What does neuroscience tell us about how we work?

Workplaces of today should no longer serve one purpose and one style of working. According to the Office for National Statistics, as much as 50 per cent of the UK’s workforce now works remotely. This has demanded the attention of business leaders, CTOs and corporate real estate professionals, requiring them to drastically shift their approach towards implementing multi-faceted, multi-sensory spaces and frictionless digital infrastructures for their teams.

With this change in working habits comes the conversation on productivity, wellness and engagement, and greater attention to the mindset of the people in said spaces. AWA has carried out considerable research over its near 30-year history into the function of the brain, its emotional response to the working environment and how the two convene. A particularly dynamic area of research is that of habits, and the cycle of repetition in the mind.

There are 86bn neurons in an individual brain. The brain is a learning machine that exists to keep us safe. It is an amazing biological computer. When we do stuff over and over again, patterns and habits become deeply rooted. If you’ve worked in an organisation for 10 years, you’ve spent a million minutes immersed in that culture, reinforcing those ‘norms’. This can help us understand why people get stuck in a groove and why habits can be hard to break.

Workplace transformation teams need to recognise that before they can hope to encourage the behavioural change that accompanies new ways of working, they need to understand how behaviour is formed in the first place.

Many of our day-to-day actions as human beings are automatic. We do not actively think about waking up, eating breakfast, walking to work, and so on. Similarly, at work we do not think about walking straight to our desk, checking our emails, or making a cup of tea. Every time a certain action is repeated, the channels in your brain identify these in the neuronal pattern and they become further engrained into your mind. Repetitive behaviour reinforces habits. And this can act both as a positive and as a negative when considering the function of agile working models and spaces.

Habits can of course be positive for many, such as getting into the habit of actively checking a certain task on a Monday morning to help plan out the rest of the week; or knowing a meeting falls at a set time, so you actively hold that slot free. Bad habits, on the other hand, will see people work through their lunch breaks; or forget to get up from their desk and consequently sit still for three hours straight. These not-so-positive behaviours, behaviours which are often inadvertently encouraged by an organisation’s culture, can drastically impact not only cognitive function, but also productivity and wellness.

Let’s apply this learning to the agile workplace. If you actively try to work in different areas throughout your week, depending on the tasks you’re working on, then this notion of repetition will slowly become the norm. Instead of stopping to think ‘where should I carry out this task?’ your brain will automatically start to learn and suggest: ‘you work best performing writing tasks when stood at the sit/stand desk’, and this habit will form part of your natural working pattern.

A working day full of challenging tasks, made worse by bad habits and workplace barriers, can make for stressed, over-tired and agitated workers – ingredients that aren’t particularly conducive to effective performance. Recognising that improving the performance of every brain on the payroll ultimately leads to better business performance, the Advanced Workplace Institute (AWI), in partnership with The Centre for Evidence Based Management, has conducted in-depth research looking at how to increase organisational brainpower.

The AWI study looked at causal relations between factors and effects to reveal eight of the things that impact cognitive performance:

Caffeine and glucose drinks: These beverages significantly impact alertness and focus when people become mentally tired.

Hydration: Not drinking enough impacts the brain as well as the body – memory, decision-making and attention are all impacted by dehydration.

Breakfast, nutrition breaks: The brain needs fuel – particularly after a night’s sleep when fluids, nutrients and sugars have been depleted. Malnutrition impacts many brain functions, including information processing and memory.

Lighting, temperature, scent: Being uncomfortable distracts people from work – it’s that simple. Being able to find the right conditions increases the chances of best performance.

Cognitive stimulation, mindfulness: Demanding and varied activities have a positive impact on the brain’s performance. Mindfulness can help with focus and concentration.

Sleep: Sleep is necessary for all brain functions. Insufficient sleep affects concentration, decision-making and relationships.

Acute exercise, physical activity: Acute exercise and having an active lifestyle are promoted for physical health but also positively impact all brain functions.

Noise, speech, task interruptions: The workplace is full of distractions – noise, speech and being interrupted impact concentration and focus to a significant degree.

This research is about creating the right conditions for people’s cognitive performance to be at its very best and this work will have the greatest impact in knowledge-based organisations. If everyone within an organisation worked at their very best, then the impact on an organisation’s productivity and bottom line would be enormous.

The world of work is changing and organisations need to adapt to this shifting landscape or risk falling into the emergent cracks and disappearing into the abyss. As the move from static to mobile working practices continues to be embraced by the knowledge industries, corporate real estate, property, IT and HR professionals need to change gear and unleash their inner workplace management gurus. The management of change and development within a business requires confidence. And the process of leading behavioural transformation and ensuring that staff remain engaged beyond the physical walls of a workplace is no easy feat.

The following tips should help pave the way for those that are planning a workplace revolution.

1. Be clear about what you’re trying to achieve

Before you do anything, you need to build the case for change. This involves conducting initial research, clarifying priorities and, ultimately, figuring out what it is you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how it’s going to work.

2. Talk to people

Once you’ve built a blueprint for that change programme, based on evidence you’ve accumulated from talking to or surveying staff, you then need to have the necessary discussions with the board and with the wider team. What’s important from thereon in is that there’s a constant communication stream.

3. Get everyone on board (this also means “listen to different ideas”!)

Changing organisational behaviour requires quite an intense and in-depth level of engagement with those who are going to change. Before the wheels of change start turning, spend a bit of time educating (not patronising!) the masses to ensure everyone’s happy with the process. Conduct informal one-to-ones and use this open dialogue to strive for company-wide enlightenment.

4. Help people deal with and embrace change

Don’t just say ‘we now work in a flexible way’ and expect people to work in a flexible way. Effective change management takes more than words to implement. Even if people actively want to play a part in the transformation, most of us need guidance, support and encouragement when it comes to changing habits of a lifetime.

5. Keep the momentum up

Think of the long game. Change management is a bit like having kids; it takes at least 18 years of parenting to turn your child into a decent citizen! You need to check in with your staff on a regular basis and reinforce good behaviour along the way. Training and monitoring schemes can help in this pursuit. Take on a facilitation role and, most importantly, be the change you want to see.

The most successful working environments are led by people who support, motivate and lead their employees, and that’s only possible if you understand what makes them tick. In our experience of working as consultants for some of the largest firms across the globe, we have identified very real and present areas of concern that need addressing, one of which includes understanding the link between neuroscience and cognitive performance and how the workplace world can apply both science and art for the betterment of all.

There is a reason that corporate real estate and workplace management teams are investing millions into their estates around the globe to deliver next-level, multi-faceted and multigenerational appropriate spaces and environments for their staff. The average Briton will spend over 3,500 days at work in their careers, so why not invest the time, money and effort it requires to make them feel as supported as possible?


Andrew Mawson

Andrew Mawson

Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA)
Andrew Mawson is leader of global workplace consultancy Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) and founder of Workplace Week. From a general management career in the IT industry, his unrelenting curiosity for the transition to new models of work led to the founding of AWA in 1992. Since then, he has worked with some of the world’s leading organisations on their journey to explore and implement new forms of working and workplace.