By Andréa de Paiva
Companies and employees had to quickly adapt to the new scenario due to the pandemic and all the contention politics. Home-offices and new workplaces rules respecting social distancing are now part of the reality of several companies. But what will become of offices' spaces when the pandemic is over? Which changes will be kept? What can we learn about offices from the lockdown experience? In today's article we will answer some of these questions thorough the optics of NeuroArchitecture.
The changes and adaptations that happened during the pandemic are inducing us, among other things, to question ourselves about how we use our spaces. Old habits and routines of work had to be altered quickly. And, in the chaos, we realised it is possible to make things work in different ways. The solutions we used to adopt were not the only ones that were possible, there are alternatives after all.
Old problems such as the hours lost in the traffic to get to work are no longer bothering us. This time is now being better used. The freedom of being able to work in a more relaxed way at home can also be considered positive in many ways. Still, there are many people complaining about decreased productivity, which does not seem to make sense if time is being better used. This set of factors helps to illustrate that working from home has its pros and cons.
Firstly, one of the great benefits of home-office is the increased control over our own lives. There is no denying that, for many people, home-office allows more flexibility. Being able to chose among different options according to necessity raises perception of agency and autonomy. The feeling of control is important to help improve wellbeing. Judith Rodin e Ellen Langer, for instance, noticed that greater autonomy given to elderly in a care unity resulted in increased levels of happiness, more involvement in group activities, more proactivity and better sociability. In addition to improvements in general health, the elderly with greater autonomy also presented a lower mortality rate if compared to other groups with less agency. This shows a possible relation between feeling in control and life expectancy . Neuroscientist David Rock also points to the impacts of perception of agency in the corporate world which is also an important quality to keep motivation levels raised . In this sense, flexible routines and increased feeling of control, both intensified by home-office practices, can be very positive.
Does it mean that home-office will replace offices? No. Some important qualities of the work environment are not easily replaced. Through the optics of NeuroArchitecture, social connection, the differentiation between working space and inhabiting space, the affective memories related to each one of them, the opportunities to activate the body that we find when we leave home and explore the office space and the creation of new memories are some of the factors that affect directly our performance and wellbeing. And all of them depend on the presence of offices to be kept.
Despite the time we "loose" in traffic to come and go, the fact that the office is physically separated from home can be positive. As discussed in our article NeuroArchitecture in Times of Lockdown, changes and opportunities for movement are two qualities of the environment with strong impacts on brain plasticity. Activities such as walking to the car or to the underground station, circulating through the office space, going to a restaurant during lunch hour - which can all seem unnecessary - are important to keep the brain properly stimulated. It is worth to remind that our brain did not have enough time in evolution to adapt to the life style we have in cities. Brain and body evolved amidst nature and its sensorial stimuli, its constant changes as time passes by and its opportunities for a much more active body.
The location of the office space, physically distant from home, also helps to activate a different mental state that contributes to enhanced productivity. Our home, full of affective memories, is a space designed to activities which are very different from the ones we do at work. We are at home, among other things, to socialize with family members, to relax and to rest. It is much harder to concentrate in any work activity in an environment that is not favorable. More than that, the act of actively moving to another environment, leaving a space and going to another, also contributes to changes in mental states. It helps to pause the "family mode" and to enter the different "work modes", such as the meeting mode, the creativity mode or the analytical thinking mode, for instance. The active change of environments can be considered, in a way, similar to a warm up, preparing the brain to what it will face next.
Although virtual meetings are very useful when people are geographically distant, it is not easy to establish a good connection among employees and with the company only virtually. Online meetings do not replace a handshake , a hug, the informal chats during coffee time, the exchange of smiles when people meet in the corridor. Besides, the sharing of information, which is so important for companies, happens in grand part in informal ways in the office and not only during conferences. And it is difficult to keep such informal gatherings in a virtual environment. A presencial meeting is sensorially richer, with greater potential to have stronger emotional impact, which is an important element for memory formation.
Nowadays, one of the brain areas that has been most studied in neuroscience is the hippocampus. We already know that this area, located in the limbic system, takes part in several important brain activities. It has an indispensable role in processing explicit long-term memories . We are only able to memorize new experiences due to the hippocampus contribution. Another relevant fact about the hippocampus is that it is also involved in wayfinding processes .
It is worth to highlight the intersection of these two basic functions: long-term memory processing and wayfinding. Although we do not have all the answers about the brain, it is clear that the involvement of the same area on this two processes is not just a coincidence. Memorisation and the environment where it happens are both processed by neuronal networks that might be overlapped in many ways . Hence, this time of lockdown has the potential to affect our capacity to memorize the episodes lived during it. Remembering the people we met virtually in a meeting or remembering when and to whom we presented a specific content tend to be more challenging than when we lived these experiences in differentiated spaces.
Try to remember a remarkable situation that you lived in your life: the first kiss, a trip with friends, a family reunion, the first job. All those memories are not only associated with facts, but also with the places where they happened . The stimulus of the environment is an important factor to memory formation. It is like the scenario of a play. If different plays are always staged in the same scenario (in this case, our home), the emotional impact and the differentiation between them will be a lot smaller. Studies such as the ones from Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel show that emotional arousal can affect the creation of new memories (this is why we easily remember traumatic situations!) . But the emotional arousal of our experiences has decreased to the stimuli of virtual platforms and the continuous stimuli of our homes. A sales meeting happens in the same scenario that a review of a report or that our post graduation class or even, to some of us, the same space where we had dinner or breakfast.
Due to all the discussed points, through the optics of NeuroArchitecture, the future of offices should include a flexibilization of alternatives, but they will not be replaced entirely. We will probably switch the quantity for quality. This means that home-offices will also be part of most employes' routine, which will result in less time spent in the office. On the other hand, the time spent there will be better used. More than that, it is possible that offices will be even more recognised by their role in helping to keep wellbeing of collaborators. After all, as already discussed, the office environment impacts much more than just productivity. Hence, in the future, most offices will be designed taking into consideration this role. Productivity without wellbeing is not enduring. Architectural solutions that manage to stimulate both, such as biophilic design , for instance, will be more valued. Finally, in this new scenario, the contributions that NeuroArchitecture can bring will be even more relevant so that architects, designers and companies can have a better understanding about how the environment can affect its users.
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 Paiva, A. (2020) NeuroArquitetura e Design Biofílico. Disponível em: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rzkb-b_N0Bo