Designing workplaces that work with our brains

How do we design workplaces that align with the way our brain is wired? Cubicles won't cut it. Walls neither.
May 2, 2023
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  1. The human brain has remained more or less the same for the past 35,000 years, meaning it developed to function in an environment entirely different from our modern world.
  2. Neuroscience can help business leaders understand how the brain works and adapt office design and policies to create healthier, more productive workplaces.

Our brains were designed for a world that no longer exists

Understanding how the human brain is wired can help you uncover the most effective designs and policies for the workplace. Industrial and technological revolutions happen quickly, completely changing the face of society within a few years. But evolution moves at a much slower pace. Our world bears little resemblance to the environment our Homo sapien ancestors lived in, yet our brains have remained largely the same for the past 35,000 years.

Though the brain itself has been slow to evolve, humans are very adaptable. Your employees will work with what’s available, even if that’s a standard office design that “contribute[s] to the degradation of human well-being” (Architexturez). But imagine how much more creative, productive, and effective they could be if the office tapped into the ancient patterns and environments our brains were designed for.

Several key areas of the human brain's development affect our emotional, physical, and psychological responses to modern work environments. People are fundamentally wired to:

  • Be surrounded by nature.
  • Build relationships with other humans.
  • Seek a prospect-refuge balance, meaning we have an open, expansive view of our surroundings (prospect) and nearby places to retreat (refuge).

Given these facts, “if you wanted to design a workspace that was directly opposed to what the brain was naturally good at doing, you’d come up with a cubicle. You’d come up with a desk, you’d come up with a corner office, you’d come up with an office building,” says John Medina, a bioengineer and author of Brain Rules for Work.

Why brain-friendly workplaces matter

The authors of Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life provide the best explanation for why it’s essential to build environments that connect with our evolutionary history:

“Far from being able to liberate our modern selves from our historical development, we inherit our biological origin in the structure of our mind and body…We thus depend on the presence of certain determinant qualities in the environment not only for our existence, but equally for our sense of belonging and well-being. Denying this genetic dependence is akin to denying our necessity for food and air.”

When we design offices based on neuroscientific principles, we “can significantly enhance cognitive functioning and improve worker well-being,” David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, says. The more cognitively engaged and emotionally supported employees are, the more effective they will be at their jobs. This can lead to lower turnover rates, higher productivity, more innovation, and a more successful company overall.

What does a brain-friendly workplace look like?

There’s a spectrum of brain-friendly office design choices, ranging from a total building renovation to replace the perceived threat of sharp angles with soothing curves to simply adding potted plants around the office.

Whatever end of the spectrum your workplace design budget falls, you can significantly improve how employees feel and perform in the office. Below are several science-backed design ideas to create a healthy, brain-friendly workplace.

Bring the outside in with biophilic design

Offices with natural light, living plants, and easy access to green spaces replicate the environment our brains developed in, and this alignment with our natural state provides enormous stress relief.

Research also shows that "repeated viewing of real nature, unlike non-nature, does not significantly diminish the viewer's level of interest over time" (IJAR). This means that whatever biophilic elements you add to the office will continue to support employees' well-being over time.

Consider prospect-refuge balance in your office layout

We may live in the modern world where it’s not necessary to scan the horizon for predators and have a safe space to scamper to at the first sign of danger, but our brains are still operating in that mode. As a result, people naturally feel much safer and more content in a place that replicates this ability to observe a wide area (prospect) without being exposed (refuge).

You can satisfy this instinctive need for prospect and refuge by creating a mix of open areas in the office designed for collaboration and cozy, protected areas intended for focused work or decompression.

Make space for collaboration

One of the most significant aspects of the human brain is that it's relational. Forming cooperative relationships with other humans is how we became apex predators despite our objectively feeble bodies.

"The brain is a social organ, and we are more likely to be motivated and engaged when we feel a sense of connection and belonging with others,” David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, says. “To create a brain-friendly workplace, it's important to foster a culture of collaboration and teamwork."

You can encourage a culture of teamwork and relationship-building by creating dynamic spaces for collaboration and incorporating opportunities for intentional in-person events, such as lunch and learns or mentorships.

Evaluating success

Employees may not be able to identify the neuroscientific design principles you introduce, but they know how they feel. Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros, an outspoken critic of modern architectural design, has a simple way to tell if a space is brain-friendly:

“What you should experience first-hand, close-up at full scale, with your own body, is the wonderful sense of a healing environment,” he says. “It’s the same deep feeling that one experiences in most natural situations where there is no danger.”