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If You Want Optimization and Innovation from Your People, Brain Health Is Key

A design firm shares lessons in designing a workplace that supports employee brain health.


A black and white photo of a building with curved glass.


Brain health is an important medical topic, but it's also getting attention in the workplace, even in unexpected industries. The research team at HKS Inc., an international design firm headquartered in Dallas, has been studying brain-healthy workplaces for years. 

"The built environment has a direct impact on people, the planet and profit," said Upali Nanda, global director of research at HKS, who works out of their Detroit, Ohio, office and has a Ph.D. in architecture. "Over the last two decades, we've seen a lot of evidence on how it affects health outcomes and environmental outcomes, but being able to link it to human and organizational health is relatively new."

In 2021, HKS teamed up with the Center for BrainHealth (CBH) at the University of Texas at Dallas to conduct a study that would help them address brain health as it relates to workspace design.

When the Foundation Is Weak

The World Health Organization is an active advocate for brain health to become a global policy priority, defining it as "the state of brain functioning across cognitive, sensory, social-emotional, behavioral and motor domains, allowing persons to realize their full potential over the life course."

When brain health is impaired, people fail to realize their full potential, their performance is less than optimal, and their capacity for creativity and innovation is dulled. We need look no further than the COVID-19 pandemic to see what happens when workers' brain health is disrupted.
For many workers, the year 2020 was all about survival—of self, family, community, business, and in some cases, industries. For many remote workers, particularly those with families, it was incredibly challenging to balance home, sometimes dual workspaces, and their children's education and care. Others found it much easier to focus without the usual distractions and interruptions found in the office. But what everyone lacked, regardless of circumstances, was human connection.

As the pandemic slowed and we began to deal with the aftermath, including a return to the office, workers demanded more from their workspaces and their employers. One way HR leaders can respond to these demands is through the redesign or reorganization of our offices to better meet the needs of workers.

Is fostering our emotional, social and cognitive health a shared responsibility? "Yes," Nanda said. "It is a shared responsibility for workplaces to promote your highest potential as an individual, and that's what the brain-healthy study was all about."

The needs humans have—such as the need to focus, collaborate and take a breath—have to somehow be met within our work environment to allow workers to reach their full potential. "Our built environments set the stage through which work happens, and when our work environments don't support emotional, social and cognitive health, then the foundation [brain health] is weak," Nanda said.

Launching a Pilot Program

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, CBH launched a large, longitudinal study: the Brain Health Project. Scalable and online, the study included assessment, training and coaching, and it was this formula that was used to power the study with HKS. In 2021, the two formed a partnership to create a pilot program investigating the role of place, process and technology in creating a brain-healthy workplace.

A total of 193 HKS team members completed the company's BrainHealthy Workplace program in offices across the U.S., including in Detroit; Washington, D.C.; and Dallas. The program was part individual and part collaborative. Individual participants from HKS started by completing an online assessment and then met with a member of CBH to talk through the results. Each pool of HKS participants subsequently collaborated in "think tanks" at their offices to figure out how to apply the results to their own unique needs and environments.

Over the next six months, HKS participants started their day with an online assessment that took five to 10 minutes, and in five of the offices, "living labs" were created to test, evaluate and evolve the workspaces.

Participants ideated what they saw as the priorities for their office; for example, designating a room for "brain breaks" where employees could individually get a moment of privacy and reflection. Some opted for a team area, and others chose to create a do-not-disturb space for uninterrupted focus.

"The fact that people leveraged their environments differently shows that you really do need a range of options in your environment," Nanda said. "They leveraged their environment according to what they needed from it."

What HKS Learned

The biggest insight from the study was the idea of aligning your intent with your environment. "We're so tethered to technology and our machines; we don't take the time to think about the work we're doing and where we can best do it," Nanda said. "Think about coffee shops. Why do so many people work from coffee shops? It's because it has that affordance where you can feel other people around you, but you don't have to talk to them. You can do the job anywhere, but where do you thrive?"

If you want to unlock innovation, create a space for it. HKS calls the ability of space to empower workers an 'affordance.' "An affordance is something that the environment allows you to do in a way perceived by you," Nanda said. This could refer to how a space supports an activity (e.g., focus, rest) or the experience it allows you to have (e.g., explore ideas as a team).

With insights gained from the study, HKS researchers were able to outline five types of affordances, based on the needs employees described and the ways the company adapted its workspaces. No one space will embody all of those traits, but by offering workers access to a range of spaces that reflect these various needs, employers can better support their workers' brain health.

  1. Focus. To effectively focus, distractions need to be minimized. As research suggests, control over our environments goes a long way toward achieving this. Focused spaces may include physical and digital boundaries, planned time, flexible spaces that can be transformed into task-specific areas, and enhanced acoustics. 

  2. Exploration and ideation. Environments that inspire us, allow us to form meaningful connections and encourage individual betterment are also those that help us explore and create. This includes spaces with access to nature, common spaces where training and learning can occur with the aid of tools such as whiteboards and shareable screens, and ancillary spaces (e.g., lounges and cafes) that can take us outside the norm and also provide space for spontaneous collaboration. The study also described the use of 'artifacts'—objects that spark creative thought. These artifacts can vary by organization but could include items that reference an organization's origin story or client stories, as well as pictures, previous ad campaigns, materials used on a project, etc. 

  3. Collaboration and co-creation. Spaces that encourage collaboration are environments supplied with the equipment, materials and space to enliven and easily share. Provide your people with a choice of meeting spaces in a variety of sizes and equipped with different furniture and resources. Shared space and availability of technology that connects seamlessly and clearly communicates a meeting agenda can help in the advancement of collaboration and co-creation. 

  4. Rest and reflection. Privacy, serenity and comfort are necessary for our brains to recharge, restore and regenerate. Spaces that afford this offer both visual and acoustical privacy (e.g., enclosed spaces), access to nature (e.g., rooftop garden), and comfortable furniture. This affordance also includes psychological and social safety as well as intentional breaks.

  5. Social connection. Enhanced connectedness occurs when there is space for both planned and unplanned interactions. Physically, this looks like common spaces such as kitchens and cafes, with mobile furniture and large, open spaces. It also includes community engagement events and programs that promote a culture of connection and knowledge sharing.

 
While this study focused on knowledge workers, HKS says these principles can be applied to any industry and any size organization.

"It's about thinking through the unique affordances your industry or type of work needs—affordances such as focus are applicable and important across the spectrum. Collaboration works across the board," Nanda said. "The difference comes in regard to prioritization. Which of the affordances needs to be or is prioritized in your line of work?"

Where To Go from Here

The next step for HKS centers on their newly opened office in Atlanta, which will serve as a prototype for a brain-healthy workplace. The team there will be trying out everything HKS learned from the study; for example, there are fewer seats (i.e., cubicles, assigned/individual desks) than employees—a purposeful design to force people to move to places that are conducive to the kind of work they're doing or the kind of experience they want to have. And in the next few months, the HKS research team will conduct an impact study to see how it's working.  
Meanwhile, CBH is developing a brain-healthy workplace certification. Researchers envision it as a set of tactical tools available to an organization, as well as collaboration with CBH through "think-and-do" tanks. The participating organization will then take what was learned and apply it to their workplace as it relates to the organization's unique key performance indicators. "It [success] will require participation from the top down," Jen Zientz, deputy director of Programs and head of Clinical Services at the Center for BrainHealth said.

Implementing these principles may look different from one organization to the next. HR leaders can begin the discovery process by having conversations and ideation sessions with workers to discover what spaces, tools and equipment people need to turn their organizations into brain-healthy workplaces.
 


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