Space for thought: are we ready for a brain-healthy workplace?

Designing workplaces to improve wellbeing is now standard practice. Much less common is looking at this topic through the prism of brain health. A study led by architect HSK shows the potential

As employers ramp up efforts to support the mental health of workers in the fast-changing knowledge economy, could an under-examined route to reducing stress and burnout in the workplace be via paying more attention to brain health?

American architecture firm HKS certainly thinks so. It has partnered with the Center for Brain Health, a non-profit research institute, on a pilot programme to investigate the role of place, policy and technology in creating a brain-healthy workplace. HKS President and CEO Dan Noble explains: ‘It’s time to change the narrative around how we work and fully leverage our brain capital.’

Seven key findings

Seven key findings emerged from the 10-week study conducted by HSK, which built five HSK ‘living labs’ in summer 2022 to capture insights:

  1. The brain can be trained. Those who completed the core cognitive training had a higher average brain health index than those that did not.
  2. Managing distractions is a key challenge. The office isn’t only for collaboration—workers need spaces deliberately designed for focus work. Acoustics and a lack of environmental control consistently ranked lowest in satisfaction among design elements.
  3. Multitasking is related to reduced effectiveness. 43 per cent of the study’s participants said they frequently multitask—a bad habit related to a host of issues, including burnout.
  4. Where we work matters, and using a range of spaces helps. Creating a range of spaces based on task type or working modality may unlock innovation. The research found that when participants used a range of spaces, satisfaction with collaborative work effectiveness in the office was higher.
  5. Workplace habits need time to develop. Satisfaction with individual and collaborative tasks increases with the time we spend in specific locations—we need time to acclimate to our environments for optimum efficiency.
  6. In-person matters. Being together in-person is related to improved connection to team and increased opportunities for informal knowledge sharing. Over the course of the study, collaborative behaviours and perceived connections to one’s team both increased.
  7. Connection to the community is lagging. After months or years of remote work, we must continuously evaluate how hybrid work arrangements impact interpersonal relationships across the organisation.

HSK’s research also revealed five key workplace affordances to create a brain-healthy office:

  • Focus
  • Exploration and ideation
  • Collaboration and co-creation
  • Rest and reflection
  • Social connection

These suggest the different spaces and settings for people to flourish in a brain-healthy workplace requires. Read Getting to a brain-healthy workplace’, HSK with the Center for Brain Health (2023) here.

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