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The case of the overstimulating workspace (Why “Nothing jangles a primate like crowding”)


New technologies have emerged throughout history that have mocked our closely held intuitions about the world.

Telescopes, for example, taught us that the universe doesn’t revolve around the earth. In a hundred years, as new technologies unfold that we can’t yet imagine, will we look back in amazement at how we misunderstood the human brain in this era?

It is worth considering that some of these misunderstandings may be the cause of much everyday misery in the workplace.

The science of collaboration

I recently visited a large technology firm and was proudly shown some new workstations being put in place across its  business. The main new feature was a significantly lower cubicle line, allowing you to see just about anyone else on your floor while sitting down.

The reason: someone had noticed that people were not collaborating much, and thought the problem was that people couldn’t see each other.

The trouble is, collaboration may have less to do with being able to see other people and more to do with how people feel at work. We tend to reduce collaboration when we feel threatened or stressed, and increase it when we feel safe.

How people feel about each other tends to be based on less physically obvious factors, like people’s sense of being treated fairly, or of how much uncertainty they are having to deal with, and how much autonomy they are given to follow their hunches. In fact, making it easier to see people may have exactly the opposite of the intended effect.

Unfortunately, organisations often find it easier to invest in physical, tangible changes over less certain human changes. In this way, investments in software and technology massively outstrip investments in training and development, even though the research generally shows that companies get a better return on investment the other way around.

In a recent discussion with neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett about organisations and the trouble with working in large teams, she said: “Nothing jangles a primate like crowding.”

Her explanation: if you take any type of primate and put them with many others, it is almost guaranteed to raise everyone’s cortisol levels, a marker of stress. Yet this is exactly what this technology firm was doing – making people acutely aware of how many others they were surrounded by.

The case of the overstimulating workspace

A media company I met with last year was already experiencing the effects of this problem.

Someone had decided that a massively open-plan layout would be good for creating ‘buzz’ and therefore innovation at the office. They had worked and invested hard to make the space ‘fun’ and ‘creative’ with many fabulous pieces of art, unexpected architecture and great use of technology.

Walking into the foyer was an inspiring and exhilarating experience, but the bottom line was, people couldn’t focus. “I just can’t get any real work done here” was a frequently heard comment. It was all too distracting. To make matters worse, the company had reduced the number of quiet spaces, so people now couldn’t easily get time to do the deeper thinking work.

The brain is very easily distracted – even tiny distractions like a quiet beeping can stop an important train of thoughts in its tracks.

Not understanding how distracted we can be, as well as how crowding makes us anxious, has seen many companies spend millions of dollars going in exactly the wrong direction, giving the brain the opposite of what it needs.

If more innovation is required, studies are showing that it is not just feeling happy that helps, it’s also important to lower the overall noise in the brain. Insights and breakthroughs come from a quiet mind, not a hyper-stimulated one. If you want to increase innovation, increase people’s capacity to do really quiet work.

Solutions that encourage better thinking

A large healthcare firm recently surveyed their employees, receiving over 6,000 respondents. The questions were designed to tease out how efficient people thought they were. There were a few surprises.

Firstly, most people did their best thinking in the morning. That was no big surprise. Though if this is the case, meetings should not be scheduled in the morning, unless it’s a creative meeting to invent something together. Mornings are needed for deep thinking. Despite this, most people’s mornings are filled with activities that would be better after lunch, when your brain craves interaction to stay awake.

Yet one question – “Where do you do your best thinking?” – received the most surprising answer: only around 10% of people responded “at work”.

Consider this: people are paid to think, and are required to spend a lot of time at work, yet work is not the place where they think well.

There is a sweet spot for organising people’s time and space at work. It involves not scheduling meetings in the mornings. Give people the option of a quiet, totally undisturbed working space to work in the mornings. Small distractions appear to cost a lot metabolically. Provide an option of a space to work around other people for the lower-energy afternoons. Allow people to work from home as much as possible.

This would have many benefits, including reducing pollution, cutting energy use, and increasing work-life balance, as well as productivity. My hunch is that working at home should probably average about 50% across an organisation.

What will it take to create the ideal work environment? For a start, organisations need to do more careful research around designing workflows, research that takes into account how the brain actually works. A lot of our intuitive hunches about the brain are wrong, and many workspaces work against creating high-functioning teams.

And simply put, misunderstanding the brain is bad for business.

David Rock is the Founder and CEO of Results Coaching Systems (RCS). He is currently completing a doctorate in the Neuroscience of Leadership, and lives between Sydney and New York City.