designs might unintentionally lead to behaviours reminiscent of animals in captivity. Nigel questions whether, over the years, offices have unwittingly become "human zoos", impacting employee well-being and performance.

This comparison sparks a thought-provoking conversation about the unintended consequences of office design. Nigel wonders if, in the pursuit of efficiency and cost-cutting measures, offices have created environments that limits human performance. This concept prompting us to re-evaluate the balance between productivity, cost-effectiveness and the fundamental need for humane and inspiring workspaces.

I think most would agree that modern office design has, at times, left a lot to be desired but Nigel’s appreciation for, and expertise in, evolutionary psychology brings a deeper understanding about why that might be.

Contemplating the impact of office design, Nigel taps into evolutionary psychology's core premise – that human beings have evolved over millennia to thrive in specific environmental conditions. He notes,

"We've only been in the modern office, let's call it, for about 100 years. But we evolved over millennia to live on the African Savanna in this wonderful natural environment".

Nigel's affinity for evolutionary psychology serves as a powerful tool for dissecting the mismatch between traditional office structures and the innate human need for certain environmental conditions. By bringing evolutionary psychology into the discussion, he not only critiques the potential pitfalls of modern office design but also provides a pathway for reimagining workspaces that align more harmoniously with our evolutionary heritage.

In response, Nigel delves into the concept of Bürolandschaft, a term rooted in German design philosophy from the 1950s. Bürolandschaft, translated as "office landscaping", was championed by the Quickborner consultancy, founded by the Schnelle brothers. The fundamental departure from traditional office layouts was a shift away from the rigid, Taylorist approach characterised by rows of desks, reflecting a mechanistic view of work. Instead, Bürolandschaft emphasised a more social and project-based perspective, fostering collaboration among multidisciplinary teams.

Desks were clustered in pairs or small groups, recognising the need for personal space. Screens, freestanding partitions and abundant greenery were integrated to break up the workspace, fostering a visually diverse and stimulating environment.

Nigel's proposal for the "landscaped office" is an evolution and modern interpretation of Bürolandschaft, aiming to capture its essence while addressing contemporary considerations. This concept is not merely a revival but an adaptation that incorporates elements of biophilic design and a nuanced understanding of how workspace layouts impact human psychology and well-being.

So how does that work in the modern workplace? Nigel proposes a dynamic approach that combines the benefits of a landscaped office with the flexibility of agile working, particularly in the context of hybrid work. He emphasises the need to replace unused desks with spaces that promote social interaction, focus and well-being.

As workplace enthusiasts, we are optimistic about arriving at best practice, but we're also conscious of the recurring cyclic nature of workplace trends, where periods of focus on well-being and innovation are interrupted by cost-cutting measures; and as a recession looms, perhaps we’re about to enter the latter. Nigel suggests that workplace design should be viewed as an investment rather than a cost burden, aligning with broader business goals but the reality is that more data is required to connect the dots.

Talking about data, the conversation reminded Ian of a presentation from Zaha Hadid Architects where they used algorithms to create workspace designs that optimise factors like natural light, circulation, and individual preferences. The resulting designs showcased a remarkable resemblance to the Bürolandschaft concept, underscoring the enduring relevance of organic, nature-inspired office layouts. Perhaps the data is already there and emerging technology is helping us explore that in more detail (also worth nodding to our chat with Kerstin Sailer and the folks at Cushman & Wakefield).

If you want to find out more about Nigel and his work, check out Workplace Unlimited, the Workplace Trends event (of which we are a media partner) and definitely explore his book, Beyond the Workplace Zoo.

You can also listen to the Workplace Geeks podcast on your favourite streaming service. Apple | SpotifyGoogle

Photo by B NW on Unsplash

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