How the physical space you spend time in every day affects your brain

Does this make you feel uninspired? No wonder. Photo: iStock

The modern office is no longer a grey room and some cubicles.

It’s a mix of hot-desking, open plan layouts and co-working spaces. Flexible working, “jelly bean working” and virtual offices.

With so many new trends and alternatives, deciphering what is the best option for you and your business can be a difficult task.

But what if you were to think about it from the perspective of what is best for your brain? After all, we all want to be more productive and inspired, right?

To find out how physical space affects the brain, we spoke to the founder and director of the Future of Work Project and lecturer at Bond University in Queensland, Libby Sander.

Sander, who has written numerous papers and given TED talks on the topic, said while some of the new office trends are designed to foster communication and collaboration, they are often counterproductive because people feel overwhelmed and are forced to leave the office, or work from home if they need to get serious work done.

Don’t be this guy. Photo: iStock.

Here’s what else she had to say.

“Space is extremely important,” says Sanders. “It’s the body language of the organisation… and has a huge effect on our cognition, the way that we feel and the way that we behave.

“There are lots of different elements that literally affect the way our brain functions,” she says.

“A space that has high ceilings, that has nice views, that has lots of natural materials can make us feel more creative and inspired. As opposed to things like concrete, which can make us actually feel quite restricted and constrained in our thinking.

“The use of timber, plants, has a huge effect on our stress and how inspired and creative we feel, so those types of things can make an enormous difference and they often help with our problem solving and decision making as well.”

She went on to explain how Jonas Salk, who invented the polio vaccine, would seek beautifully designed spaces when he needed to focus.

“Salk used to go to the Basilica d’Assisi… he found that it helped him work through the more complex problems that he was having in developing the vaccine,” she said.

Open plan offices aren’t all that great

When it comes to the open plan layout, which has become a very popular design in the modern office due to its economic benefits, Sanders says they’re simply too distracting.

“Open plan offices can work but generally they don’t; this is related to noise and related to privacy,” she says.

“The main reason it was done was to increase communication and collaboration, but our brain doesn’t function [effectively] when we feel threatened, and there’s a number of ways that we can feel both physically and psychologically threatened in an open plan environment.

“One is if we have people walking behind us or coming up and being able to look over our shoulder quite easily, even if we don’t think that we’re bothered by that, our brain kind of goes into a different state and so we lose the ability to sort of focus on the work that we’re doing and we become more tense.

“Different levels of noise obviously affect most people in being able to concentrate as well, so when we can’t concentrate on the work that we actually need to get done, what happens is actually quite interesting. We found people actually collaborate less, so if they can’t think and they can’t concentrate, they become less collaborative and they actually become more hostile.”

Open plan offices aren’t all that great. Photo: iStock.

She says this has forced people to actually leave their office and seek a quieter, less overwhelming environment to get work done.

“[Now] we need time to get away from people, to be able to restore and to have a break, to be able to work at the level we need to because it just doesn’t happen in most open plan offices,” she says.

“A lot of people say to me ‘But, you know, I work really well in a coffee shop and I’m not, sort of, bothered sometimes by that kind of buzz, I like to have that around me’ and that’s certainly true.

“But the key difference from your brain’s perspective is that in a coffee shop the buzz and the other conversations around you are unlikely to be about you, so it’s possible for you to still focus and concentrate on what you’re doing.

“When you’re in the office, that background noise and conversations, your brain has a different focus because it’s quite possible that it’s about you or about something you need to know about in the organisation, so your brain finds it much harder to tune that out, therefore the concentration and net quality of your work suffers.”

Hot-desking also isn’t as “hot” as it sounds

When it comes to the efficiency of hot-desking, Sanders says it depends on the person.

“For some people, people who are highly mobile workers, who are used to working in lots of different locations and lots of different spaces on a daily basis, then for them, it’s fine. It fits in quite well with the way that they like to work,” she says.

“Where it doesn’t work is for people who are not given a choice, and so having to move all of the things with them. If they’re at their desk a large percentage of the day, having to find somewhere to work, having to reorient themselves and get the tools that they need to work, it doesn’t work.”

What ends up happening, according to Sanders, is that these people can also tend to “appropriate space” to better suit their needs.

“People hang things on walls and use items to actually mark out a space for their team or for themselves so they don’t have to go through this ritual of having to find a new desk every day.

While she says while modern workplaces are getting better at providing suitable space for their employees, there is always room for improvement.

“Giving people choice and control is a big point,” she says suggesting that employers consider involving employees in the design of the workplace so they can find what is going to work best for them.

“Generally a one size fits all approach doesn’t work,” she says. “People are different in terms of who they are, their personality, but also the work that needs to get done by that person and also how that might change during the day. So providing a range of different zones, a range of different places where people can work [is important].”

This is similar to design concept employed by Mirvac known as “jelly bean working”. That concept encourages people to go to different office “zones” depending on the type of task and workflow they needed to complete.

“You can make an open plan type environment work well if the acoustics are done well, there’s lots of natural materials, lots of lights, plants and certain colours and things like that,” she says.

Home away from home

Home away from home. Photo: iStock.

“We’re also seeing a very domestic feel coming to offices now where people want to feel more comfortable.

“People need to feel psychologically and physically comfortable to work effectively and what we’ve done generally for the last 50 odd years in workplace design is, we’ve just focused the physical comfort and the ergonomic needs rather than asking ‘what do we need psychologically to work well from our spaces?'”

As more of these new and “collaborative” office designs crop up, Sanders expects the popularity of flexible working trends will continue to become an increasingly important part of the future workplace.

“I hear stories all the time where people… feel like they can get some work done without people finding them, which then is a bit counterproductive and not very efficient for anyone else who might be trying to find them.

“[And] certainly some people don’t necessarily want to be in the same space every day and we see where people are working in different environments, like co-working spaces… so those types of things I think, yeah, employees are definitely driving that as an expectation now.”

But she also acknowledges that a central base is critical to the success of flexible working arrangements.

“We’ll certainly see the head office continue but it will be in probably quite a different form,” she says.

“Rather than everyone coming to work in the same place every day, using a range of different work spaces across the city, working from home, maybe a co-working space, maybe the café, so that we’re getting these benefits of meeting different people, being exposed to different innovative ideas, commuting less but having better quality of life.

“Those types of things I think are going to continue to make a change in the landscape.”

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