All the research articles on work from home, have me shouting from the rooftops about one of the most accurate predictors of human behavior, your sensory profile. Our sensory profile refers to how we process the environment, and considering covid19 and its extreme impact forms part of our new environment, it is a crucial and undeniable element to when discussing the future of work.  The way we worked, the way we are working now, the way we work best, how we feel about returning to work – one of the hottest topics at the moment, and rightly so.

Insight into the different sensory profiles or styles, will assist in dealing with, and understanding, your sensory diverse workforce, including yourself.  Sensory thresholds refer to how quickly and intensely you register sensations from the environment as well as our own body and therefore should be a critical first consideration when designing the new world of work.  

There are 4 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 – we do not register/realize 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 – we do not avoid sensations, but we are sensitive to them and exhausted at the end of the day. 

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 and/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 are not something they can resist for too long.  The niggling feeling of being left out, or marginalized, is a normal and real response to their need to be in the midst of the action. 

For sensory seekers, an in-person check in is far better than a zoom meeting, 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.  Do not neglect your sensory seeking colleagues, they are missing you desperately.  Sensory seekers are at their most creative, and most energized 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 simply cannot ignore this simple, yet powerful assessment tool if worried about productivity and collective 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 realizing they need quiet time-out to regulate.  Burn-out usually happens towards the end of the year, when they have been 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 energizing and stimulating input from co-workers and the energy provided at the office, not realizing that passively sitting behind a desk for 12 hours on end, does not equate to productivity.  They haven’t registered that their performance is drifting due to sensory deprivation, and are probably feeling 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 system has been energized 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, literally anywhere, as long as there is a constant buzz keeping them focused.  They will therefor take a very easy going stance regarding the work from anywhere debate.  

For individuals with poor registration, returning to the office is however recommended from a health perspective, especially if the office consists of alerting, energizing, collaborative spaces, with ample opportunities to self-regulate.   Structured work hours are preferable, in combination with lots of stimulation for focused output.  Your poor registration colleagues are missing you too, they just haven’t realized it yet.  Keep in mind that if you do phone, you won’t get a word in edgewise. 

These are the individuals wearing masks when alone in the car.  I have to 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 terms of 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 disorganizing 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 very reluctant to return to the office if density is not drastically reduced, and stringent covid19 protocols not in place.  They will diligently alert you to the office super bugs, sticky surfaces in the shared kitchen, the filthy dish towels, coffee mugs, the unacceptable sub-standard hygiene of their colleagues, etc.  They keep you on your toes and will do their best to declutter, clear away, and disinfect. They are super-vigilant regarding hand washing, and have always been.  They are disciplined about wearing a mask, although everything within them loathes the irritating, disorganizing tactile input provided by this necessary evil.  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 ever 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 been successful in containing and organizing the home office environment effectively.  The self-regulation opportunities available at home, have most likely improved their productivity, and even with work hours meshing into after hours, the opportunity 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 in overload at the end of a long, sensory-rich day, and need re-regulation opportunities to feel themselves again, and to meaningfully engage with their families.  Having said that, sensory sensitives won’t 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 scientifically unpack the different sensory profiles and the impact this has on habits, rituals, preferences, and downright deep-seated needs, we realize 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.  An interesting and much needed debate to be scheduled, and I will be there ready with my soap box, campaigning for ALL sensory profiles who have been working extra hard at keeping things together during turbulent times of sensory upheaval.   

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

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