Half-American, half-Swedish researcher Elizabeth Nelson founded Learn Adapt Build, a consulting company that helps businesses improve their workplaces through environmental changes, technology, and cultural changes. In 2016, she conducted research for Healthy Offices at CBRE and documented her findings in her book The Healthy Office Revolution (2017). Currently, she is doing her Ph.D. in Biosensors & Biomedical Engineering at the University Twente.
For your book The Healthy Office Revolution you’ve researched the different factors that influence well-being at work. Before employers start improving their workplace, what are some important factors to take into account?
“I think both the sense of empowerment and motivation that employees have are really important factors to consider when improving well-being at work. My research has shown that many work environments and popular company culture are counterproductive to both health and productivity. Employees should flourish when empowered to work in the best way for them."
In your research, you measured the performance of employees with cognitive tests in slightly different work environments. Why did you work this way? And can you share some of your findings?
"Recent studies in neuroeconomics (the science of decision making) found that just before you make a decision, a physiological change happens inside your brain. This change is physiologically determined so while we believe our decisions are all rational it is actually a combination of rational and chemicals. The chemicals in our brain can be influenced by the weather, poor nutrition or sleep, a negative interaction with someone. In my research, I dived into some of these external factors and their influence on performance, such as plants, food, and different lighting plans (see diagram). I found, for example, that employees who were served an avocado-spinach smoothie scored 45% better on a cognitive test than those who were served Moorkoppen, a Dutch puff pastry with whipped cream. While this result may sound extreme, past research on cognitive function has also shown our brains operate poorly after eating sugar."
See the results of Nelson's cognitive tests in the diagram on the left.
How do these neuroeconomic findings translate to workplace interior? What elements did you find that positively influence well-being at work?
“Research in neuroscience supports employees being able to respond to their body and brains with healthy solutions. To produce their best work, the curation of their workspace and rhythm becomes very important. As an employer, you can facilitate a healthy work rhythm by enabling employees to work in a more private or quiet space and encouraging employees to go for longer walks each day. Technology can also empower employees by providing insights into their patterns in sleep and movement and letting them take action based on the data.”
Pictured: Prooff Niche, a design that functions as a room within a room. It is the perfect place to hold a casual meeting or find comfort in one’s own thoughts.
In your book, you describe your ideal work environment based on your findings. Can you explain your view?
“The ideal workspace would be a campus-type of flex work, in which people are continuously encouraged to interact with great tools, spaces that support deep focus, and other’s expertise, However, there should be options to choose to work outside this campus too. I don’t believe that most jobs should require employees to be in the office 40+ hours per week. After all, a highly stimulating workplace is not a perfect situation for everyone all the time. All individuals have phases in life where their private life needs more attention and that needs to be possible if not natural. Michael Gungor stated: “Burnout is what happens when you try to avoid being human for too long”. Employees need to embrace their humanity and adapt their work according to their own needs.”
If you’d design a workspace for yourself, what would it look like?
“I’d like to flip the ratio between the size of the desk and the chair: large seating areas and small desks. Sitting has been called the new smoking for its detrimental effects on the body. Creating a chair that can also be used for laying or lounging would move the body into different positions and counteract some of the effects of sitting in a chair. Larger desks are becoming less necessary as more people work on laptops nowadays. In essence my workstation is a metaphor for what I believe is healthy productive work- comfortable, flexible, and liberating”
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