Britain’s office workers are disengaged, finds neuroscience study

Office workers are being overwhelmed by distractions due mainly to a lack of understanding of how to manage attention in the workplace, according to research by Steelcase UK.

The study integrates discoveries from neuroscience experts with the Steelcase’s own ongoing investigations into workers’ behaviours and the changing nature of work. The research findings have major significance for UK businesses. 

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Bostjan Ljubic, vice president of Steelcase UK and Ireland, said: “The average worker is interrupted or distracted every three minutes and it takes them 23 minutes to return to a task after being interrupted. Distractions and the inability to focus negatively effects productivity, engagement, wellbeing and overall performance in organisations. We long to be more effective, but the harder we try, the more tired our brains become. Attention meltdowns are epidemic because workers do not understand what attention is, how to manage it or have access to the best places to support their tasks.”

Due to high real-estate costs, especially in London, the United Kingdom has become a champion of offices with non-assigned workstations in open spaces. However, workplaces tend to be very crowded.

Workers in the UK remain relatively engaged despite clear dissatisfaction with most aspects of their workplaces. Engaged workers are more productive, however in the UK workers lag behind global averages when it comes to concentrating easily at work, feeling relaxed and calm, working in teams without being interrupted or disrupted and having the ability to choose where to work on tasks within the office.

Findings from the latest research reveal the brain has finite energy capacity and uses 20 per cent of the body’s energy. This makes it physiologically impossible for anyone to engage in eight straight hours of controlled, or focused, attention and meet any quality or quantity outputs. Attention has a natural rhythm throughout the day. Additional findings discuss the importance of mindfulness to train the brain and the damaging effects of multitasking.

“By changing our existing habits, and the spaces we use, we can gain more control of our brains and our lives. As we become more knowledgeable about how our brains work and more attuned to the ebb and flow of our attention, it becomes easier to recognise what our brains need when. We can create spaces that help people focus, regenerate and inspire and activate their brains and ultimately think better,” continued Ljubic.

Steelcase researchers and designers have identified three brain modes that each requires distinct behaviours and settings. Balancing these settings throughout the day can help workers better manage the ebb and flow of their attention.

Focus: Deep focus requires avoiding unwelcome external and internal distractions. Whether the distractions are external or internal, every time we switch our attention we burn through finite neural resources and increase opportunities for the limbic system to hijack our focus. Additional research from Steelcase reveals that in the UK only 57 per cent of workers can concentrate easily and only 41 per cent can choose where they can perform tasks within the office. Workplaces should include places designed as retreats away from noise distractions and frequent interruptions.

Regeneration and Inspiration: It’s important to recognize that distractions can be opportunities to give our brain the timeout it needs and then let our minds go where they will. Although daydreaming has taken on generally negative connotations in the work world, as it turns out our brains are still working when they wander, even though we feel like we’re not. Easy access to colleagues, nourishment and places to rest the mind help cognitively overwhelmed workers relax.

Activation: Movement engages the brain. A study found that those who worked from a treadmill desk were 34.9 per cent more likely to answer a comprehension question correctly compared to those who sat in a chair. Steelcase research recommends providing easily accessible settings that encourage workers to move through the workday to activate their minds and also take care of their bodies.

By recognising the limitations of our brains as well as its incredible potential, it’s possible to create workplaces that help people think better and, in so doing, optimize the performance, and the wellbeing, of each person, every team and entire enterprises.


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