The P.H.D. Every Corporate Real Estate Leader Needs and Can Get

If employee well-being, productivity and engagement stands at the top of our corporate agenda, we cannot ignore what this pandemic has done to our brain chemistry and how the effects can translate into the workplace.

10 Jun 2021

By Rohini Saluja

The PHD Every Corporate Real Estate Leader Needs and Can Get
I recently spoke at the CBRE Institute Global Forum where the topic of “Beyond Reopening: The Intersection of Property, People and Technology in an Evolving Workplace” was front of mind for our Asia Pacific Roundtable. 

After two decades in corporate real estate, I thought I had experienced it all. 

Then, COVID-19 struck.

We recognize that “future of work” discussions today are part of an ongoing and uncharted journey. We don’t have the answers yet to what the end state is, but we have the means in our head — literally — to steer this critical dialogue.

The brain, the nexus

Let’s begin at the center of what drives humanity and therefore organizational behavior — the human brain. As part of ongoing research, neuroscientists are using functional imaging to demonstrate how the pandemic has altered our brain chemistry. 

Chemicals play key roles in our brains: dopamine impacts our motivation, reward, and learning; oxytocin eases stress and improves social skills; serotonin stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being and happiness, and induces sleep; while cortisol regulates a wide range of vital processes throughout the body and helps the body respond to stress. 

If employee well-being, productivity and engagement stands at the top of our corporate agenda, we cannot ignore what this pandemic has done to our brain chemistry and how the effects can translate into the workplace.

5 key takeaways:

1. Mental health challenges: The pandemic has impacted mental health and therefore employee well-being.
2. One size does not fit all: Sixty-one percent of leaders say they are thriving in remote work, but Gen Zs and extroverts are struggling with social isolation. 
3. Design matters: Better-designed, quality workplaces are encouraging more employees to return to the office.
4. Human-centric workplace: Exhaustion and burnout impact well-being and productivity.
5. Flexibility and connectedness: Employees want choice, but 67% are also asking for more in-person time with coworkers.

Ancient pathways

Humans are social animals. The need for social connection is hardwired in the brain — meaning they are ancient pathways and structures that can't be changed easily. 

The first step in social interaction is perceiving social cues. We listen to what people say and how they say it, observing minute details of facial expression and noticing touch and smell, each impacting a unique region in the brain during a social interaction.

In a recent Microsoft study, neuroscientists recorded brain responses while participants watched a face in a video or in person. The experiment showed that our brain has a sweet spot that activates when people look each other directly in the eyes, but not when they look at eyes in a video. Our brains are attuned to be great at face-to-face communication, but less so in virtual chats. 

Increasing cognitive load—even with the best internet connection and interfacing platform — impacts the psychological contract between employee and company, which then impacts the employee’s attitude, behavior, trust and even intention to quit.

Designing for humans

A key consideration is how all this neuroscience research and evidence can translate into designing a more human-centric workplace. What is the perfect balance between what organizations need to develop in employees for optimal creativity and culture, and behavior based on the evidenced need for flexibility and choice?

The future of work, therefore, does not have a one-dimensional solution. It needs a broad framework that sits across hybrid working environments with all dimensions integrating into our real estate strategies and programs:

  • Workstyles and workforce impact
  • Brand and culture
  • Employee value proposition
  • Job (re)design frameworks
  • Health and safety
  • Productivity


Get your P.H.D. today

Ultimately, it is crucial to integrate these 3 dimensions within our future of work discussions. Corporate leaders who can successfully apply the lessons of neuroscience research into a more human-centered workplace will earn their Ph.D. in mapping out the future of corporate real estate. 

If you want to know more about what I’m doing to help global companies navigate this complexity, please connect with me on the next steps. 


CBRE is the world’s largest commercial real estate company, ranked #122 on Fortune 500. To learn more about the key issues facing commercial real estate, visit us at The Way Forward and our podcast channel The Weekly Take as our subject matter experts share deep research and industry commentary.

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