Episode 60

Sensory Processing in the Workplace

Listen in to this ONEder Podcast, where 2023 ONEder Grant winners from HOK, Katelyn Hoffman and Sarah Oppenhuizen, share insights from their research on "Sensory Processing in the Workplace: Designing for Neurodiversity." Learn more about the surprising similarities uncovered between the workspace needs of neurodiverse and neurotypical individuals, the impact of inclusive design strategies, and the future implications for designing workplaces where everyone can thrive.

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The ONEder Grant has enabled us to really put our money where our mouth is, so to speak, and implement what we've been talking about. To help both the neurodiverse population and the general population have more choice and agency within their workplace, and to show what the before and after of that looks like.


CCB: [00:00:17] Welcome to the ONEder Podcast. This is your host CCB, and today's conversation is with one of our ONEder Grant award winning teams. And I'm going to introduce them in a minute. But I want to remind us all that the ONEder Grant theme for this past year was: what might we think about to improve the wellness of individuals within the workplace, within the healing environment, within the learning environment. So have that in the back of your head when you listen to oh my gosh, the folks that we have with us today from HOK. So, I'm going to first say welcome, Katelyn Hoffman.

Katelyn: [00:00:55] Thanks CCB. I'm Katelyn, I'm a senior designer here in San Francisco at HOK. I've been with our studio for five years now, and I've been working in workplace design for a little over a decade in the Bay Area, and I'm extremely excited to be able to further the research on this topic, because outside of our homes, we consistently spend the most time in our workplace, so we have the biggest opportunity for impact there, and it's imperative we make those spaces more successful and inclusive, for the user base.

CCB: [00:01:32] Excellent. Thanks, Katelyn and Sarah Oppenhuizen. Tell us a little bit more about yourself.

Sarah: [00:01:38] Hello, thank you. CCB, I am Sarah Oppenhuizen. I'm the director of interiors for the HOK San Francisco office. I actually started on this neurodiversity research about six years ago. And it was, it was just eye opening to see how many things that we can do from a design perspective that will really help more people be successful in their workplaces. We at HOK, we're a large interdisciplinary design firm. We do architecture, interiors, consulting, strategy, mechanical and electrical and plumbing, all kinds of these things that come together to create workplaces that benefit human beings that are occupying them. So, we're excited to share with you more about that today.

CCB: [00:02:24] Excellent. So, we haven't said what's the title of your research project. So I'm going to just hand that over to you.

Katelyn: [00:02:31] I can start with that one. Um, so the title, the title of our overarching research is Sensory Processing in the workplace. So, designing for neurodiversity. And we've also expanded that to include sensory processing and cognitive well-being. So as Sarah mentioned, we've been working on this for several years now. But in a continuation of that research, we recently undertook an assessment of the general population in our offices, so, mixed neurotype groups, and compared that to an assessment of neurodivergent groups that we've taken from the general public of the USA. The survey was open to everyone on a voluntary basis, and those findings between the two groups were then compared to one another. And the goal was to identify similarities and differences between those two groupings. But in addition to that and compiling on that, we've also started a biometric study as well, which we can get into a little later, to further test those design strategies and verify and prove that the design strategies we've gathered from those surveys do create a more successful and improved environment for both neurodivergent, mixed neurotype, or neurotypical individuals.

CCB: [00:03:53] Okay. If I was going to reduce that to like a sentence and a half, I would say no, I'm laughing because it's always good to be able to go hmmmm. The work that you all have done is voluminous. So there are years and years and you all have at HOK, have published so many, you know, very relevant research papers around this particular work. But you've taken it to the next step, and that's what one of the things that the ONEder Grant was delighted to help support by comparing the existing survey that you had of neurodiverse folks in a general population, to all of the folks that work in HOK in the offices that you chose. So now you've got these two surveys that you compare and, ultimately, you've made recommendations. HOK has made recommendations for design before, but you kind of tighten that up to make it be more inclusive. And I think that's one of the things that we'd love to hear a little bit more about, more detail on how did you structure the research for this particular opportunity?

Sarah: [00:05:04] I think that for this particular opportunity, we really wanted to dive into how does what we find as part of, like the general population, those mixed neurotypes, how does that compare to the group that was specifically identified as neurodiverse? And the most staggering findings were that we are, there's a lot of good things that are the same as part of this. Ultimately leading us to say we are all neurodiverse on some scale. And the comparison of the two surveys validated that hypothesis, that when we design for the extreme, we benefit the mean. And that was all proven out through the survey findings. Our group of of neurotypical and neurodiverse individuals at HOK was in alignment with the overall general population. But the specific things that individuals need from their workplace were relatively consistent between the solely neurodiverse group and the mixed neurotype group, which was a really interesting finding. There were some differences, of course, in terms of the priorities. Um, but the top five things that people need to be successful in their spaces was the same for both survey groups.

