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Nature's Secrets Can Make Better Offices

While humans have been designing and building structures for a few thousand years, nature has been at it for a few billion, and organizations could learn something from the time nature has invested in creating successful environments, according to stok's Warren Neilson.


Natural habitats such as a single Sequoia tree, entire forests, an estuary or even an ocean are incredibly productive ecosystems made up of individual players constantly collaborating to co-create what is needed for their counterparts and their environment to thrive, says Warren (above left at a recent Bisnow event). That collaboration can describe a healthy ecosystem as well as office space. 

The task of the modern manager at a company is much the same as in nature, bringing product teams, finance, marketing and a whole host of functions into harmony within a durable “ecosystem of ideas” to execute a vision, Warren tells us. In essence, a natural system offers lessons in bringing productive order out of chaotic interactions.

Let’s start with one of the most straightforward lessons nature can teach us: construction technique. If you’ve ever seen a Sequoia, you know that nature can build things really big and really strong. The oldest known tree of that kind is more than 3,500 years old and that durability is no accident. Balancing various stresses and distributing them across a massive frame is an evolutionary achievement. Warren says it has recently been discovered how we mimick the structure of a Sequoia: “When graphing the structural stress points of a Sequoia it turns out they map out almost exactly the same as a modern day skyscraper. Yet that correlation has only recently been looked at after designing hundreds of skyscrapers.” Nature has figured out how to build resilient structures and, while some designers are catching on, future architects and structural engineers would find it a good use of their time to learn from nature, he says. 

The modern manager of high-tech Millennial workers has few things in common with Industrial Revolution counterparts. Employees are now expected to energize organizations through pursuit of creative projects. At the same time, organizations have gotten more complex than ever, demanding collaboration between different kinds of employees and business divisions. Effectively channeling individual impulses while lowering the barriers to collaboration is the modern manager’s primary responsibility. 

Here too, a healthy forest can be a good analogy, Warren notes.  “Parts of [the forest] are collaborating in exceptionally effective ways while other parts of the ecosystem take on singular job functions. There is a healthy balance between collaboration and concentration. Consider the trunk of a Live Oak tree with nooks and crannies that insects can find refuge in when needed yet have full access to the entirety of the trunk when necessary. In the world of office design, this can translate into choosing a mix of breakout, lounge, concentration and open collaboration space that empowers entire organizations to leverage functional ecosystems within the office that help them disrupt their marketplaces and not their team’s productivity and well-being.” 

Finally, nature reminds us of the importance of change in replenishing and rejuvenating spaces. While current ideas of the office are anchored in the notion of permanence and rigidity, there can be a better way, according to Warren. Consider seasonal transitions and the ways fauna adapts through hibernation or migration. Space changes to suit the needs of the moment. This kind of fluidity in office design would allow a company to rapidly react to changing demands and shifting team dynamics and quickly respond to market forces or client needs.

So there you have three lessons from nature: structure, ecosystem and change. Interested in more on creative office space? Join us at Bisnow's Silicon Valley Creative Office event on June 15 in San Jose! 

Related Topics: Warren Neilson, stok