The evolution of technology has allowed us greater control over the workplace than ever before. As these possibilities open up, property professionals and their tenants have the opportunity to think more critically about the spaces we are creating. The growing wellness movement is focused on finding workplace solutions that create happier, healthier work environments that entice workers. Many of these proposed solutions come with claims of how they positively impact the human brain. But, what do we actually know about the built environment and brain science?
WHAT WE KNOW
The short answer is, not much. Marc Berman, environmental neuroscientist and associate professor of psychology with The University of Chicago, says that this field of study is still in its infancy. "We don’t really know the answer to exactly how architecture affects our brain," he explains. "There are a lot of good theories, but there hasn’t been a lot of research. We don’t have clear answers yet."
Although unproven, most of those theories are still based on the available evidence and provide useful guidance. The wellness movement heavily emphasizes the importance of nature and bringing natural elements into the office. There’s a reason for that, according to Berman. He’s studied the impact on working memory of even a short walk in a natural environment versus a similar walk in an urban environment. The results are striking: Those who walked in nature showed a 25 percent improvement in working memory compared to walking in an urban setting.
To further explain this, Berman cites "attention restoration theory," which states that directed (also referred to as "top-down") attention—when you decide you are going to pay attention to something—is an exhaustible resource. On the other hand, involuntary (or "bottom-up") attention—when something naturally catches your attention—is much less susceptible to depletion and may even be energizing.
This is particularly true if the object or event in question is "softly fascinating" and doesn’t require all of your mental energy to focus on it; Times Square, for example, is likely to capture all of your attention without leaving you the space to contemplate the way a walk in the woods might. If you’ve been focusing hard to finish a project at work, you are very likely to end the day exhausted. Whereas, Berman explains, "You don’t often hear people say, ‘I’m so exhausted looking at that waterfall,’ or ‘I can’t stand looking at that beautiful painting.’"
Ideally, workers are able to train their limited focus onto their work without having their attention depleted by simply being in a work environment. This often is not the case for the modern workplace, unfortunately. Author and molecular biologist John Medina, PhD, explains that our offices may be triggering many of our evolutionary defenses. "Stress hormones spike when the environmental noise levels rise above 50 decibels, and, if this noise comes from human voices, then it’s especially distracting," he says. "The ability to lock onto the sound of a human voice and focus on it is very powerful in our evolutionary history—you can’t simply block that sound out with headphones."
"When a space is designed well, it’s often more about what you don’t notice."
- Tama Duffy Day
Other elements within a workplace environment can be similarly distressing. When we are outdoors, we intuitively know approximately what time of day it is, based on the color and brightness of the light without looking at a clock. Indoors in artificial light, humans are cut off from this information. "For a very long time, we depended on the sun to order our day and help us survive," Medina notes. "It is important for our wellbeing for us to be able to tell what time it is based on the light."
The layout of an office also can impact workers’ stress levels. "People need an equilibrium between open office and enclosed spaces," Medina says. "We humans like to be able to survey our surroundings and interact with each other, but also have a place to retreat to if we need it." Working in a sea of cubicles with no option for a private space is likely to leave workers more stressed at the end of each day.
SUPPORTING HAPPIER BRAINS
These negative effects may seem overwhelming, but even a few simple changes can create more appealing, less stressful offices. "We need to be more intentional in how we design our spaces," states Tama Duffy Day, health and wellness leader and principal with architecture and design firm Gensler. She suggests property managers and tenants alike should take a walk through their space on a regular basis, envisioning what the experience is like for visitors and employees; some sources of stress can be very obvious if you’re looking for them. "There may be stressors for newcomers to the office that are invisible to the property team," she says. "Is there clear wayfinding? Is the front desk staff visible and friendly? Can people with limited mobility, sight or hearing still find their way around?"
Stress that comes from noise and artificial lighting also can be mitigated. The proper sound dampening materials and acoustics can keep spaces quieter. Even when it’s not feasible to use natural light, commercial lighting now is available that subtly changes throughout the day to mimic natural light, growing warmer and slightly dimmer at night. "When a space is designed well, it’s often more about what you don’t notice," Duffy Day explains. "Workers will feel less stressed, they will probably sleep better and have more focus, but they may not necessarily know why."
"Stress hormones spike when the environmental levels rise above 50 decibels, and, if this noise comes from human voices, then it’s especially distracting."
- Dr. John Medina
Natural elements can increase the feeling of wellbeing indoors, but that doesn’t mean property managers have to turn the lobby into a garden. "Even just patterns that mimic nature can have many of the same positive benefits as experiencing nature directly," says neuroscientist Berman. "Fractal patterns, for example, can be very relaxing to people, even if they don’t consciously recognize the connection to nature—though the effects may be stronger if the natural context is included." Duffy Day agrees: "You can evoke nature in patterns, textures and colors you’re using within a space." Of course, there’s no complete substitute for the real thing. If it’s possible, give building occupants access to the outdoors during the day via a roof garden or a nearby park, for example.
Nostalgia also can be a powerful force for creating comfort in an environment, but everyone feels nostalgic about different things. "If you are considering a big redesign, it may be worth talking to your tenants or workers and asking what they associate with the different design elements you’re considering," Medina suggests. "You may be dismissing something as passé that is actually a very positive, nostalgic association for those who will work in the building."
Ryan Mullenix, a partner at design firm NBBJ (which hired Medina as a Fellow in 2014), says that every design should factor in the actual people who will be working within the space. "People want to feel that their individual needs have been accounted for and that they have control over their space," he notes. "Otherwise, you end up with a kind of ‘learned helplessness’—where individuals feel powerless at work, which is terrible for morale." Accommodating individual differences is a big factor in creating a low-stress workplace. "We each work differently and on different schedules," says Duffy Day. "We should be designing workplaces to suit humans, not expecting workers to perfectly adapt to whatever environment we put them in."
This article was originally published in the January/February 2019 issue of BOMA Magazine.