Sensory Experience and the Workplace

Employees are most engaged when all five senses are stimulated. Our work environments should be shaped accordingly. With WorkSENSE, Sabret Flocos explains how.

Gustav Klutsis, "Colour Study," c. 1924-1930
Gustav Klutsis, “Colour Study,” c. 1924-1930

Does space matter? Yes, space matters. But it’s much different than it was fifty years ago, or thirty years ago, or even ten years ago, because today space needs to give back. It needs to do something for you.

Consider any company. The business need is the nucleus, the driver. Without the business purpose, there wouldn’t be a company culture. The business is the first shaping influence on what that culture becomes. The culture grows between the business purpose and the people who come together to carry out its requirements. Culture is supported and reinforced by the people’s behavior. People’s behavior feeds the culture, and the people and the culture feed the business. It’s a circular flow that needs to be supported. Space needs to support this flow.

WorkSENSE is about creating a broader set of dimensions for design of the work environment. At its basic level it’s about removing distractions by careful attention to and integration of sensory experience.

That’s where WorkSENSE comes into play. WorkSENSE is about creating a broader set of dimensions for design of the work environment. At its basic level it’s about removing distractions by careful attention to and integration of sensory experience, but ultimately it’s much more. We are most effective and engaged when the information we receive from our senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch — which is generated through our interaction with our physical environment — is carefully considered and balanced against the types of actions, decisions, and creations we wish to make, and when our built environments are shaped accordingly.

Evidence based design has been gaining traction, especially in the healthcare and education markets. It’s making inroads in other markets as well: retail, justice, and entertainment designers are studying data collected over time, applying their learning to enhance new project outcomes in specific ways. The office environment has also been studied extensively; however, research outcomes are sometimes difficult to quantify because our understandings and definitions of office use goals are largely indeterminate.

Consider the following:

  • Patients with views of nature have shorter hospital stays and take less pain medication.

In a landmark study by Roger Ulrich published in 1984 in Science magazine, records on recovery after cholecystectomy of patients in a suburban Pennsylvania hospital between 1972 and 1981 were examined to determine whether assignment to a room with a window view of a natural setting might have restorative influences. Twenty‐three surgical patients assigned to rooms with windows looking out on a natural scene had shorter postoperative hospital stays, received fewer negative evaluative comments in nurses’ notes, and took fewer potent analgesics than 23 matched patients in similar rooms with windows facing a brick building wall.

  • Noise significantly decreases children’s reading scores.

A longitudinal experiment published in 2002 in Psychological Science (Vol. 13, No. 9) examined the effects of the relocation of Munich’s airport on children’s health and cognition. Six months before and 12 months and 18 months after the airport closed and moved to a distant location, researchers — led by psychologists Staffan Hygge, PhD, Gary W. Evans, PhD, and Monika Bullinger, PhD — administered tests of reading, memory, attention and hearing to third‐ and fourth‐graders who lived and attended school near the two airport sites. They found that the reading comprehension skills and long‐term memory of children near the old airport improved once air traffic moved to the new airport, while the performance of children near the new airport declined.

  • Memory performance can be enhanced by ambient odor

In a 1992 study by David G. Smith, Lionel Standing, and Anton De Man, subjects learned a list of 24 words while exposed to one of two odors (either jasmine incense or Lauren perfume) and subsequently relearned the list with either the same or the alternative odor present. Superior memory for the word list was found when the odor present during the relearning session was the same one that had been present at the time of the initial learning. There were no differences in initial learning between the two odor conditions. (Perceptual and Motor Skills: Volume 74, Issue, pp. 339‐343.)

  • “Green” practices increase worker productivity

A UCLA‐led study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior in February 2013 has found that companies that voluntarily adopt international “green” practices and standards have employees who are 16 percent more productive than the average.

In these examples and many others, research is demonstrating broad benefits to health, education, sales, and well-being through consideration of the built environment. And though it’s largely being considered through the lens of the physical environment — perhaps something like “Views of nature improve health… let’s make sure there are views of nature!” or “Quiet environments are conducive to learning… let’s make sure the classrooms are quiet!” — the outcomes could be enhanced even further.

We exist in our bodies. We experience the world first through our senses. Through conscious, careful consideration of all of our senses simultaneously, and through weaving those considerations into our solutions, environmental outcomes can be even further enhanced.

In each of the earlier examples, the first step to an improved outcome relied on the body’s ability to experience a new environment. In fact, they each relied largely on one or more of the senses for the new experience. The Ulrich study focused on views of nature — the sense of sight. The noise and reading studies focused on sound — the sense of hearing. The memory experiment focused on odor — the sense of smell. “Green” practices include considerations of light, air, and sound — the senses of sight, touch, smell and hearing.

We exist in our bodies. We experience the world first through our senses: a “view of nature” is experienced through our sense of sight. Quiet environments are experienced primarily through our sense of hearing. But we experience holistically; that is, we don’t experience the world one sense at a time. Through conscious, careful consideration of all of our senses simultaneously, and through weaving those considerations into our solutions, environmental outcomes can be even further enhanced.

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