Neuroscience Is Optimizing the Office

How a Molecular Biologist and an Architecture Firm Teamed up to Reimagine the Workplace

July 3, 2018

Partner, NBBJ

@ryanjmullenix

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by the Wall Street Journal. It was co-authored by Ryan Mullenix, partner at the architecture firm NBBJ, and John Medina, developmental molecular biologist, author and affiliate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

 

As competition for employees and ideas increases, employers are looking to office design to give them an edge. That’s why companies like Amazon, Google and Samsung have asked us to create spaces that directly affect how their employees think and feel. Our research over the past four years has shown how design affects human biology and experience, allowing us to maximize comfort and productivity. This means creating spaces with all five senses in mind and thinking about the impact of everything from diet to color theory. Here’s a look at how the office of the future could promote the health of the organization and the individual.

 

Keep It Down — Unless Brainstorming

Neuroscience tells us: The human voice evokes some of the most potent emotional responses in our auditory experience. Voices in excess of 55 decibels — roughly the sound of a loud phone call — cause measurable stress. Even more disruptive are overheard “halfversations,” in which the listener is privy to only one side of a dialogue; our brains automatically imagine the other.

How design can help: Sonically diverse environments — private phone booths, outdoor gardens and acoustically buffered spaces for activities like brainstorming and team-building exercises — keep noise away from traditional desk setups. Sounds found in nature, like moving water, can be particularly helpful for drowning out disruptions. At Amazon’s Spheres, an office for 800 employees that opened in Seattle this winter, a rushing brook and waterfall permeate the workspace with continuous, calming white noise.

 

Go Green

100876_02_Spheres_N17_mediumNeuroscience tells us: Exposure to plants makes us less emotionally volatile and error prone; even pictures of plants have a calming effect. As a bonus, certain plants give off antiviral, immune-boosting chemicals called phytoncides that promote office health.

How design can help: Amazon’s Spheres contains more than 40,000 plants and hundreds of species, but just one plant per square meter can benefit mental and physical health — while creating a more pleasant-smelling work environment.

 

Seek Visual Relief

Neuroscience tells us: Humans have an evolutionary need for private spaces that offer a sense of safety, but we also crave vistas for inspiration — a condition known as prospect refuge. Open spaces foster creative thinking, while close confines increase focus. Specific colors have been shown to enhance or hinder these abilities.

How design can help: Enclosed, comfortable booths promote focus, while open floor plans with low seating, high ceilings and outdoor views can aid in brainstorming and creative ideation. At Tencent’s headquarters in China, seating along the windows provides views of the surrounding hillsides, while benches in secluded outdoor garden spaces give employees private, peaceful retreats. Colors should be deployed wisely: blue for stimulation, green for focus, and orange for decision-making.

 

101014_00_Samsung_N9_mediumGet a Move On

Neuroscience tells us: Just 30 minutes of aerobic activity can boost executive function and reduce stress; outdoor exercise increases these effects. At just 1.8 miles an hour — a moderate walk — reaction time and quantitative skills improve.

How design can help: The layout of each floor should encourage physical activity, with elevators hidden in favor of stairs, indoor and outdoor workout spaces where possible, and designs to accommodate walking meetings. At Samsung’s North American headquarters, employees are no more than one floor away from an outdoor terrace, where they can attend yoga classes or walk through campus gardens for meetings.

 

Eat to Think

Neuroscience tells us: Mediterranean-type diets — rich in fruits, nuts and vegetables — have been shown to boost cognition, particularly executive function, which is responsible for problem-solving and impulse control.

How design can help: Our design for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation campus courtyard included blueberry plants, which employees can pick and enjoy.

 

Banner image courtesy of NBBJ.

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Letter to a Young Architect

What I Wish I Had Known When My Career Began

May 23, 2018

Managing Partner, NBBJ

@SteveNBBJ

A friend recently asked if I would write a letter to my younger self and embody advice and insights that I could offer the next generation of architects and design professionals – to capture what I wish I had known the day I graduated from design school. As we welcome summer interns to NBBJ, I thought sharing this letter could be valuable to them, and to everyone striving to impact our world through the limitless potential of design.

Enjoy this lesson from the future. Your comments are encouraged at the bottom of this post. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you wish you had known or your own wisdom on fulfillment…

 

Dear friends,

My most sincere congratulations on your dedication to learning, exploring, growing. You have arrived at an extraordinary place in life, a trailhead in many ways, with many choices to confront. It is these choices — these turning points — that will have a profound influence on how your career unfolds. Some you will see coming from a distance; others will arise unexpectedly.

Start your career by cultivating your core values. It is these values that will become your compass for the great journey ahead. Commit yourself to these values underpinning every decision you make. Consciously navigate toward the destination of your dreams — and set that destination at unimaginable heights — knowing that fulfillment is not about arriving at the destination, it is how you live the journey itself.

Consciously think about what you stand for in professional practice and how you will impact the lives of others through design. Start this process now and return to these questions time and time again to hone your skills. Cultivate your confidence. Suspend your insecurities, not to be ignored, but to limit the ways in which they might impede your progress. Beware of acquiescence. Be proactive, taking one step at a time. Persevere — now and forever.