CCB: [00:06:23] Okay. So I'm going to take a little moment here and say, remind our listeners that there is the full body of research and a single page abstract that kind of describes this work on the HOK page on the ONEder Grant page. So you're going to be able to download the full research project if you like. And when you do, listeners, you're going to be able to recognize yourself in some of the findings that they've, that they've compiled. And I wonder if you hmmm. if you want to take those, like, list those top five things that if that was something that you wanted to share with us. Because I will say personally, as I was looking through all of them. There might be more than five that I resonate with, but at different times, which I thought was also kind of interesting. So what, how, how much deeper do you want to go into kind of the categories that you identified?

Katelyn: [00:07:23] I can share some of those top design elements that came to light. And as Sarah mentioned, they are all almost identical, just in a different order. So our survey takers listed from most important to least important, these design strategies and how it would benefit them. And they were just in slightly different orders between the two groups. But those included, I'll just name a few off the top: agency of choice over where you sit and work. So being able to move around a space and change your posture throughout the day. Having a dedicated workspace, especially for people who need routine, who need to be able to come in and know where they're going exactly when they get into their office at the beginning of the day. Uh, access to natural daylight, dedicated quiet rooms for retreat from an open office area, spaces with adjustable lighting, spaces with biophilic elements. So, that's inclusive of plants, not just natural lighting, but other biophilic elements, adjustable ergonomic furniture for physical comfort, of course reducing visual clutter or providing screens to block visibility into either neighbors clutter or clutter throughout the rest of the space. Visual distractions. And then on top of that, allowing clear lines of sight so that horizon effect you can pop up from out of maybe more of a huddle booth type scenario and be able to see the horizon of the space. So you have an understanding of where you are, and the greater picture of things.

CCB: [00:08:50] There's going to be something really interesting for people that are listening to all there. We have three ONEder grants this year and um, all three of them have overlaps because of the the nature of wellness and human beings. It's it's going to be interesting for people to kind of recognize, gosh, the similarities, because as humans, we all appreciate certain environments, certain aspects of of how we work through a day. But if you take it in, in the workplace, I was interested in looking at, when you when you start talking about the diverse nature of the designs, how we're moving from, and Covid and remote work and hybrid work and all these things kind of, you know, fed into it. But we're moving from that giant open plan that we, you know, kind of left our offices, into a more balanced set of design building blocks. Could you speak to that a little bit?

Katelyn: [00:09:56] Yeah, I absolutely think we're entering more of a world of having a work lounge scenario. So if you picture an airport lounge or a hotel lobby where sure, there are some standard desks, but there's also a lounge chair, there's also a booth, or there's a phone room, or there's a collaboration table. And being able to move and adjust your space depending on how you're working, who you're working with, or what your personal preferences are throughout the day only strengthens your your employee base to be able to do their best work. And also, I think coming out of the pandemic and Covid, we've all been working from home for a while. Obviously you had that agency of choice all day long. You're able to go out to your backyard and work in the sun if you wanted to. You're able to go to your couch to answer emails if you didn't need to be sitting at a standard desk. So allowing that one, makes for a more comfortable, productive employee. And two, also kind of serves as a talent retention and talent attraction for your company. Being able to provide that flexibility that people have become accustomed to.

CCB: [00:11:05] Okay, I'm gonna ask Sarah a question. What about? So you've been doing this research and you have been, you know, really, really engaged in it for a number of years. And HOK has been working in this in this arena and with this kind of sensitivity and awareness, what do you see happening with your clients now that this research, either, you know, benefits and or informs conversations or helps with decision making?

Sarah: [00:11:35] You know, as we've been researching this over the past six years, that the research has been somewhat abstract, honestly, because we didn't have a physical place to actually test out these strategies. And the ONEder Grant has enabled us to really put put our money where our mouth is, so to speak, and implement what we've been talking about to help, you know, the neurodiverse population and the general population to have more choice and agency within their workplace to show what the before and after of that looks like. So with our San Francisco office, we did the before survey. We're going to do the after survey. We're taking that one step further in the future with our Seattle office to layer in biometric data as part of that. But what that means for our clients at this point is we can now say we have actual survey and biometric data that backs up all of this, all of these recommendations that we've been making all along that have been well researched but never actually had, you know, the space with the survey and biometric data to back it up. So I'm excited to be able to share that with our clients. And even in a case of like, these are the things we tried, these are the things that we would do differently. These are the things that are working well because we tested this within our own space. And so it's really, really encouraging to be able to have those conversations to say, you know, this is what works, this is what doesn't. This is what we recommend for you and your individual case based on your population and how we can help you create better workplaces.

