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The ABCs of Creating a Brain-Healthy Workplace

How to align your workplace with your brain's ways of working.

Key points

  • Our digital and physical workplaces can support or inhibit our brain health.
  • Our reliance on single office workstations can reduce our effectiveness and render us less active and adaptive.
  • Creating a range of spaces provides people choice, allowing them to fit their place of work for the type of work they are doing.

Since 2021, I have been a part of a brain health study along with nearly 200 other people across our firm, HKS. We partnered with the Center for Brain Health, with two goals: (1) to improve our BrainHealth Index—something tied to social, emotional, cognitive, and real-life functioning and (2) to understand how digital and physical workplaces support (or inhibit) brain health.

What is brain health and why does it matter?

But before I get ahead of myself, let’s define what brain health is.

The World Health Organization defines brain health as “the state of brain functioning across cognitive, sensory, social-emotional, behavioral and motor domains, allowing a person to realize their full potential over the life course, irrespective of the presence or absence of disorders.”

Before we follow the latest trends, we must go back to the foundations—the fundamental ways in which humans think and feel, reflect and connect, work and live—we have to understand the human brain and how buildings impact it. –Upali Nanda, Global Director of Research, HKS Inc.

The report is full of insights, and I want to focus on one specifically—the ABCs of Brain-Healthy Workplace Habits.

Source: Anchiy/Getty Images
Source: Anchiy/Getty Images

What are the "ABCs of Brain-Healthy Workplace Habits"?

We have created high-stress office environments, even though a stressed brain is significantly less productive than a non-stressed brain” –Dr. John Medina, Brain Rules, Loc.149

The ABCs of Brain-Healthy Workplace Habits offer guidance to anyone to fit their workday and workplace to their needs.

Our brains are plastic and respond to their environments. When our brains are in environments that support and work with how our brains evolved, we can create optimal conditions for sustained well-being and work. However, when we ignore millions of years of evolutionary heritage, creating environments that work against our wiring, burnout and exhaustion are predictable outcomes.

1. Align your intent with your environment.

Throughout your workday, week, or even year, there are varied demands for your time and attention and varied inputs or interactions that will help make that work more effective, expedient, and even fun. But unless we know the aim or intent of our work and can take agency over our place of work, we can often have a mismatch between our goals and the places we inhabit while we try to achieve those goals.

Source: HKS BrainHealth Report; Kate Davis
Figure 1. Napkin sketch: Planning the where and how of your work day
Source: HKS BrainHealth Report; Kate Davis

For example, focused work needs a space with minimal distractions, whereas collaborative work needs space to spread out and be a little loud, and likely a collaborative surface (virtual or physical) to share ideas and iterate.

“We’re asking too much of our individual workspaces,” the report states. Some ideas on how to align your intent with your environment include the following:

  • Creating a range of spaces, which provides people with choice, allowing them to fit their place of work for the type of work they are doing.
  • Planning your day ahead of time, creating breaks between focus periods, and allowing rest, socialization, and movement.
  • Understanding the purpose or goal behind your work, and how you work best to meet that need, and matching your space and time of day accordingly (see Figure 1).

2. Balance your workday.

Healthy amount of work—and place—variability can combat fatigue and distractions while boosting overall productivity. –HKS Insights Report: Creating a Brain Healthy Workplace.

Our brains were made to move, rest, explore, and survive through a constantly changing landscape. They were not, however, created to multitask, which is why multitasking is linked to increased fatigue and reduced productivity, despite our near-compulsive insistence on it.

Through creating daily and weekly cycles of focus, rest, movement, and nourishment, and by creating variety, we help our brains function optimally while limiting burnout. (It may be important to mention that this does not include scrolling our phone—our brain just thinks that is work.)

The report highlights how we’ve become tethered to our workstations as a central hub that can support all work activities; however, in doing so, we diminish the value of place and connections.

By asking too much of our individual workstations, we are reducing the cuing power they have to help us to focus, rendering our workstations less effective at their primary duty and, honestly, rendering us a lot less active and adaptive.

The authors suggest that “moving intentionally between spaces for individual versus collaborative tasks provides opportunities for breaks and shifts in cognitive thinking.”

Some ideas on how to achieve balance include the following:

  • To counter stagnation, balance your workday with healthy variability that can boost brain power, creativity, and productivity.
  • Untether from your workstation to connect with others.
  • Embrace “space use diversity” to break up our work days.

3. Connect with others, and exercise choice and control.

Fundamentally, relationships and trust are what effective work runs on—and what we as human beings need to thrive. We may no longer be facing lions together and living in small tribes, but that is what our brains are hard-wired to do. The idea of being lonely is unsettling to our nervous systems, which heightens its alerts and fear centers to try and keep us safe. But, in doing so, it also reduces our ability to focus and drains precious energy reserves.

In-person collaborative work can be stimulating, revitalizing, and productive; however, it can naturally come with a trade-off of intense time to focus. Therefore, it is important to allow for choice and control over our interactions when possible. The authors suggest strategies for connecting while maintaining choice and control:

  • When you have space options, use the space you choose to signal your openness (or lack thereof) to connecting with others.
  • Regardless of space options, look at ways to cue your openness for connection (e.g., headphones).
  • Create common areas with shared surfaces to document and communicate ideas (e.g., whiteboards, shared screens).
Evan Thomas @ studiothomas 2020
Source: Evan Thomas @ studiothomas 2020

Try these yourself. What have you found that works or is lacking? How have you made space for these needs in your work life at home, the office, or a third workplace (e.g., café, coworking)?

My relationship with work has always been intertwined with place—getting to work before anyone else so that I can focus, hiding in conference rooms so that I can think clearly and spread out all of my thoughts, using a large whiteboard often found in conference rooms, or finding ways to socialize in break-out spaces and lunch areas. But that has also come with some degree of social discomfort.

What I love about this report is that, in addition to the ABCs mentioned above, it has so many other points of entry that can be taken apart to use however works best for you.

By designing for brain health, we can create space for more happiness and thriving.


Medina, J. (2014). Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School. Pear Press. ISBN-13:978-0-99603-260-5

Nanda, U., Chung, S., Guo, X., Lindberg, C., Sellers, K., Fallon, E., Zientz, J., & Chapman, S. B. (2023, February 23). Creating a Brain Healthy Workplace. HKS, Inc. Retrieved from

World Health Organization. (n.d.). Brain health. World Health Organization. Retrieved March 5, 2023, from

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