Skin: our largest sense organ, and our least stimulated in the workplace

I am strongly of the belief that biophilia is far more than the emotional and psychological connection to nature that is most often suggested as the basis of biophilic design. For me, true biophilic design is about creating comfort – physical and psychological, and that means creating a sensory environment where our senses are stimulated congruently.

Physical comfort depends on our brain interpreting the inputs of sense receptors in ways that enable us to create an internal map of our environment that can help us how to behave – whether to fight, flee, feed, shelter, nuture, create, etc. Stress hormones can prime us to move quickly, whereas our pleasure centres can encourage us to stay put and indulge more.

An environment that allows our senses to work in concert should be comfortable and, in a workplace setting, will enhance effectiveness (thence engagement, productivity, job satisfaction, etc.)

Designers can be very good at addressing many of our sensory needs, but all too often, our largest sensory organ is ignored.

Our skin is densely packed sensors that react to temperature, air movement, pressure and even static electricity. Our skin sensors tell us when a surface is safe to grip or walk on. We have sensors that provide feedback about the things we pick up, bend, twist, press, push and pull. Other sensors tell us when we are being exposed to excess heat or cold.

Human beings are unique in nature in that we are the only species that covers most of its skin, thus depriving us of a huge amount of sensory information. However, that particular behaviour is a relatively recent innovation – modern humans have only worn clothes for about a third of their time on Earth, and there is no evidence that our hominid ancestors ever saw the need. As with our other senses (although to a lesser degree), evolution hasn’t caught up with the changes we have made to our habitats through migration and building – we are still essentially adapted to living wild in the plains of Africa.

One of the reasons we find draughts so annoying is that our skin is detecting air movement over only small parts of exposed skin, but not the rest – we get conflicting sensory inputs. Our neck and face might feel the chill, turbulent air currents, but the rest of us is wrapped up snug and warm – we have to consciously understand what is going on.

Depending on the nature of the sensory inputs through our skin, we can experience great pleasure or immense pain. Those experiences are enhanced the more that the skin is exposed.

In workplaces, we deprive ourselves of tactile and haptic experiences. Surfaces are smooth (for easy cleaning, as well as aesthetics) and we spend so much of our time still, apart from tapping at keyboards or picking up the phone.

So, what is the answer?

There are few opportunities to expose the skin to the environment in most workplaces – society is not yet ready for nude offices (although homeworking during pandemic lockdown offers the chance to experiment) – so any tactile and haptic stimulation needs to be directed at whatever skin is exposed (face and hands in the main), or be felt through clothing.

But it is not enough just to stimulate the skin, there must be purpose behind it.

Textures can be used very effectively to demarcate spaces and indicate safe, or preferred routes (think of textured pavements near pedestrian crossings). They can also be used to indicate status and authority – thick carpets and soft textiles are often associated with luxury and opulence, as are natural materials such as wood and stone. Whilst the general office accommodation in a building might be a sea of laminate desks and hard-wearing carpet tiles, the executive floors still tend to be more cossetting with their abundance of more natural materials, with more interesting and varied textures.

The indoor climate can also be managed in a way that is more in keeping with our sensory needs. I’ve already mentioned a reason why draughts are irritating, but other aspects of thermal regulation are important too. Heat and humidity, as well as air flow, can have a significant impact our comfort.

Humidity is especially important as far as comfort is concerned. Too humid and the air is clammy and our clothes get sticky and damp, which is not comfortable. Too dry, and our skin needs artificial moisturising to prevent itching and irritation.

In a typical workplace, our environment is pretty much fixed, or variable within a very limited range. In open offices, personal control is very limited – office workers can neither change the environment nor their behaviours beyond a narrow spectrum.

When not in the office, we can make adjustments to our behaviour to adapt to a changing environment. Uncomfortable skin can be made more comfortable by moving from one place to another, by adding or removing clothes or by taking a refreshing shower. We can choose to walk on carpet or a hard floor, or sit on a soft cushion or wooden bench. We can often change some elements of the environment ourselves, by changing the temperature, for example. We have agency.

At the time of writing, in the fifth week of lockdown in the UK, most office workers are working from home. Perhaps for the first time in their working lives, people are able to manage their working environment in ways that are not possible in an office building. Whilst it might be lonely to be away from colleagues, it is likely to be a more physically comfortable place to be. At the end of this period, I wonder how much will people miss their own control over their sensory environment.

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