How Place Can Help Us Think Better

Jan Johnson of Allsteel draws on the book “The Extended Mind” to share how can we thoughtfully apply social sciences to improve the experiences of people at work. 

The Workplace Advisory team at Allsteel has always been passionate about uncovering and sharing research or other bodies of knowledge that add to our understanding of human behavior – to enable workplace-makers to strengthen worker effectiveness and organizational success.

In that spirit, we’re sharing another source for insight that could have a profound effect on how we design workplaces. What follows draws on the work of science writer Annie Murphy Paul and her book “The Extended Mind“. In it she shares research and real-world examples of how we can augment our brains and use our bodies, our environments and other people to think beyond the boundaries of our brains. The content she shares offers compelling evidence-based practices that can improve the quality of workers’ thinking and sensory perceptions—and their productivity and performance—as we design places for learning and working.

We need to better understand how we think

Most of us assume—if we think about it at all—that all our thinking and emoting happens within the grey matter between our ears. Paul’s work puts paid to that limited understanding by explaining three types of cognition:

Embodied cognition explores the role of the body in our thinking – i.e., how hand gestures increase the fluency of our speech and deepen our understanding of abstract concepts

Situated cognition examines the influence of place on our thinking – i.e., how environmental cues can convey a sense of belonging or a sense of personal control, and enhance our performance in that space

Distributed cognition probes the effects of thinking with others – i.e., how people working in groups can coordinate their individual areas of expertise and how groups can work together to produce results that exceed their members’ individual contributions.

Given this audience’s interest in the built environment, the majority of this article will focus on the take-aways from what Paul shares in the sections on the influence of place and the effects on thinking with others. But before skipping over her content on the role of the body in our thinking, here are several insights into the importance of movement.

One study the author cites compared subjects solving math problems in their heads while a) staying still, b) remaining relaxed but without substantial movement and c) moving slightly in a rhythmic pattern. Since sitting still uses the same cognitive energy as doing the math problem, “…the requirements to remain still produced the poorest performance on the math problems…” “Sitting quietly,” the researchers conclude, “is not necessarily the best condition for learning in school.”

“The continual small movements we make when standing as opposed to sitting—shifting our weight from one leg to the other, allowing our arms to move freely—constitute what researchers call “low intensity” activity. As slight as these movements appear, they have a marked effect on our physiology: an experiment carried out by researchers at the Mayo Clinic determined that simply by standing rather than sitting, study participants expended 13% more energy. The impact on our cognitive functioning is also significant. Research has found that the use of a standing desk is associated with an enhancement in students’ executive function—that crucial capacity for planning and decision-making—and with an increase in “on-task engagement.” In adults, working at a standing desk has been shown to boost productivity.

If the comment about expending 13% more energy sounds “bad”, the opposite is actually the case. Instead of resting before the next session of mental labor, “…it’s thru exerting the body that our brains become ready for the kind of knowledge work so many of us do today.”

The influence of place on our thinking

Many writers have eloquently described how our brains evolved to prefer natural spaces with grassy expanses, clumps of trees with spreading branches, and some source of water nearby. We instinctively seek out nature when we’re stressed or need refuge. Built environments, by contrast, give us more protected spaces in which to think. Thinking for a living is a relatively new phenomenon for our species.

“It was only when we found ourselves compelled to concentrate in a sustained way on abstract concepts that we needed to sequester ourselves in order to think. To attend for hours at a time to words, numbers, and other symbolic content is a tall order for our brains. Maintaining this intensely narrow focus is a highly unnatural activity, and our minds require external structure in order to pull it off.”

We’ve been grappling with the benefits and very real issues of working in open plan for decades – in part, I think, because we didn’t understand the science and were overly focused on cost control (more measurable, so more manageable).

But we now understand the opportunities for “value creation;” and the results from surveys conducted during the past 30 months also reflect an attitudinal shift towards behavioral aspects vs. functional requirements: workers want to work from home, for example, to get more autonomy/control over their environments and their choices of when, where, how they work; less commuting; more focus; and less disruption. The parts of being in an office they miss are nurturing connections and interactions—like face time with mentors or higher-ups who could influence their careers; tech-rich environments in which to work on ideation/development/ problem-solving; and the convenience of leaning over to ask a question of a nearby co-worker vs. scheduling a Zoom call. Understanding what enhances or challenges cognition should influence what options we offer and how we expand workers’ ability to choose and hack their environments.

When people are relieved of the cognitive load imposed by their environment, they immediately become more creative. But when our minds are otherwise occupied (with cognitive distractions), we resort to mental shortcuts—convenient stereotypes, familiar assumptions, well-worn grooves.

