Studies of how the brain works show that offices can only facilitate creative thinking if they offer spaces for both focused work and restorative activities, says furniture brand Haworth.
According to Haworth’s research, two very different types of workplace behaviour are needed to foster innovation. One is the more concentrative mode of working, whether alone or in a group, and the other includes more restful activities, which create opportunities for insight.
By looking at how employee’s brains function, researchers concluded that companies need to provide different spaces to suit both modes of thinking if they want to achieve their full potential.
“Offices tend to promote only one kind of work,” explained Beck Johnson, a member of Haworth’s research and innovation team.
“They are either open and collaborated or highly segmented. It’s about finding the right balance between those two types of spaces while also providing spaces for respite.”
Offices must support all parts of the brain to allow for creativity
Haworth’s researchers spoke to Dezeen as part of a series of articles produced in collaboration with the brand, which explores issues that will affect office design in the future.
The team recently released a white paper titled Optimizing the Workplace for Innovation: Using Brain Science for Smart Design, which looks at how workplaces can be designed to increase productivity.
To facilitate all four stages of cognition, an office must be designed to support all three of the brain’s neural networks.
There is the salience network, which monitors external and internal stimuli and organises priorities. There is the executive control network, which develops new ideas in response to focus work. And there is the default network, which forms creative insight when emotions and engagement are low.
“Knowing how these networks work together helps us understand what exactly those right work habits are, and how to design for them in the workplace,” reads the white paper.
Innovation requires spaces for focus, rest, and the in-between
The salience network dictates how a workplace and all its external stimuli impact the way we think and behave, including our creative work habits.
Haworth proposes that the design of the office should help the salience network prioritise creative work habits, ranging from focus to rest.
For “top-down” attention, workspaces need to limit irrelevant stimuli that divert efforts to focus, even emotions.
“Too little interest (boredom), and we won’t pay attention enough to perform well,” reads the report.
“You may have experienced a time when your thoughts drifted off during a meeting. That may be due to not enough arousal. Therefore, a good motivator for focus work is confronting achievable yet, challenging tasks. It’s the ‘sweet spot’ in terms of interest, engagement, or arousal.”
According to John Scott, who co-authored the white paper with Beck Johnson, a lot of it comes down to acoustics.
“You need about 70 decibels to enhance creative performance,” he told Dezeen. “Anything lower than that, say a just quiet conversation, which is about 50 decibels, and we pick up on the fact that it’s too quiet.”