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Does your office help you work more efficiently?

We always work somewhere. With the help of science, our understanding of the effects of physical spaces on our thinking keeps growing. In addition, the pandemic has provided us with the opportunity to experiment with spaces. The key question in terms of future of the office is: are we willing to learn?

A workplace can either help or hinder productivity

Research has shown that offices can have an impact on our thoughts and feelings in many ways.

For instance, a wealth of studies have connected open-plan offices, shared rooms, and high levels of background noise to decreases in wellbeing. Contrarily, the opportunity to move around in the space, lighting, the presence of real and artificial plants as well as small, shared rooms showed positive associations to mental and physical wellbeing.

Studies have also found similar links between characteristics of office spaces and creative thinking. Aspects such as noise, unsuitable temperature, too little space, the use of synthetic materials and inflexibility of the space have been connected to decreased creativity. Plants, pleasing sounds and smells, a window view, having adaptable furniture and enough space, and a combination of open and individual spaces have in turn predicted increased creativity in the workplace.

Altogether, research like this shows that offices have the potential to either be a workplace that helps us – or hinders our performance. However, applying findings like these is tricky. The average person is non-existent, and if we apply research reporting results on average, the outcomes may be terrible for people not fitting the norm.

Accordingly, it has been shown that one important predictor of satisfaction towards the work environments depends on the fit between characteristics of the space and the needs of the individuals.

With more possibilities for remote work, the role of the office is to provide that what other spaces cannot. Now, video conferencing is no match for face-to-face meetings in terms of permitting rich interaction, empathy, trust, and collaboration within an organization. Offices also have the potential to better respond to unique needs by becoming more adaptable –something the home office or a café might not so easily accommodate.

In any case, we always work somewhere. With the help of science, our understanding of the effects of physical spaces on our thinking keeps growing. In addition, the pandemic has provided us with the opportunity to experiment with spaces. The key question in terms of future of the office is: are we willing to learn?

The meaning of the office in the digital era is transforming

The pandemic has forced organizations around the world to take part in a gigantic longitudinal experiment on remote working. The possibilities and limitations of video conferencing tools, home offices, and flexible working hours have been explored out of necessity.

Employees have reported sometimes strikingly varying effects: some have experienced an increase in wellbeing while others’ have felt that continuous remote work has been very hard to bear.

The reasons for these contradictory effects are also different. Many employees who feel better working remotely, describe that the home office gives them more freedom and flexibility, and the possibility to tune the work environment to suit their personal needs. The ones who experience a decrease in wellbeing report stress from the lack of social connections, sometimes translating into lack of motivation and the meaning of work.

For organizations, experiences of their employees during the past year provide important data, bring up interesting questions and present a terrific opportunity to learn:

  • If some feel better when away from the office, what is going on at the workplace that decreases wellbeing?
  • If increased flexibility and a space that suits one’s personal needs are the key, how could the traditional office better provide what the home office does?
  • If loss of face-to-face time with others results in significant decrease in wellbeing, is one of the most important roles of the office to be a place for fostering social cohesion?

One way to approach these questions and take learning into action is to think about the office as one thinks about technology:
Technology is supposed to help us do things more effectively and extend our abilities. All the technology we use at work, such as communications technology, devices, our processes, work roles and organizational charts should help us work more efficiently.

Does your office help you work more efficiently?

Katri Saarikivi

  • Cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Helsinki

Katri Saarikivi is a cognitive neuroscientist co-leading the CREDUProject at the Cognitive Brain Reasearch Unit at the University of Helsinki.

The project examines neural mechanisms involved in learning and collaboration, and how these mechanisms could be better supported by online as well as physical environments.

Alongside research, her goal is to open up the scientific method to the public, and help work organizations leverage and apply relevant new research to help them succeed in increasingly complex and fast-moving environments.

The workplace powering human performance

Katri Saarikivi dives into the neuroscience of how spaces influence human cognition and emotion. The talk took place in Technopolis Workplace Talks online event on 21st April, 2021. Please find the event recording below.

The workplace powering human performance