What Kind of Sensory Experience Do You Offer Employees?

Organizations need to carefully consider factors such as light, temperature, noise, and space when creating works environments in order to prevent employee sensory overload.

I’m sensitive to sound, smell, light, and nearly everything, so I spend my days in New York City on sensory overload.

I get irritated when a person is whistling while they walk past me or is in a confined space with me, such as an elevator or the subway. Smells can be so overwhelming that just the other day I moved to another seat on the New Jersey transit system, the PATH train, because I couldn’t tolerate the smell of the man who sat down next to me. I also don’t tolerate visual disturbances well, such as seeing a person tapping their hands or feet out of the corner of my eye.

I don’t just wear glasses with adaptive lenses (Transitions) but pay extra to get the ultra-variety of these lenses with polarization, a lens treatment that sharply reduces light glare.

So when I saw an article by Gina Brady in Fast Company on “How to Create a Sensory-Friendly Workplace,” I was highly interested.

Is Your Sensory Experience Neuro-Divergent Friendly?

It’s not just people like me, who many would write off as simply being unreasonable and hard to deal with. Sensory overload also sometimes deeply affects people with Autism. This could have serious implications for a company seeking to design a neuro-divergent-friendly workplace.

“Those with sensitivities may be overstimulated by background noise. Open-concept workspaces and even cubicle setups can result in a loud working environment with competing noises. Employees may benefit from earbuds or noise-canceling headphones. Businesses also may offer a calm, quiet space for employees to work or even to take a break,” Brady writes.

Seeing Work in the Right Light

Not everyone is a fan of super-bright florescent lights, Brady points out. I remember my mother, who was light-sensitive, would sometimes wear glasses with Transitions lenses indoors, even though she required no vision correction other than for reading. As an alternative, Brady writes that companies can install incandescent lightbulbs or can offer lamps.

An even smarter alternative is to design a workspace with large windows and skylights that let in the maximum amount of natural light possible. The windows should have shades that can easily be activated for times when an employee finds the sun is in their eyes.

Temperature Check

Sensory overload for me also can mean greater sensitivity to temperature. Air conditioning often quickly makes me feel too cold. In many parts of the country, the air temperature outside is cool enough in the spring and fall that with abundant, large windows with screens, no air conditioning may be necessary. The windows could be opened with the screens keeping insects out. Strong overhead ceiling fans could be added to help circulate the air.

In the winter, companies could offer space heaters that have been evaluated and tested for safety. When there is little-to-no fire risk (such as space heaters that automatically turn off when knocked over or when a specified temperature is exceeded), this can be a great solution for employees like me who sometimes need a shawl thrown over their shoulders in addition to wearing a sweater—and still feel cold!

Sensory Consideration Goes Beyond Your Office

Being conscious of the needs of employees who are easily overstimulated should extend beyond the confines of your office. When making plans for an event outside the office, consider the sensory impact.

My mother had a naturally booming voice and didn’t seem to mind noisy restaurants and event spaces. She knew it took no effort for people to hear her. However, my father was highly sensitive to the discomfort of trying to communicate in a noisy environment. I am the same way, and so is my sister. A few weekends ago, in fact, my sister and I vowed to never return to a restaurant with great food because it was much too loud.

When you plan a company-sponsored event, whether purely social or for a business purpose, consider how easy it will be for people to hear and speak to one another. What kind of entertainment have you lined up? As much as I love rock music, it often isn’t the best choice for a gathering of people seeking to communicate with each other. A piano player, subdued jazz band, or classical music quartet might be a better choice.

Crowds also can be an issue. Is your event the only one in the space you reserved? Is it large enough to avoid people feeling like they’re trapped on an elevator?

Brady says that all these considerations for your employees’ in-office experience—and what they experience at company-hosted events—are important to keep in mind.

If you’re not sure what your employees’ sensory experience is like, ask. She writes: “Check in with employees, customers, and other stakeholders through various means to see what additional accommodations would resonate and be appreciated. A variety of check-ins can be valuable, ranging from in-person conversations to social media comments and anonymous surveys.”

Do you think about, and try to improve, the sensory experience of your employees? What changes have made a positive impact?