If you work in an office with a window, what can you see outside?  A park with grass and a few scattered trees? A busy street? A row of tall buildings? Or maybe something else?

Many of us spend our working hours indoors in office settings with little exposure to the outdoors. But did you know that even the small amount of outdoor exposure that you may get from your office window view could explain why you do – or do not – feel good at work?

We recently analyzed the office window views of hundreds of American employees, and our results may surprise you. We found that having access to window views can produce both beneficial and detrimental effects for employees who spend much of the working day inside. What makes the difference?

Most people believe that natural views (such as views of trees, grass, and water) are good and that urban views (views of buildings and streets) are bad. But that’s not what we found. Some natural and some urban window views had positive effects on employees’ well-being, and some natural and some urban views had negative effects on well-being.

Instead of the overall amount of nature (or buildings) that you can see, what matters most are the features of the view.  Whether the view is natural or urban, the specific features of window views had the greatest impact on employees’ psychological, physical, and job-specific well-being.

Thinking about it more, this finding makes sense. Dark, dense forests, with tangles of underbrush, are “natural,” but they have always seemed spooky and foreboding. Think of Little Red Riding Hood encountering the big bad wolf in the deep forest. On the other hand, most of us love certain urban views, such as a penthouse view of an expansive cityscape. So, it’s not a simple matter of whether a view is natural or urban.

The two view features that are best for us are coherence and mystery. Coherent views, such as a savannah-like landscape, look symmetrical and organized. Mysterious views, such as a mountain range in the distance, hide information, which makes us curious about what else the scene has to offer.

On the other hand, the features of complexity and refuge are the worst for us. Complex views, such as a tangled forest, offer many shapes and textures and therefore can be visually overwhelming.  Views of refuge, such as caves and dense shrubs, are rich in opportunities for hiding and shelter, but predators and enemies could also be lurking there, so these are places we prefer to avoid.

The most intriguing result was that these various features of the view had the same effects on employee’s well-being whether the view was natural or built.  Employees with views of urban landscapes that were coherent or mysterious scored as high on measures of well-being as those whose windows offered coherent, mysterious natural views.

The view feature in urban settings that lowers well-being most is refuge. This makes sense because, in most cities, refuge views involve places where people can easily hide (such as narrow dark alleys, parking lots, and parking garages) and where criminals may lie in wait for their victims.  So, looking out at such scenes is discomfiting.

Specific view features that can be found in both natural and built settings can be equally appealing. Consider an expansive view that offers you a long-range visibility and the ability to see without being seen. You may enjoy both expansive natural views from the top of a mountain and expansive city views from the top of a skyscraper.  Whether an expansive view is natural or urban doesn’t seem to matter.

Specific view features that can be found in both natural and built settings can also be equally unappealing. With a complex view that contains many elements, you may feel uncomfortable both in dense, tangled wooded areas and in crowded urban areas.

So if you have an office window view with attractive features, consider yourself lucky. But what can you do when your window view is unattractive? Close the curtains and put up pictures of attractive nature scenes and cityscapes. And, if you own a company and are thinking of expanding your facilities, make sure your architects pay attention to window views. Your employees will appreciate it.

For Further Reading:

van Esch, E., Minjock, R., Colarelli, S. M., & Hirsch, S. (2019). Office window views: View features trump nature in predicting employee well-being. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 64, 56-64.


Emmy van Esch is an assistant professor of management at The Open University of Hong Kong. Stephen M. Colarelli is a professor of psychology at Central Michigan University.