Neuroscience backs Steelcase product


Steelcase’s Brody product line blends open, collaborative environments with heads down, distraction-free environments. Courtesy Steelcase

Turns out open-office floor plans filled with collaborative spaces might not be the best environment for working after all.

Companies that have done away with cubicle walls and introduced shared task tables without partitions are finding they have some pretty unhappy employees.

In studies of open-office environments, Steelcase has observed workers trying to tuck themselves away from visual and auditory distractions and trying to get comfortable throughout the day. Some of them have been pretty creative in their efforts to build privacy nooks out of their surroundings, according to Ken Tameling, general manager of global seating and surface materials at Steelcase.

“We do a lot of observation,” Tameling said. “We want to see people at work and see the workarounds they are doing. We saw people in corners trying to create a cocoon around themselves, using mobile screens to try to block themselves off.”

The reality, said Chris Congdon, director of research communications at Steelcase, is that humans are very distractible.

“We’ve been able to spend more time this past year on this area of neuroscience and understanding why we are hardwired the way we are,” she said. “As human beings, we are just innately distractible. We are hardwired that way. Some of the ways we developed as human beings make it really difficult for us to be focused.

“For example, we’ve got very acute peripheral vision. That made a lot of sense when you were on the plains … because if you could see something in your peripheral vision, you could avoid being eaten. But now, if you put yourself in an environment where there are things going on all around you, we can’t help ourselves — we look up.”

She said part of that reaction is also because humans are hardwired to seek what is novel, new and interesting.

Sit in a busy environment and see how long it takes before you glance up at someone passing by or having a loud conversation at a nearby table, Congdon suggested.

Distractions in open-office settings are constant.

“People get interrupted every 11 minutes at work and they are often switching tasks very regularly,” Congdon said. “When you are trying to get back into a state of deep focus or flow, it takes you 20 minutes.”

You can do the math to figure out what that means, Tameling said.

It’s easy to see why office workers crave privacy, quiet and a minimization of distractions.

A recent Gallup poll suggested employee engagement is at an all-time low, with at least 80 percent of respondents saying they are either disengaged or actively disengaged.

“We really wanted to understand if the physical work environment can help make a difference,” Congdon said. “What we found through our own research is, yes, it actually can. Creating work environments that address people’s well-being is a really valid path for organizations to take to try and influence their engagement levels.”

That’s why Steelcase is introducing its Brody product line at NeoCon this year, which it says will give employers options for blending open, collaborative environments with heads-down, distraction-free environments.

NeoCon is the largest commercial interior design trade show in North America and is being held in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart June 15-17.

The Brody WorkLounge solves the four key needs Steelcase observed in its studies of how people work. It provides isolation, comfort, technology support and a place to put belongings.

“When people were trying to hole away, they were trying to do it in a relaxed posture,” Tameling said. “They’d try to grab a lounge chair if they could. What we kept finding was, when they did that they weren’t comfortable because lounge seating was designed for waiting and short durations.”

Sean Corcorran, general manager for education at Steelcase, added, “When you are working with your technology, one of the biggest issues we saw with people wanting to get comfortable … (was) their technology was not where they needed it.”

Brody comes in three variations. The most privacy-oriented model includes a wrap-around screen that nearly encloses the worker, while the middle-privacy variation has a three-sided screen, and the least-private model is screen-free.

The chair incorporated in the Brody WorkLounge is a melding of a high-performance task chair and a lounge chair. It allows an individual to sit comfortably for longer because of its construction, which is not the typical plywood and foam combination of most lounge chairs, Corcorran said.

“When you go to recline, your lower spine wants to curve forward, but chair backs don’t do that, especially lounges,” he explained. “So this (chair back) is literally coming in to meet your lower spine so you can’t slouch, and let your lower back sag backward into more of that ‘C’ position.”

Steelcase also created a more flexible shell for the chair and cored out the foam to allow the seat to cradle the sitter.

“This helps for different sizes and shapes of bodies,” Corcorran said. “The channels will come around you and cup you and bolster you.”

Technology is addressed in multiple ways, from a power source built into the chair that can accommodate two plug-ins, to an articulating surface that uses material sticky enough to keep a laptop, cell phone or tablet from sliding down when it’s tilted.

“If we are going to have people be able to work in a more relaxed posture, we needed to give them a work surface that can ergonomically work with that new posture,” Corcorran said. “That is the beauty behind this articulating work surface; you can put it at any angle you want. We really tried to nail the ergonomics with that alternative posture with technology.”

There is also a built-in, easily accessible cubby large enough to store a couple of bags.

Tameling said he thinks the Brody product line will be a hot item at NeoCon and he expects to see all three versions in regular use once they hit the office and college campus environments, which are the target markets.

In addition to the Brody line, Steelcase will introduce a new power solution called Thread that will help move power sources off the wall with less cost and obstruction than previous options.

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