Privacy also supports creativity in another way – it offers the freedom to experiment unobserved. Effective collaboration often requires a degree of discretion – a retreat from public scrutiny that’s hard to find in the open office. Ben Waber of Humanyze found that after companies move from a workplace with enclosed offices to open plan, interactions among employees actually decrease during most times of the day. Other studies have found that as workspaces become more open, trust and cooperativeness among workers declines.

Such negative effects are especially pronounced in offices where employees have no assigned workspace at all, an increasingly common arrangement…When we operate within a space over which we feel ownership — a space that feels like it’s ours—a host of psychological and even physiological changes ensures – like the “home advantage” in sports.

My team are big fans of assigning neighborhoods—we know from studies Sally Augustin shared with us several years ago, that encouraging teams’ feelings of territory or sense of ownership/autonomy over their neighborhood positively correlated to their performance. Paul echoes and expands on this research:

The way we act, think and even the way we perceive the world around us differ when we’re in a space that’s familiar to us—one we have shaped through our own choices and imbued with our own memories of learning and working there in the past. When we’re on our home turf, our mental and perceptual processes operate more efficiently, with less need for effortful self-control. The mind works better because it doesn’t do all the work on its own; it gets an assist from the structure embedded in its environment, structure that marshals useful information, supports effective habits and routines, and restrains unproductive impulses. The place itself helps us think.

With ownership comes control, and a sense of control over their space—how it looks and how it functions—leads people to perform more productively.

Place matters in all sorts of ways we may only now be beginning to understand and leverage.

The effects of thinking with others

Carl Wieman, A Nobel Prize-winning professor of physics at Stanford University, was struggling to effectively help his students understand physics in the same way he did. Then he noticed how his PhD candidates evolved from narrow and rigid thought processes into supple, flexible thinkers, and concluded that it was their experiences of intense social engagement: advising, debating with, and swapping anecdotes with each other over time.

The development of intelligent thinking is fundamentally a social process. We can engage in thinking on our own, of course, and at times solitary cognition is what’s called for by a particular problem or project. Even then, solo thinking is rooted in our lifelong experience of social interaction; linguists and cognitive scientists theorize that the constant patter we carry on in our heads is a kind of internalized conversation. Our brains evolved to think with other people: to teach them, argue with them, to exchange stories with them. Human thought is exquisitely sensitive to context, and one of the most powerful contexts of all is the presence of other people. As a consequence, when we think socially, we think differently—and often better—than when we think non-socially.

While the author doesn’t directly mention social cohesion, she does explore how to create “socially distributed cognition,” or the way people think with the minds of others. She argues, “Individual cognition is simply not sufficient to meet the challenges of a world in which information is so abundant, expertise is so specialized, and issues are so complex.” We often think better when we think with our teammates or close colleagues rather than by ourselves.

To build “groupiness,” she suggests:

  • People who need to think together should learn together—in person, at the same time.
  • They should train together—in person, at the same time.
  • They should feel together—in person, at the same time (studies have determined that simply asking members to candidly share their thoughts and feelings with one another leads to improvement in group cohesion and performance. One company’s employees routinely ask each other a series of simple questions, starting with “How are you feeling?,” then “What’s the most important thing you learned last week?,” “What’s your goal for this week?,” and “What are you grateful for?”
  • They should engage in rituals together—in person, at the same time – like eating together.

So what?

We, on behalf of our client organizations, are attempting to thread several needles at once. These three challenges come to mind right off the bat:

  • How do we balance enabling more worker autonomy (“good”) with encouraging workers to return to the office to build “groupiness” through ad-hoc or structured social contact and complex engagements (also “good”)?
  • Must we go back to private offices to fulfill needs for privacy and concentration, or are there new designs and/or products that leverage choice, hack-ability, or other qualities to optimize each type of work mode?
  • How do we design, provision and use (and encourage hacking) optimal meeting/work-session spaces going forward—and make them as equitable as possible for the zoomies and the roomies? Less sitting still, please!

In other words, how can we thoughtfully apply all the wisdom coming from the social sciences to improve the experiences of people at work—individually and collectively—and keep adding to our knowledge? Jeff Leitner has launched a new site to share quick snippets of social science and overcome the way-too-lengthy gap between the discovery of a new insight and its application. We invite you all to follow it, and to explore ways to, in the words of a recent Gartner post, “…shed a host of outdated and outmoded legacy practices that today are adding to our employees’ exhaustion. It’s time to reinvent key pillars of where, when and how we work to create sustainable working conditions that maximize employees’ engagement, collaboration and productivity.

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