The digital working environment places new demands on our brains. Neuroscientist Minna Huotilainen urges businesses to develop spaces and stimuli that help employees recharge and become more productive at work.
How has the world of work changed from a neuroscientist’s viewpoint?
“Back in the 1980s, the commonly held view was that the most productive employee was the industrious worker who worked around the clock and had coffee or lunch while continuing to work. The world of work has changed radically since those times. The digital transformation has seen routine jobs assigned to machines and robot-like performers are no longer the most productive employees for companies. Today’s employees need to bring insights and problem-solving skills to the table.”
“Robot-like performers are no longer the most productive employees for companies.”
What do these changes mean for the brain?
“Coming up with ideas and insights requires the brain to operate in a different state. Achieving this state calls for rest and idle time. The research unequivocally shows that breaks and idle moments promote creativity and help employees perform better in challenging tasks.”
How should these changes be addressed in the working environment?
“Working slowly should be viewed more favourably. Employees should be provided with spaces, stimuli and activities that allow them to think about something other than work. More and more companies have communal lounges, exercise rooms and quiet spaces. They also offer activities such as exercise breaks and mindfulness sessions. This means that they have genuinely recognised the new meaning of efficiency and effectiveness at work.”
What kind of break is the best for boosting productivity?
“The ideal length of a break that helps reset the mind is about 15 minutes. This is known as idle time in the scientific research on creativity. It allows a certain stillness in the brain, like when you gaze at a fireplace. A short walk outside or having fun with coworkers are also effective ways of getting a mental reset. If there is laughter emanating from the coffee room, the people in there are having a productive break.”
"Browsing social media tends to bring us to a responsive rather than active state."
How about a break spent looking at a smartphone? Does that help the person recharge?
“The key is to take a break that involves some activity of your own. Browsing social media tends to bring us to a responsive rather than active state. You simply consume content, skipping from one topic to another, without doing much thinking of your own. The effect on the brain is similar to that of a brainstorming meeting scheduled during a busy day at the office – there is a constant stream of stimuli to react to, and this kills creativity.”
How do you know what type of break is the most effective for you?
“While neuroscience provides clear guidelines for how to take breaks at work, the question of what types of breaks work best for people in different industries and different kinds of jobs ultimately comes down to the individual. The only way to find out is to take a break and try different things!”