It's only in the last hundred years that human beings have spent more time indoors than out. We are genetically conditioned to thrive in an outdoor environment, so it's no surprise that spending an 8-12 hour workday indoors has taken its toll.

People crave big, open spaces, but before all the open office proponents shout, "See? Told you so!" humans also, when our surroundings become too stressful, retreat to a quieter environment to regroup, reassess out situation, and recharge our batteries.

How does this impact the changing world of office design? The answer lies in neuroscience.

By studying the environmental factors that contribute to productivity, satisfaction, and human comfort, we can curate our surroundings to account for all the ways in which employees learn, retain information, think creatively, and problem solve.

The Environment and the Human Brain

Our brains still exhibit primal reactions to noise levels and visual and behavioral cues.  In a collaborative situation, people thrive in a more open, conversational environment, but for individual tasks, we focus better in private, calm spaces. The context of these spaces changes how we perceive and absorb the information we receive, and that in turn helps us process the information to commit it to memory for later retention and evaluation.

This means people need to change their context, i.e. their environment, based on the task they're completing.

For example, a high ceiling is more conducive to solving problems that have a large, conceptual bent. This is known as the Cathedral Effect. However, in these soaring spaces, attention to detail drops. So for mathematical or data driven problems with more pinpointed solutions, a lower ceiling is ideal.

Biophilia's Impact on Human Behavior and Neuroscience

At Massachusetts General Hospital, brain surgery recovery suites include a view of a magnificent garden on the 8th floor in an atrium. Patients exposed to this view recover faster, leave the hospital healthier, and have better long-term outcomes following their brain surgeries than patients who haven't experienced the calming influence of the biophilia.

If greenery and natural light can have this positive and direct an impact on brain function, it stands to reason biophilia greatly contributes to positivity in the workplace when the brain doesn't have such steep obstacles to overcome.

The open, refreshing air of an atrium or outdoor garden cannot be underestimated in how it stimulates an employee's creativity, sense of purpose, and focus. Even the color green as a paint choice or other decorative element has a calming effect on those experiencing it. The beauty of a garden's variety cannot be underestimated, either. When hallways, carpeting, even artwork are the same from department to department, employees stagnate and creativity suffers. Varying the environment, breaking up monotony with plants of various colors, sizes, and even smells, offices become less homogenous and more like the outdoor environments humans have thrived in for thousands of years.

Contributing to the Flow

We've recently come to understand that siloing workers based on department or job description is a quick way to create a disconnect from others, foster resentment, and stifle innovation and creativity.

Research suggests that people stuck in the same environment all day suffer, so it's good business sense to give an office unique, enticing places for employees to choose to work. Moving from a small area of focus to a café-like setting can help people change their context, and therefore their absorption of information. The white noise of a coffee shop can be soothing as opposed to the noise level many workers report as distracting in an open office.

People thrive in environments that allow freedom of movement.

This contributes to "flow," which psychologist Mihály Csikszentmihalyi used to describe the state of mind when people are deeply engaged in their work and creative processes. It's a wholly absorptive state, not only where people do their best work, but where people most enjoy their work.

Being able to flit from environment to environment helps lighten the cognitive load. This isn't to say game rooms should be installed on every floor. It simply means mixing up the environment, and therefore the context, helps the brain stay engaged and in optimal condition to absorb information. Even daydreaming and distractions can be good for those in creative positions or problem solving situations.

"Cramming" does not work because the brain can only take in so much information during a given time and does more to lead to burn-out than any productive use it is perceived to have.

Environmental changes also give employees a chance to associate certain learning and information absorption to a sound, smell, or color. With breaks between bouts of work--conversations, taking a short walk, doodling--employees can hit the reset button on their brain for a few minutes, and then return to that state of flow where they're engaged and captivated by their work.

A judgment free culture in which to perform this type of work is critical to the freedom employees feel to chase their flow.

Positive reinforcement of these kinds of environmental changes is far more helpful for facilitating employee flow than any sort of micromanaging or heavy supervisory presence.

When managers promote open, safe, and even playful office spaces for employees to use their minds in the ways that best work for them, people quickly adopt the practices that most stimulate their flow, allowing them to engage with work in the most productive, creative, and innovative way they can.

The design of modern offices has entered a whole new realm in terms of people-centric focus. By acknowledging the neuroscience foundation to a better, healthier environment, companies have the opportunity to expand not only their bottom lines but their employees' loyalty, happiness, satisfaction, productivity, and many more untold benefits.

Published on: Jun 25, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.