Do open workplaces cause sensory overload?

Have you ever walked into a new workplace you felt had that WOW factor - floor to ceiling glazing with views to match, bright trendy furniture in eye catching colours? Your first thought is ‘it must be great to work here’. Spoiler alert. For some people, it definitely isn’t. If you are a workplace performance professional, you would be wise to at least have some reservations after your initial WOW.

Pleasure or pain?

April is Autism Awareness month. Many of the people who are at the high functioning end of the spectrum, diagnosed or not, have strong sensitivities to some of those design features more ‘typical’ people are scarcely aware of or have fallen in love with. For the record, we will talk about ASD or Autism Spectrum Disorder which includes Asperger’s Syndrome and more classical Autism. People experiencing ASD and in particular those more lightly affected work in normal everyday offices with the rest of us. You may not even know they have ASD. Sensitivity, disabling or not, to the ‘normal’ features of the environment such as overhead lights, background noise and certain textures can stop our ASD friends working effectively.  You might enjoy the buzz and the hype of the workplace but that might this the worst place you could choose for a business meeting.

Design or disaster?

Did the workplace designers allow for worst case scenarios? Was the design assuming that all people need the same lighting, same energetic buzz and bustling cafes to get great work done? The spiel given is that there is choice, but is there really enough choice to get away from the noise and bright lights and still have what is needed for an awesome day’s work? What if a larger number of people than the designers had catered for needed quiet spaces with clever acoustics and a dimmer switch?

Everyone has something to contribute to the work, many of these people with ASD are highly intelligent with a huge contribution to make. And it is hard to do that work if everything in the workplace is shouting at you all day. The strategic impact you might have on this as a workplace performance specialist will be missed if you are not aware of these sensitivities and how they impact the very people you want to serve. If the skilled person who needs to respond to a tender is having a hard time thinking in a brightly lit crowded cave, then the business is likely to suffer in the end.

Inclusive design and autism

The special days and months celebrated across the year for people who are ‘different’ like Autism Awareness month should be a wake up call for all of us to think of design as being more inclusive. Inclusive design is design for all, but Clarkson and Coleman who developed and have championed the approach since the 1980’s, made it clear that inclusive design also excludes. Design is always a paradox and we have to work hard as influencers to encourage design ‘fit’ for a bigger and much more diverse workforce than we first  imagine.