A “sense-able” perspective -The future of work

All the research articles on work from home that I have come across lately have me shouting from the rooftops about one of the most accurate predictors of human behaviour, your sensory profile. Your sensory profile refers to how you process the environment and seeing as covid19 forms part of our new environment, with extreme environmental changes, it is a crucial and undeniable element when debating the future of work.  The way we worked, the way we are working now, how we work best, how we feel about returning to work – is possibly one of the hottest topics now, and rightly so.

Insight into the different sensory profiles or styles will assist in dealing with and understanding your gloriously sensory diverse workforce, including yourself.  Sensory thresholds refer to how quickly and intensely you register sensations from the environment and your own body.  How we react to, and process the environment, in my mind at least, should be the first thing to consider when designing the new world of work.

There are four main sensory profiles.  We are generally either sensory seeking (high sensory thresholds) or sensory avoiding (low sensory thresholds).  Furthermore, we either respond actively or passively to our sensory thresholds.

If we have high thresholds with an active response, we are sensory seekers – actively seeking to add more sensation to our lives.  If we have high thresholds with a passive response, we have poor registration of sensations, meaning that we do not register or realise that we need more stimulation from the environment to stay focused and alert.

If we have low thresholds with an active response, we are sensory avoiders – we actively try to reduce sensations. And if we have low thresholds with a passive response, we are sensory sensitive, meaning that we do not avoid sensations, but we are sensitive to them and exhausted at the end of the day—no need to try and remember these four categories. I will describe their general work-related responses as best I can, and hopefully, you will pinpoint where you fit in yourself.

Sensory seekers are in all probability reeling to return to the office as they wither away in isolation.  This profile will experience feelings of boredom, frustration, under-stimulation, and aggression in the current work from home environment, EXCEPT if they have a rich, busy, and interesting home life with droves of children or pets to provide much-needed sensory stimulation.  This profile will either vote to return to work full-time or, most of the time, as the office vibe and canteen hub is not something they can resist for too long.  The niggling feeling of being left out, or marginalised, is a normal and genuine response to their need to be amid the action.

An in-person check-in is far better than a zoom meeting for sensory seekers, a zoom meeting far better than a phone call, a phone call much better than an e-mail, which is positioned last on their list of priorities.  Frequent and vibey interaction will keep them sane and productive.  Please do not neglect your sensory seeking colleagues; they are missing you desperately.  Sensory seekers are at their most creative and most energised following vibey office banter and interesting conversation.  Keep this in mind, especially considering much-needed innovation and collaboration, which have been areas of concern during work from home.  Companies cannot ignore this simple yet powerful assessment tool if worried about productivity and collaboration.

When sensory seekers phase back to the office, they may forget to wear masks consistently, may touch surfaces without diligently washing hands afterwards, and may alarm more sensitive profiles with their enthusiasm around proximity and touch.  Prepare the office space and prepare your workforce with insight, empathy, and understanding.

Regarding the very relevant subject of employee burn-out, sensory seekers are especially vulnerable, as they pile on deadlines and overschedule commitments, not realising they need a quiet time-out to regulate.  Burn-out usually happens towards the end of the year, when running with all systems firing for far too long.  Burn-out has, however, already showed up in all its debilitating glory due to low resilience following last year’s disruptions.  When sensory seekers do schedule time away, they often fall ill.  Self-care and designated times of rest are crucial, especially when working from home.

People with poor registration (high thresholds and a passive response) have in all probability been less productive due to a lack of energising and stimulating input from co-workers and the energy provided at the office, not realising that passively sitting behind a desk for 12 hours on end, does not equate to productivity.  They have not registered that their performance is iffy due to sensory deprivation and are probably frustrated with their flabby output.  These individuals may report a slow start to the day, with extended work hours way into the night to meet deadlines. They only achieve optimal focus once their nervous systems are energised through frequent and intense stimuli from the environment.  These individuals can work from anywhere, be it the chaotic home office set-up, noisy coffee shop, open plan office space, planes, trains, or automobiles, if there is a constant buzz keeping them focused.  They will therefore take a straightforward going stance regarding the work from anywhere debate.

For individuals with poor registration, returning to the office is recommended from a health perspective, especially if the office consists of alerting spaces, energising spaces, collaborative spaces, and ample opportunities to self-regulate.   Structured work hours are preferable, with ample stimulation for focused output.  Your poor registration colleagues are missing you too, and they just have not realised it yet.  Keep in mind that if you do phone, you will not get a word in edgewise.

These are the individuals wearing masks when alone in the car.  I must confess that I suffer from a measure of profile envy as I would give anything to have my nervous system habituate (get used to) masks. Gentle yet firm guidance in self-care, movement breaks, and healthy sensory strategies is crucial for these individuals to stay healthy, happy, and productive (mask or no mask).

Sensory avoiders will, without a doubt, unanimously vote to work from home full time, all the time, until the end of time, if this is not already the case.  EXCEPT if the office environment is calm, quiet, and contained, and home life frantic with small children and disorganised sensory overload.  Sensory avoiders do not suffer from the fear of missing out (FOMO) but rather the joy of missing out (JOMO).  Sensory avoiders will be reluctant to return to the office if the density is high, and stringent covid19 protocols are not in place.  They will diligently alert you to the office superbugs, sticky surfaces in the shared kitchen, the dirty dish towels, the dirty coffee mugs, the improper sub-standard hygiene of their colleagues, or the nauseating odours from the canteen, for example. Boy, will they keep you on your toes!  And boy will they do their bit to declutter, clear away, and disinfect. They are super-vigilant regarding handwashing and have always been.  Although everything within them loathes the irritating, disorganising tactile input provided by this necessary evil, they are disciplined about wearing masks.  Overload is real, and frequent sensory breaks and regulation opportunities are crucial.  These colleagues miss you too, but only if you have an avoiding profile as well, a soft tone of voice, practice restraint when applying perfume, and never approach them from behind!  E-mail or text check-ins are perfect, and if you do wish to phone, schedule it for earlier in the day.

Sensory sensitives are in all probability opting for the hybrid work arrangement, but only if they have effectively contained and organised the home office environment.  The self-regulation opportunities available at home have most likely improved their productivity, and even with work hours meshing into after-hours, the option for more frequent sensory breaks is an undeniable benefit.  A bit of gardening, a bit of grooming, a bit of cooking, a bit of shopping, a bit of pet care, interspersed with periods of deep focus while moving mountains.

Sensory sensitives are overloaded at the end of a long, sensory-rich day, need re-regulation opportunities to feel themselves again and meaningfully engage with their families.  Sensory sensitives will not ever be rude; they are far too sensitive to allow themselves that luxury!  These colleagues are missing you but only need a short visit, at an open-air and not too noisy restaurant, preceded by a short commute, while enjoying the food of their choice.  But please do check-in; e-mail or text is perfectly acceptable.

Once we start to unpack the different sensory profiles and the impact scientifically, this has on habits, rituals, preferences, and downright deep-seated needs, we realise that covid19 has hopefully changed the way we treat and accommodate employees for good, due to the emphasis finally being placed on how we process the environment.  We need to accept that it is not only technology that needs to shift to becoming increasingly personal. As humans, we have this responsibility too.

References: Sensory Integration, Theory and Practice, Second Edition, 2002. Bundy A., Lane S, Murray, E.

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