Monday 2 January 2012

The Workplace Zoo

I visited Colchester Zoo over the Christmas holidays and was really impressed with the quality of the animal enclosures. Clearly a lot of thought had gone into their design and a great deal of effort made in meeting the animals’ needs and making them comfortable. This was evident in the way the animals behaved and through the success of their breeding programme.

It got me wondering whether any lessons learned in zoo design are relevant to the workplace. However, I am not the first to make this comparison. Judith Heerwagen suggests “For insights, it is useful to look not at buildings, but at zoos. Zoo design has gone through a radical transformation in the past several decades. Cages have been replaced by natural habitats and geographic clustering of animals. And, as in nature, the animals have much greater control over their behaviour. They can be on view if they want, or out of sight. They forage, play, rest, mate, and act like normal animals”[1]. She continues “A key factor was concern over the animals' psychological and social well-being. Zoos could keep animals alive, but they couldn't make them flourish”. Heerwagen proposed that we learn from the new philosophy of enriched zoo enclosures, providing for well-being rather than simple survival, but can we also learn from the basic design principles in zoo enclosures? 

Provision of a suitable environment is the most fundamental of five key principles in zoo practice – “the temperature, ventilation, lighting and noise levels of enclosures must be suitable for the comfort and well-being of the particular species of animal at all times”[2]. Painstaking effort and meticulous detail has been taken to ensure the enclosures at modern zoos provide each species and sub-species of animal with the best environment to allow them to “flourish”. In contrast, in the workplace, post occupancy evaluations (POEs) repeatedly show that satisfaction is low with temperature, ventilation and noise[3]. Although much effort is made to ensure that comfortable environments are provided in the workplace, POEs often show satisfaction with comfort is significantly below 50%. Individual preferences, behaviours and activities mean it is difficult to provide comfort for everyone, but such a, repeatedly, low level of satisfaction is neither acceptable nor considered good design. Similarly, when commuting into London last summer when temperatures on the Underground reached 40°C, as I stood sweating in a crowded carriage I often wondered to myself why it is illegal to transport livestock at temperatures above 35°C but not humans[4].

I am a fan of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs[5]; he proposed that for humans to perform to their maximum capability several categories of needs must be met in acceding order. The lower order needs refer to comfort and safety, the basics of zoo enclosures, and if these fundamental needs are not met then our performance is inhibited. In contrast, the higher order needs refer to more psychological, emotional and social factors. Interestingly, another core provision for animal enclosures is the opportunity to express most normal behaviour – “accommodation should take account of the natural habitat of the species and seek to meet the physiological and psychological needs of the animal”[2]. I have previously explored the psychological needs of humans in some detail and have also expressed my concern that they are not being met in modern homogenised workplaces[6]. It seems that a focus on space efficiency and reduced property costs override the individual needs required for maximum well-being and performance in the workplace.

It might be argued that zoo enclosure design is easier than workplace design as it accommodates a single species with a basic animalistic drive for survival. Firstly, humans have evolved into different races that have adapted to different climates, but nevertheless we are one species. Secondly, Richard Dawkins postulated in the Selfish Gene[7] that the single motivator for human behaviour is survival. So, on the one hand it could be counter-argued that both the design of zoo enclosures and workplaces comes down to a thorough understanding of the occupants’ needs and designing to meet them. Although we share the territorial and social behaviours of animals, these are often overlooked in the workplace. In addition, I believe that there are many other factors that drive how humans behave on a daily basis. We are a complicated species, separated from the animals by our intelligence and personality, as well as neo-cortex size and opposable thumbs. We know that specific personality traits, e.g. introvert versus extrovert and internal versus external, lead to certain behaviours and needs. In a zoo, if an animal exhibits a particular characteristic that requires a specific environmental adjustment for them to “flourish” then it is very likely that the zoo keeper would make the provision. However, this is not the case in the workplace; we provide a homogenous environment for a “single species” and there is little recognition of individual differences and the associated requirements to enhance comfort and performance.

Although Heerwagen beat me to the analogy between the workplace and zoo enclosures, I think I was the first to compare the modern workplace to chicken coups[8]. Battery-farm hens are accommodated in high density environments with poor daylight and ventilation. In contrast free-range hens have lots of space in which they can roam and explore, and have access to the outside with unlimited daylight and ventilation. Battery hens are sad unhealthy chickens with a short life-span, whereas free-range hens are happy, healthy, inquisitive and playful chickens that live around five times as long as a battery hen. In terms of productivity, there is a high yield of eggs per sqm for battery hens, but the quality of the eggs is poor and the demand and market value of them is low compared to free-range eggs which offer a higher return on investment. So I recommend free-range workplaces with high quality space which offers people achoice of environments where they can explore and socialise or alternatively seek privacy. I wonder if the original b├╝rolandschaft office might be considered free-range whereas the modern open-plan office is more akin to a battery-farm?

So isn't it about time that we follow the example of the modern zoo and design workplaces so that individuals (and businesses) flourish rather than simply survive?


  1. Heerwagen J (2008) Psychosocial Value of Space. J.H. Heerwagen & Associates, Inc.
  2. DETR (2000) Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice. Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.
  3. Oseland N A (2006) Gauging after effects of workplace design. Urban Land Europe, 8 (2), 62-65.
  4. DETR (2010) Welfare of Animals During Transport Council Regulation (EC) No 1/2005 on the Protection of Animals During Transport and Related Operations and The Welfare of Animals (Transport) (England) Order 2006. Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.
  5. Maslow AH (1943) A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50 (4), 370-96.
  6. Oseland N A (2009) The impact of psychological needs on office design. Journal of Corporate Real Estate, 11 (4), 244-254.
  7. Dawkins R (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press.
  8. Oseland (2008) Designing offices to improve business performance. Presentation at Herman Miller, June.

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