From cotton mills to mind mills

I walk into a client’s office and there’s a sea of heads bent over an abundance of computer screens resting on grey desks. There’s nothing personal on any desk. The lighting is dimmed, the windows shaded and sealed. The air feels heavy. The only sounds are the whir of air conditioning and the tapping of keyboards.

I’m suddenly reminded of pictures of cotton and woollen mills from the late 19th and early 20th Century. I accept that modern offices are quiet, warm and dry and there are many strict working regulations, but in essence the design is the same isn’t it? Rows and rows of people, tethered to machinery, producing ‘stuff’.

Somehow we have let ourselves accept modern mills of the mind.


I’m beginning to wonder if it’s because organisations (un)consciously think the space people take up is waste? After all aren’t the people just resources like everything else the organisation consumes? That as long as we have the technology we need and the health and safety regulations are met then their employees will keep producing. And whilst this may be true in part I know I work better and more creatively in natural daylight and views of the sky. And when we’re working in times of complexity and continuous change don’t we need creativity from people?

What can we do to bring back some humanity to our workplaces and encourage creative thinking?

I believe the growing interest in biophilic design could be part of the answer. Biophilic design incorporates natural materials, natural light, vegetation, nature views and other experiences of the natural world into the modern built environment. Many building designers and architects are now designing working environments with this in mind and that has to be a good thing. It’s a massive topic so I’ve linked an article below which gives much more information about what’s possible.

The rest of the answer has to include organisational leaders choosing to value their employees as people instead of resources to be consumed. To invest in environments that support mental and physical wellbeing. To find ways of bringing people and the natural world together again.

And it doesn’t have to be expensive. Some simple changes could include encouraging people to bring in plants. Or changing the artwork to pictures of nature. Or moving the desks around so people can look out of the windows more easily. I’m sure we can make a big difference at a small cost with just a few creative changes.

Let’s stop working in mind mills. Let’s get closer to nature at work.