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Spaces for brains – designing for three different brain modes

Businesses are increasingly becoming aware of the importance of the office environment for the creativity and productivity of their staff. Steelcase may have identified the reason for this and it is to do with the way the brain works.

Based on new neuroscientific research, Steelcase designers have identified three different brain modes workers use in the office: focus, activation and regeneration. Our brains follow a natural pattern of ebb and flow and have different needs during each of these levels of energy and attention. By recognising the natural rhythms of the brain, we can create spaces that help people find focus, regeneration or inspiration and activate their brains to ultimately think better. It is simply not possible for any individual to spend eight hours a day with completely controlled attention.  Focus, as discovered by neuroscience, is a limited resource much like other functions of the brain; the technologically advanced office wants to tap and optimise that resource by meeting people all the way.

When workplaces are designed as an ecosystem of differentiated zones and settings, workers can appropriately select spaces that match their brain modes and activities as they move through their day. This understanding of neuroscience helps us integrate technology into the workplace in a way that helps people cognitively offload information into the physical environment and help them feel less overwhelmed. Steelcase researchers believe businesses should design keeping three different brain modes in mind: Design for focus: Whether working alone or in teams, controlled attention requires being able to choose an environment that minimises distractions. Sheltered microenvironments and enclosed enclaves allow users to control external stimuli and sound, lighting and even temperature as needed. These are “safe havens” for work that demands concentration and uninterrupted focus work.

Design for regeneration and inspiration:Whether the cause is job-related frustration, physical weariness or distracting personal issues, every worker finds it hard to focus at some point during the day. Calming, comfortable places where workers can “get away without going away” are an investment in their wellbeing and overall productivity. Equipped for relaxation postures and soothing stimuli, these environments allow workers to rest their minds and recover brain energy by closing their eyes, listening to music or engaging in a brief meditation. In contrast, some cognitively overdrawn workers may seek sensory inputs for inspiration or to help them think differently about a problem. Having easy access to co-workers and other sources of new and interesting information creates a stage for creative thinking and mental regeneration. Easily accessible cafés and hubs at intentional crossroads reinforce the importance of serendipitous encounters, while also encouraging movement throughout the environment.

Design for activation: When in doubt move about – physical activity has been proven to stimulate the brain, whether it is micro movements, such as stretching or standing up, or macro movements, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Every work environment should be designed with movement in mind, intentionally balancing needs for easy access with needs for movement.  

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