5 things neuroscience reveals about how we work

A new study highlights when and where people are at their best

December 05, 2022

With people splitting time between the office, home, and anywhere in between, the word “workplace” is no longer synonymous with the office.

The shift has sparked questions around how wellbeing and productivity differ in a variety of environments. The hunt for answers is inspiring researchers to take a deep dive into people’s minds, especially those with jobs in the knowledge economy.

“Many employees are paid to think for a living, but there’s been little consideration given to what’s happening in our brain when we perform certain tasks in different scenarios,” says Ben Hamley, Future of Work Lead, APAC at JLL. 

Take a two-day study in Singapore that scanned the brains of volunteer JLL employees while they performed tasks that mimicked a normal working day, from a seminar to data entry, and even a creative-thinking workshop.

“Now we’re able to get insights into the science of when, where and why the best kind of work gets done – but we’re not stopping there,” Hamley says. “We’re interested in how the design of the physical space affects cognition, and how we might be able to design more inclusive spaces for neurodivergent groups, or spaces that help nudge people into a state of flow.”

Here are five findings that the neuroscience study, conducted by JLL and neuroinformatics firm, EMOTIV, reveals about hybrid work.

1. Brains work better together in the morning

People in the study were 12% more engaged when they worked together in the morning compared to when they did the same work alone at a computer, with their brains more active and aroused when others were around.

The morning element was important. The work people’s brains were doing, known as cognitive load, was on average 10% higher compared to the afternoon. 

“Armed with this knowledge, people could begin to think more about how they self-manage their calendars and workday with morning and afternoons dedicated to different kinds of tasks,” Hamley says. The design of the work itself, where, when and with whom it is done, is just as important as the environment you do it in.”

2. Finding focus with friends

Deadline looming? We might think that locking ourselves away will help us finish presentation slides or that 12-page white paper. But being near to our colleagues matters, too.

In fact, participants performed over 18% better on an individual task – completing more work with higher accuracy – when they performed the work around peers.

“This could also be explained by a feeling of social accountability, or even healthy competition,” Hamley says. “You’re less inclined to procrastinate.” 

3. Sometimes it’s just the vibe 

 For many people, a noisy office can be distracting, but an eerily quiet one can be worse.

“Some people struggle when things are too quiet – but it remains to be seen if workplaces can go further and curate a certain feeling or vibe,” says Hamley. “It’s not unlike the inspiration people seek from being around – but not with – others when they head out to a café to get some work done.” 

It’s why some companies, he says, are using soundscapes and white-noise generators in the office, such as those provided by Moodsonic to the likes of global pharma firm GSK.

4. Not everything needs to be in person

But for some kinds of work, being together can be counterproductive. When participants in the study were asked to attend a short presentation and complete a comprehension test on the content, their attention on average was 10% lower, and they were 8% less relaxed and 18% less excited.

“Traditionally we expect learning and development would be better done in person, but perhaps we’ve become so accustomed to engaging with content online, that being with others makes us a bit uneasy, especially if we’re being tested on it or required to ask a question,” says Hamley. “Rehearsing a question with the safety net of a mute button or the option to type it out might actually help.”

When the seminar went online, attention rose by 10%. Companies may need to think about their workspaces differently, Hamley says. For example, reconsidering the role large auditorium type spaces play, and if they can be repurposed as a creative collaboration space.

5. Rules are boring

The study also revealed that enforcing particular policies are a sure-fire way to reduce engagement.

“When people were forced to work in an environment not of their choosing, we saw an average 6% increase in boredom,” Hamley says.

The trick is designing destination spaces that people deliberately choose.

“Once people were working in a space that matched their preferences, we saw almost every important metric improve,” he says. “Cognitive load/brain power went up, attention went up, interest went up, and most of all, boredom went down.”

To find out more about JLL’s work in neuroscience, head here.

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