DESIGNING FOR THE BRAIN AT WORK Steelcase meta-analysis leads to the development of Brody, a new work lounge

Following is the full transcript, from Steelcase, of “Designing for the Brain at Work: a Steelcase Meta-analysis.”

SUMMARY To be distracted is to be human. To create, innovate and do our jobs best, workers need periods of focus or flow, those precious few moments when we are immersed in work and time flies by. Yet, finding this flow seems to be nearly impossible in today’s busy work environment. Text message dings, email alerts and even our own thoughts and feelings all beg for our attention. So Steelcase turned to neuroscience to help better understand how the brain works and sustains focus. We’re not undisciplined or scatter-brained. We’re overwhelmed. Our attention has limited capacity. The prefrontal cortex helps direct our attention, but we’re also hardwired to find new sources of stimuli almost irresistible. In a typical day workers and students switch tasks every 3 minutes, get interrupted every 11 minutes and take 23 minutes to get back on task. Yet understanding what our brains and bodies need can help people do their best work. As this research shows, the workplace can help us think better.

THE META-ANALYSIS Research Steelcase WorkSpace Futures researchers conducted a large meta-analysis on reports from the findings of neuroscientists and cognitive researchers, integrating discoveries from these experts with their own ongoing investigations into workers’ behaviors and the changing nature of work. The study examined the results of dozens of separate pieces of research looking at brain function and managing cognitive resources. The resulting convergence of findings has inspired new perspectives and new ideas for how environments and microenvironments, when thoughtfully designed, can be a hardworking and effective tool to help workers better manage their attention.

KEY INSIGHTS: TWO TYPES OF ATTENTION Sweden’s esteemed Cognitive Neuroscience Karolinska Institutet, Torkel Klingberg, M.D., Ph.D., delineated two distinct types: controlled attention and stimulus-driven attention. Controlled attention is our capacity to intentionally and willfully direct our minds to a specific item or task, while simultaneously inhibiting anything else from taking over the spotlight. Stimulus-driven attention, on the other hand, is what we refer to in everyday life as distraction. It’s an involuntary diversion of focus to any external or internal lure, whether it’s a loud noise like a phone ringing or a pop-up ad on your screen or a thought that floats through your mind unexpectedly. Our brains ebb and flow between both types of attention throughout the day. It’s impossible for any individual to engage in eight hours of controlled attention in a day with any reasonable expectation of quality or quantity of output. There are peaks and valleys in our brain energy.

DISTRACTIONS ARE EVERYWHERE Our eyes were created to help us survive. Our peripheral vision is sensed by specialized cells in the retina called rods. They are extremely sensitive to light and movement, which is good when you are in a jungle, but not so great when working in the open plan. Our brains evolved so they could quickly shift attention to help us find sources of food or potential threats in our environment – it’s how we survived as a species. Our peripheral vision became really good at detecting motion, which helped us spot predators approaching. The rods in our retina cause an unstoppable reaction to distractions, causing us to look at our phones, emails or any passerby. 

KEY INSIGHTS: BIOLOGICAL MECHANISMS INVOLVED IN ATTENTION The prefrontal cortex, often described as the executive center or the CEO of the brain, is the director of our attention. It’s the last major region to develop in our evolutionary history, and it’s what enables us to selectively focus on something. But there is more to attention than just this one part, other brain functions that impact attention include: Psychological state of arousal: How alert or lethargic determines if we can control our attention or if our minds are unable to sit still jumping from topic to topic. Limbic System: Dispersed parts of the brain that deal with emotion help elicit attention. Fear or excitement calls for attention more easily than neutral objects or topics. Motor orientation: The closer our sensory receptors are to a source of stimulation the easier it is to pay attention. Internal thoughts and concerns: Internally generated lapses in attention are activated by the medial prefrontal cortex, a special part of the prefrontal cortex that’s triggered by thoughts of ourselves and other people.

BRAINS GET TIRED Focus is a limited resource Like the rest of our bodies, our brains consume energy, drawing on glucose and oxygen as fuel. Controlled attention is very hard work, drawing heavily on the prefrontal cortex. Activities such as analyzing, prioritizing, planning and other types of critical thinking are energy guzzlers. As energy supplies dwindle, brains get tired. Problems arise if we try to stay focused when our brains are tired. Distractions abound, and we end up avoiding difficult tasks, learning little, remembering less and making mistakes. As stress mounts, the emotionally driven “fight or flight” syndrome kicks in, flooding the nervous system with cortisol and adrenaline. In the resulting state of over-arousal, instead of doing productive work, people who are stressed become consumed by irritation, guilt, pessimism and other unproductive states of mind. Designing for the brain at work Designing for the brain at work.

MINDS CRAVE DEEP FOCUS Flow: Fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement and enjoyment in the process of the activity. Human beings were created to be in a state of flow everyday. When we reach Flow, we are at our most productive, we are completely immersed in our work and time seems to fly by. Entering Flow is something that we must consciously choose to do. Our minds can only stay in this state for about 45 minutes until we need a well deserved break.

THE WAY WE SIT AFFECTS THE WAY WE WORK Discomfort is its own type if distraction. When we try hard to focus workers end up sitting too long in uncomfortable postures, in furniture that wasn’t designed for intense work or learning. Many people seek out lounge postures to get in a relaxed frame of mind when they need to get things done. But a lot of lounge furniture gets uncomfortable quickly because it was designed to look great, not to support healthy work postures, movement and getting into Flow.

MOVEMENT IS HEALTHY Motion Activates The Brain Harvard’s John Ratey comprehensively explores the connection between exercise and the brain in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. He explains that when our bodies are moving, we stimulate production of the protein BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which he describes as “Miracle-Gro for the brain,” fueling the birth of new neurons. 

INTRODUCING BRODY Brody is designed to help you reach Flow faster and stay in Flow longer. Wrapped on three sides with a privacy screen, Brody creates a cocoon-like space that cuts down visual distractions. Brody helps workers regulate their attention and save energy by creating a microenvironment for controlled attention. Our brains are less stressed and better able to focus when we know no one can sneak up behind us. Brody creates a psychological safe spot where you can nestle in and not worry about people – or predators – sneaking up behind you. 

WORKLOUNGE DESIGNED FOR THE BODY The state-of-the-art ergonomics cradle your body in an “alert recline,” allowing the upper and lower back to be supported, while the angled Personal Work Surface holds your technology at eye-level, to reduce neck and shoulder strain. Arm support built into the work surface relieves pressure off your shoulders and adaptive bolstering in the wide seat allows for multiple size users
to maintain multiple postures and encourages movement. The Steelcase-patented LiveLumbar back is the same as the award winning task chair Gesture. This system prevents a gap in the lower back when leaning back.


• Lighting: Workers feel and perform better in a properly lit workspace. A single light is positioned to illuminate your stuff and helps define your personal work zone.

• Power: Power for your electronics is located under the work surface. This allows workers to focus on the task instead of watching the battery level.

• Personal Work Surface: The Personal Work Surface allows you to position your device in an orientation that meets the eyes without having to strain your neck causing “text neck”; it supports multiple devices with a slotted surface for tablets and phones. There tilt is adjustable to a 0° to 40° pitch.

• Armrest: The Personal Work Surface not only supports your work tools, it supports healthy posture by bringing devices up to eye level, relieving stress. Arms are supported by “winglets” on either side of the work surface.

• Personal Storage: A place for bags under the work surface allows the mind to relax and focus on the task at hand.

• Footrest: Footrests ease leg pain and lessen lower back issues. The Brody footrest supports and promotes movement by allowing for multiple postures and bringing oxygen to the brain.