The extended workspace

A conversation between Annie Murphy Paul and Nora Fehlbaum

When employees feel supported, engaged and stimulated, results improve and productivity goes up. But what kind of workspace fosters this atmosphere? Here, the field of neuroscience may be of assistance in guiding the creation of new forms of environment. Can cutting-edge research allow people to unlock their potential and are there ways that design can help people ‘think outside the brain’? Nora Fehlbaum sat down with Annie Murphy Paul, the acclaimed writer of ‘The Extended Mind – Thinking Outside the Brain’, to discuss her work and its implications for office design. What kind of spaces can help us think and perform to the best of our abilities?

Nora Fehlbaum: Hi Annie! Your research covers work environments as well as educational and public spaces. For simplicity, in this conversation we’ll focus on workplaces and offices. In your research, you studied what makes a workspace – whether at home or in the office – productive and engaging. Can you give us a few insights into your findings and, in particular, the role that autonomy plays?

Annie Murphy Paul: I come at this from the perspective of what’s known as ‘the extended mind’, which is a theory borrowed from philosophy that suggests that we don’t just do our thinking with our brains – we also do our thinking with our bodies, our physical surroundings, our relationships with other people. One particularly important aspect of our physical surroundings is whether it supports our feelings of autonomy and empowerment and control over our physical environment. That can be difficult these days when we may not have an assigned desk or we might not be going to the same spot every day, because we're sometimes working from home. But I think there are some ways around that, for example, by creating spaces that are arranged around a project rather than around an individual. As soon as you go into this space which is devoted to a project, you’re immediately surrounded by all these cues that support you – both you and the project.

The office has changed a lot over the past two years, especially due to the extended lockdown periods. As many companies plan their return to a physical work environment, what spaces will be most relevant?

We need to think in terms of distinct places for distinct kinds of activities. The major divide would be between spaces that are protected and allow us to engage in deep work without being constantly distracted, and then on the other hand, spaces that really support social interaction, spontaneous encounters among people, but also planned gatherings of teams that allow them to have shared artefacts that are displayed and which they can collaborate with and point to and revise and modify. We need to be very thoughtful and intentional about designing our workspaces to support exactly the kind of thinking that we want from ourselves and others.

You also mentioned a term that really stood out: the intermittent collaborator. Can you explain who such a person is, and what makes them so much more effective and how the environment can support them?

An intermittent collaborator is someone who separates two modes of thinking and working. One is this private, quiet, undistracted deep work and the other is a very intensely social and collaborative kind of work with other people. What we want is to have spaces that can support each of these kinds of work. I wondered if perhaps our work at home, our home offices, could become the space where we do that quiet, undistracted work, and then offices would be specifically devoted to supporting that collaborative and interactive work.

So, it sounds like control over both space and your work mode is really important. Often when we speak about the workplace, we have the office, the knowledge worker, the white-collar workforce in mind. But many companies, like Vitra, have very large blue-collar workforces. How can we apply some of your insights to them?

Something that’s important for the workspaces of every kind of employee is to have these spaces filled with what are called ‘evocative objects’: cues of identity that remind us of who we are, what our skills are, what we are doing in that particular role and also cues of belonging, a reminder that we are part of a valued group. The more we can enrich our environment, whether for blue-collar or white-collar workers, with these kinds of evocative objects, the more primed we’ll be to do excellent work.

With the option of remote working, many of us are looking into the best use of time working remotely and, in the office, to foster our productivity as individuals but also in group constellations? How can we make optimum use of space to do our best work?

We have this idea that smart people and grown-ups do all their mental work in their heads. It’s accepted for kindergarteners to use objects to learn maths, but we should put those aside as we get older and we’re expected to do all our mental work in our heads. But it’s a fact that even for adults, getting your ideas and your thoughts out of your head and onto physical space is the most efficient and effective way to do your thinking. What we want to be thinking about is not leaving our thoughts in our heads, but actually externalising them, creating loops, and that could be a be loop through your body, through acting out or gesturing about what you’re thinking about; it could be a loop that extends to your physical environment, offloading your thoughts onto physical space, like a big whiteboard or a bunch of Post-It notes, or it could be by creating a loop through the minds of other people, you know, by bringing social activities like storytelling or arguing and debating or teaching other people. The way that we work is crucial to activate all parts of our brain – especially the more social aspects.

Do you have tips for companies and managers that are planning a successful return to the office?

First of all, look for ways to support employees’ autonomy and sense of empowerment in whatever spaces they’re in. Allow them, perhaps, to fill their spaces with evocative objects or even make them available in the office. The second thing would be to create spaces where our ideas and our thoughts and the information that's in our heads can be offloaded into physical space. That gives us a new perspective on our own thoughts, and it also allows others to see traces of our thinking. And then thirdly I would say, bring nature into the office as much as possible. Human beings evolved in the outdoors, and it’s still the case that natural materials, natural motifs, plants, natural light, all these things put us into a state of relaxed alertness, which is ideal for thinking and working.
The interview was conducted as part of the Vitra Session ‘Dynamic Spaces’. The Vitra Session is intended for leaders, HR managers, employees, workplace experts, architects, and designers that wish to create collaborative working environments that inspire, engage and retain their existing workforce and attract future talent. Further contents of the Vitra Session are available for you in the E-Paper:
Download E-Paper

Publication date: 24.3.2022
Images: Annie Murphy Paul, Vitra;

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