The only thing constant in our lives, and in any business, is the certainty of change. We can’t control that. No leader can prevent surprises, disruptions, challenges, or unforeseen events. But what we can do is set ourselves and our teams up to meet those challenges with all the resources, resilience, decision-making, and wisdom available to us. So how does a leader organize an office that’s built to maximize the talents of his or her workforce? How does a company set up its employees so that they’ll have the greatest likelihood of being able to meet these challenges?

Fortunately, there’s a lot of science on how to create a brain-friendly workplace – tools and strategies that makes us more creative, productive, happier and better decision-makers at work. And though more and more companies are incorporating all these new findings, there are plenty that aren’t – according to Gallup, worldwide only 13 percent of employees say they feel engaged at work.

Money is not the answer: companies can’t buy their way to employee engagement and happiness. The science has shown that people are much more motivated by internal, or intrinsic, rewards than they are by external, or extrinsic rewards, like money. For instance, a meta-analysis in 2010 of over 120 years of research found that there to be almost no tie at all between job happiness and salary.

So what does make a difference? How can employee engagement, satisfaction, and productivity be influenced? Here are several ways.

1. Disconnection. Obviously technology has revolutionized every aspect of the modern office. But on an individual level, we all feel besieged. According to a 2012 study from McKinsey Global Institute, the average knowledge economy worker spends 28% of his or her time just reading and answering e-mail. Another study found that the typical office worker goes only 11 minutes without being interrupted, and that, once interrupted, it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task.

There are also studies that show that just having a phone on a table when people are talking prevents them from feeling connected – even when the phone is never used. So for higher performance, more focus, and greater collaboration, consider having screenless meetings – no phones or computers allowed. People will feel more connected, less distracted, and engage in more effective collaboration, which is what most meetings are all about in the first place. When this was tried at The Huffington Post the duration of leadership meetings was cut in half – and the meetings were more effective.

Always on: Office workers at a canteen in Bangalore
Image: REUTERS/Abhishek Chinnappa

Also, encourage face-to-face communication, instead of everybody communicating through text or email alone. At the Salk Institute, labs have an open door policy, and researchers and faculty are encouraged to wander, walk in and open discussions – discussions that can lead to new ideas and breakthroughs.

2. Freedom. If the goal is the well-being and productivity of employees, research shows this can be significantly influenced by giving workers freedom and autonomy. A 2010 study by Alex Haslam from the University of Exeter found that allowing employees to choose how many plants and photos they wanted in their office increased productivity by up to 32% compared to employees who had been given no choice. And research has also shown that having a sense of autonomy increases our ability to respond to stress, and, accordingly, decreased feelings of autonomy make us more vulnerable to stress. When the Salk Institute initiated a five-year plan to increase scientific discovery, they were careful to allow employees to have major input.

3. Greenery. Simply put, humans like nature and greenery and the more of it we experience in the office, the happier and more productive we are. In fact, this tendency to respond positively to nature and natural settings is called the “biophilia hypothesis,” coined by Edward O. Wilson in his 1984 book, Biophelia. And research bears him out. A 2010 study from Cornell University found that the presence of indoor plants had a beneficial effect on workers’ attention spans. Another study, by researchers from the University of Twente, in the Netherlands in 2008, found that indoor plants reduced stress. And a 2007 study found that windows that looked out on natural settings had more positive health effects than those that looked out on more urban settings. So in addition to making your office more green in terms of sustainability, make it literally green, too.

Plants have a measurable impact on our health and productivity
Image: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

4. Movement. The news that sitting down all day is terrible for our health is by now well-known. But moving, and walking, is as good for our minds and is it for our bodies. A study by University of Illinois researchers found that walking just three times a week for forty minutes at a natural pace helps improve brain connectivity and cognitive function. So encourage employees to walk and move. One way to do this is to discourage employees from eating lunch at their desks. Even better, encourage them to leave their phones behind when they go to lunch. And walking meetings have the benefit of both movement and face-to-face connection and collaboration. In the early days of the Huffington Post, many of the best ideas came walking meetings. As the Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.”

5. Giving. There’s a lot of science showing that giving does as much for the giver as the recipient. And this carries over to the office. A 2013 study by UnitedHealth Group found that employee volunteer programs increased engagement and productivity, with more than 75% of the volunteering employees saying they felt healthier, more than 90% reporting being in a better mood, and more than 95% saying it had given them more purpose in life. Volunteering employees were also found to have increased their time-management skills and their ability to connect with colleagues. Another 2013 study, from the University of Wisconsin, found that employees who give back are more likely to help their colleagues, more committed to their work, and less likely to quit. So set up a volunteering program and make it as easy as possible for employees to give back.

The ultimate take-away is that it’s not about high-end physical infrastructure, or more money, or more technology. It’s about recognizing the elements that make us human, what we really value, and what really motivates, inspires and engages us. Much of this isn’t surprising – but what we can see now is how science is validating a lot of ancient wisdom. Companies that embrace this, instead of doing business as usual, will be set up to win the future.