Seek and create speaking opportunities to discover your voice, and in so doing to become comfortable with that voice. Learn to be a skillful and passionate communicator. Learn to allow your mind to be open and free in service to your ideas. And never forget that listening is active, not passive. Clients will choose you because they trust you, and at the heart of that trust is their belief that they are understood. Learn how to build trust and be empathetic.

Step into your career every day. Be courageous, and know that being too comfortable or holding back is to play the game too safely. It is when we are uncomfortable that we stretch and grow the most. Learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Take care of yourself in health and fitness, for this is the longest of journeys that you now embark upon — it is the journey of your life.

Looking back some 40 years after my career began by running blueprints for a local architect, I recognize I was blessed with untold opportunities to design dozens of momentous works — corporate headquarters, courthouses, stadiums, towers, global institutions and so much more. Yet beyond any talent or favor nothing was more important than my drive and belief in myself against the tide of the commonplace. And it is this belief more than any other thing that opened the doors to a magical career journey.

Believe in yourself.

Steve

 

Editor’s Note: This essay by Steve McConnell was recently published in Lessons from the Future, a book given to M.Arch. students upon their graduation. Sixty-five leading architects around the world participated in creating the book, answering the question, “if you were to start out in architecture all over again, what would you do differently?” In essence: advice to a younger self. It is edited by James P. Cramer and Scott Simpson.

Image © NBBJ.

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Learning from Tech Workplaces

How Research Labs Are Changing to Accommodate New Computational Paradigms

November 2, 2017

Principal / Architect, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by Laboratory Design.

Workplaces around the world are evolving as organizations like Apple, Google and Amazon seek to design offices that increase collaboration, integrate new technologies and help employees work more efficiently. This ethos is now making its way to the buildings where scientists and researchers work. Here’s why:

 

Research is going digital…

The methods scientists use to conduct research are changing. Labs are traditionally divided into three segments: clinical work, “wet” lab spaces (lab experiments using liquids) and “dry” lab spaces (labs using computers). Analysis and discoveries are becoming increasingly computation-based, or dry, compared to traditional wet laboratories.

From 2013 to 2015, the National Institutes of Health’s dry research funding for networking and IT R&D increased 40%, growing from $521 million to $729 million. The past decade has seen an explosion in data-intensive life sciences, including genomic research and medicine centering on healthcare customization and treatments based on patient DNA sequences.

The focus on data and computing in science fields is creating a shift in roles. There are close to twice as many dry bench scientists — including computation, informatics/clinical outcomes and clinical scientists — than wet bench scientists working today. Dry labs also require about 20% less space, at a little under 100 square feet per person versus close to 125 square feet per person in a wet lab.

Data creation, metadata (data about data) management and data curation are increasingly becoming the domain of the scientist. Lab benches are drying out.

 

Innovations require collaboration.

Social network modeling and studies show that collaboration, not just within teams but between teams, is crucial to increased productivity, idea generation and effective communication. The denser and less siloed the social network, the more creative the lab. New or repurposed science workspaces have a responsibility to accommodate these findings.

100909_00_b_w_btm_n42_large

The Building for Translational Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA (photo courtesy Sean Airhart/NBBJ)

Translational research and medicine, a biomedical field that blends research, clinical work and community health efforts, is becoming the norm. Carrying research from theory to implementation is now happening all in the same space. Research is becoming increasingly cross-disciplinary and interdependent.

From a design perspective, distance matters. Visual transparency between wet and dry labs is critical to supporting interdisciplinary and serendipitous connections by helping increase social ties. Organizations like Brigham and Women’s Hospital are bringing benchside (medical research), bedside (clinics) and imaging facilities together under one roof.

The recently opened Allen Institute in Seattle intersperses collaborative meeting spaces, neuroscience and biomedical research zones and labs into one building to investigate how our brains and cells function.

 

How can research organizations design for data?

Tech companies focus on maximizing human performance in their offices. These businesses typically emphasize key factors to attract data scientists: company mission, amenities, brand expression, an activity-based workplace and mobility.

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The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CA (photo courtesy NBBJ)

Here are a few design takeaways from the tech field that could be applied to science workspaces:

  • Provide creativity-boosting open collaborative and more sheltered huddle spaces for work, as well as in-between spaces like a café, lounge or even just an area to refresh and recharge. A balance between prospect and refuge areas is critical. A classic example, the Louis Kahn-designed Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, weaves in these principles through the open courtyard to the more enclosed offices.
  • Numerous studies have documented the stress-reduction effects of nature. So bring in some green — simulated or real — and orient work spaces toward views.
  • Building in ways to get exercise at work improves cognitive levels. Providing exercise-oriented amenities or access to outdoors and places to move — such as stairs and areas for stretching and other light activities — can help.
  • Bring in visual interest. A beautiful environment is proven to increase blood flow in parts of the brain that center on emotion and reward, which can help increase engagement and motivation.

 

Design for interdisciplinary work.

Designing better spaces is about understanding, optimizing and anticipating spatial needs. It’s about reallocating available space — learning how space is being used and which space is underused. For new projects, it’s about identifying core challenges and designing appropriate solutions. But more importantly, it’s about people.

Banner photo courtesy Lara Swimmer/NBBJ.

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