Want People Back in the Office? Design With the Brain in Mind

With office occupancy hovering around 50% of pre-pandemic levels, many companies are looking to downsize — or reconfigure — their office space. Although many jobs can be done from home, collaboration and teamwork sometimes benefit when employees have the option of interacting face-to-face. In addition, some employees prefer the social stimulation of being in an office compared to working alone. So how do employers design a space that accommodates different work schedules and styles, all while making the office a place employees can do their best work and actually want to be?

Flexibility First:

Assess current needs and design flexibility for the future.

It’s important to assess your current needs while designing enough flexibility to adapt to future circumstances. Get employees’ input on what they want in an office, and consider using technology — such as sensors that anonymously track occupancy, usage, and dwell time — to optimize resources. Experiment with reconfigurable partitions to break up large open spaces in different ways, and invest in easily moveable furniture that can be pushed together or moved around to create new spaces.


Variety Is Key:

Let employees choose where they work best.

Provide a variety of spaces for different tasks and working preferences. Workers in the office all or most of the time should be offered a dedicated workspace they can personalize, while those in the office less frequently could reserve shared desks through a hoteling app. A coffee bar or café with tables, comfy chairs, and couches can provide spaces for individual work or a boost of relatedness. And, of course, meeting rooms should be equipped with conferencing technology to allow seamless integration of on-site and remote employees.

Provide workspaces with different sound levels.

Provide dedicated “quiet spaces” for thinking or focus work, as well as soundproofed areas for phone calls, meetings, and conversations. What’s the optimal sound level for office worker well-being? A recent study found that a noise level of 50 decibels (roughly equivalent to birdsong or the patter of moderate rain) was better than complete silence — which could be one reason people like to work in coffee shops, where sounds blend to create background noise.

Consider Acoustics:


Back to Nature:

Exposure to natural environments can improve working memory, cognitive flexibility, and attention, as well as well-being.

Biophilic design incorporates natural elements, such as plants, sunlight, and water features, inside buildings. In one study, workers in offices with natural elements reported a 15% higher level of well-being, were 6% more productive, and were 15% more creative than workers in spaces devoid of nature. If your office has an outdoor space, such as a balcony, rooftop, or garden, make it easy for employees to work outside by providing comfortable seating and tables, Wi-Fi access, and plentiful power outlets and charging stations. If not, bring the outdoors in with indoor plants (which can also be used as privacy screens and sound barriers) and windows that provide natural lighting.

Soften the Edges:

The human brain responds best to curved interior forms over straight lines and right angles.

In one study, participants “walking” through different rooms in virtual reality showed higher levels of pleasure and arousal in rooms containing curved geometries instead of rectilinear ones. These feelings correlated with higher levels of activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain involved in motor control, cognition, and arousal. So, if you’re remodeling or shopping for new real estate, consider a curved wall, rounded hallway, or circular common room.

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