By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent, 07 Aug 2011
Working in an office is bad for your brain and can make you less productive, according to researchers.
A study has found that the hustle and bustle of modern offices can lead to a 32% drop in workers well being and reduce their productivity by 15%. They have found that open plan offices create unwanted activity in the brains of workers that can get in the way of them doing the task at hand. Open plan offices were first introduced in the 1950s and quickly became a popular way of laying out offices. Having a clean and sterile desk can also leave employees with smaller brains, scientists claim. The findings are revealed in a programme made for Channel 4, The Secret Life of Buildings.
In the television programme, however, a test carried out with presenter and architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff using a cap that measured his brain waves while trying to work in an open plan office revealed intense bursts of distraction. Dr. Jack Lewis, a neuroscientist who conducted the test, said: "Open plan offices were designed with the idea that people can move around and interact freely to promote creative thinking and better problem solving. "But it doesn't work like that. If you are just getting into some work and a phone goes off in the background, it ruins what you are concentrating on. Even though you are not aware at the time, the brain responds to distractions."
Modern offices which refuse to allow personal decorations on walls or desks may also not be helping employees. Dr. Craig Knight, a psychologist at Exeter University said that allowing employees to personalise their working area could improve their performance in the office. He said: "Companies like the idea of giving their employees a lean space to work in as it is uniform and without unnecessary distractions. "In the experiments we have run, however, employees respond better in spaces that have been enriched with pictures and plants. If they have been allowed to enrich the space themselves with their own things it can increase their well being by 32% and their productivity by 15%. It is because they are able to engage with their surroundings, feel more comfortable and so concentrate."
Professor Fred Gage, from the laboratory of genetics at the Salk Institute in San Diego, California, has also conducted studies by comparing the brains of mice kept in bare, clean cages with those kept in more stimulating environments. He said: "In the period of a month we saw the brains of the mice kept in stimulating environments increase in volume by 15%. The area is highly enriched with blood vessels and we see new neurons being born.
"If we can extrapolate that to humans then it shows that having a stimulating environment can optimise our performance and abilities."
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