Redesigning the Office to Support Brain Health

With the pandemic stretching into a third year, employers are scrambling to reconfigure how and where work gets done, with more businesses returning to in-person following years of Zoom meetings and remote setups.

Compared with the creature comforts and convenience of working from home, office life can appear less attractive to some. After all, at home, we can more easily slip into spaces and routines that restore us–both during and after a hard day’s work.

Employers are now considering how to make time spent in person more appealing, productive, and healthy for the worker, especially in light of increased rates of burnout and stress brought on by the pandemic. While most workplaces lack spaces intentionally designed to support mental health, that may be changing.

Making the Most of In-Person Work

The initial lockdowns and shift to remote work made many of us more aware of our personal surroundings and their effects on our productivity and wellbeing.

“The built environment has such a profound impact on the way people think, on their emotions, on their functionality, on their behavior,” said Sarah Williams Goldhagen, architecture critic and author of Welcome to Our World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives.

COVID demonstrated that working from the comfort and safety of one’s home is not only possible but preferable for many. But “there are certain kinds of teamwork–maybe all teamwork–that really are much better done in person,” explained Goldhagen.

Teamwork for projects with iterative processes requiring cycles of work, feedback, and revision and whose output requires a “kind of percolation of creativity,” instead of something more straightforward and task-oriented, may especially benefit from face-to-face time, she added.

The catch is that many workplaces are not set up to maximize this kind of demanding cognitive work. And the design of the physical office space, including its lighting, temperature, acoustics, and decor, ends up being counterproductive, making in-person work even more challenging.

How Workplaces Drain Your Brain

For most, if not all, people, the workplace causes some level of stress and mental fatigue.

Our attentional resources are limited and can be depleted with use. Attentional fatigue has real consequences and is associated with lowered ability to make decisions and poor self-control. With our attention tank running on empty, we are more likely to procrastinate, make errors, and give up in the face of failure. It could partially explain the rampant case of “presenteeism” facing employers, with workers physically on the job but not really performing due to poor health or well-being.

“I think that it’s something that workplaces, corporate workplaces, in particular, need to pay a lot more attention to because attention restoration is well established as a human need,” said Goldhagen.

Many workplaces try to address these needs through meditation or wellness spaces that provide an escape from the surrounding environment and focus on turning one’s attention inward. But they are missing a key ingredient necessary to recharge our brain’s batteries—a sense of mystery or what experts refer to as “passive fascination.”

According to environmental psychologists, restorative environments evoke positive moods and have properties that draw people’s attention without being stressful or demanding. “It’s the sense of being captivated by an object in your environment and its composition, smell—whatever multisensory experience is around you—in a way that kind of fascinates you without you having to exert too much attention to appropriate it cognitively,” explained Goldhagen.

A Natural Solution to Recharge the Mind

The attention restoration theory (ART) proposes that natural environments and stimuli can help restore our attention. A recent meta-analysis found that exposure to natural environments helped improve different measures of cognitive ability, such as working memory, cognitive flexibility, and attentional control.

To this end, natural light is one of the most potent tools in designing a workspace because “natural light always changes and stimulates the mind by essentially creating different spaces throughout the day,” Goldhagen said.

Research has also found that window views not only reduce workers’ discomfort but also improve their emotions and aspects of their cognition, such as working memory and concentration. A better view may even lead to better productivity.

Other studies found that having plants indoors in the office has the power to reduce stress and increase attentional capacity. Even films or photographs of natural scenes can alleviate stress and promote attention. Similarly, images and sounds of water have been found to be restorative.

Together, direct and indirect nature exposure in the workplace, through what is known as biophilic design, can revitalize workers. Many of these features could potentially be applied in corporate settings as well as other types of workplaces, such as schools and healthcare centers.

At Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, for example, healthcare workers spent time in multisensory, nature-inspired recharge rooms specifically designed to combat attentional fatigue. The rooms, which contained elements such as silk imitation plants, images of soothing natural landscapes, audio recordings of nature sounds and relaxing music, and an infusion of essential oils and calming scents, reduced perceived stress for over 200 frontline healthcare workers after just 15 minutes.

Designing a Winning Workplace

Incorporating restorative spaces into the workplace has benefits for the worker that outweigh the costs, Goldhagen said.

There’s a different level of planning that can take place around the kinds of experiences you want [to cultivate]: creative work, attention, restoration, and so on. I’m not convinced that doing these things would necessarily add a lot to the cost, especially when you calculate improvements to workplace productivity in project budgets.

Employers should make strides towards planning and implementing restorative spaces because they will also reap the benefits, Goldhagen said.

They’ll get better work out of their workers…If you give people opportunities to regularly go into spaces that will help them reset their stress levels and replenish their attentional resources, that means they’ll produce better work.

As employers consider the future of work and ways to support mental health, the evidence-based design could be part of a winning playbook for all.

Written and reported by IAM Lab Communications Specialist Richard Sima. Richard received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins and is a science writer living in Baltimore, Maryland.

This post was featured on Psychology Today.

Lead image: Raj Rana on Unsplash

Architecture Design Environment Mental Health Neuroaesthetics Wellbeing