CCB: [00:13:12] In a way, it was it's it's interesting to kind of absorb and synthesize all the information and stop and think, because the recommendations have much broader application now than the very specified, oh, this population needs this type of environment, which we might have heard in the past. So I think that's that's a really interesting moment and, and kind of awareness for me. And then I wondered what surprises did you kind of uncover yourselves as you were going through this research? Was there anything that was like a bigger aha or a smaller aha as you kind of move through the process?

Katelyn: [00:13:55] I think two for me and one Sara kind of already mentioned, was that the same design strategies were mentioned for both groups, mixed neurotype and neurodivergent. And it just again goes to show that when you are designing for a specific group type for the neurodivergent, you're not just helping them, but you're also better supporting the general employee base. And then another staggering percentage point that we just we discovered from our various surveys, was that one in five individuals are considered neurodivergent, but only 50% of those individuals know that. So again, that's even more supporting the notion of let's just design an environment for everyone, that's perhaps a little dialed up, maybe a few more specific spaces being a little more intentional than you might be for a neurotypical person, because people who are neurodivergent, half of them don't even know it. So, they're going to benefit from this without even realizing that they need it.

Sarah: [00:15:02] I just have to second, when Katelyn said, the biggest surprise for me was that there was so much similarity between the the neurotypical group and or the mixed neurotype group and the neurodiverse group. That was really shocking to me just how many similarities there were. I expected for there to be like a few more differences, but across the board it was very consistent about what people need from their workspace. And of course it's a scale, right, that and like Carolyn, you mentioned it on on any given day or on the task that you're doing. Individuals, whether they're neurotypical or neurodiverse, have different needs. And this research addresses all of that.

CCB: [00:15:44] I also think the there's an interesting kind of recognition that inclusivity and belonging are hand in hand. And so the more inclusive that we make, and I know it's like saying it out loud is just like, duh, common sense, but saying it out loud. The more inclusive we make spaces, the more we make spaces that everyone feels that they can belong in and not feel, you know, othered in any way, shape or form because you're not. They’re, it's all the same. And that, to me was pretty powerful to think about carrying that through, through, you know, any design and any conversation with a client who's concerned, you know, all the people that are concerned about, to your point, Katelyn, the talent attraction and talent retention, caring about your people, which is, you know, critical. Here's here's another really simple, powerful tool that you can deploy to that end. So you're kind of already talking about it. But when you work on a project like this, a research project that is so deep and so kind of networked throughout your entire organization, how do you how does an organization like HOK plan to deploy it? How do you share the information throughout? And and what does that look like, yu know, moving to Kansas or moving to, you know, any place else in the network?

Sarah: [00:17:17] So all of our white papers, including this research, is available on our on our interoffice hub. It's also available on HOK's website, because we want any individual who's interested in this to have this information and be able to implement it on on other projects as well, because we think it's the right thing to do for the population in general. But when it comes to how we, you know, share this research within HOK, not only is it available all internally, but we have like regular learning sessions where we share our findings with the team. We make recommendations on strategy. We talk about it internal to our teams, but then also talk about it at a firm-wide level. And you know, for those of us who are designing interior workspaces on a day-to-day basis, it becomes very ingrained in what we do. And so, then when we go talk to, like the rest of the architecture teams, it can be eye opening for them. And then it furthers additional questions and it, and it really inspires some really fascinating conversations and different ways that we engage with each other on future projects. And so one example of that is how when we first started doing this neurodiversity research, it was really focused around corporate workplaces. But through all of that research, we have found ways to introduce spaces that are provide that agency and choice within other types of projects that we're doing, most notably like in airports, and providing sensory rooms in airports, so that people who are neurodiverse have a safe space that they can go that's away from the hustle and bustle of an airport. But that all was a natural evolution of talking to our other partners throughout the firm. And how can we best implement this, you know, regardless of project type overall? Now, Katelyn anything to add on that?

CCB: [00:19:14] Right. Or vertical market that's going to remind me to to plug to your third colleague who was on the project, who is Kay Sargeant, very well known in the design world for her in, you know, intentional research and communications around neurodiversity. But I remember working on a, working with my Learning Environments team on a project and, and we were talking about kind of the wellness rooms or timeout rooms or, and I picked up the phone and called Kay, and this was years ago, but just said, hey, what, what are you seeing? Where's the relevance? Where's the generalization? You know from from workplace to learning environments to and I can just see that, you know, the the firm wide intelligence around the sensitivity makes you all better no matter what the, you know, the, the market is that you're designing for.

Katelyn: [00:20:12] And I think another opportunity for exposure to our fellow HOK employees with the ONEder Grant specifically, was getting them involved in the research. So we have our biometric study happening actually in our Seattle office. That's where we're conducting it with alongside their renovation, but allowing them to be a part of the research and then informing them and keeping them up to date on what we're finding, I feel like has created a lot of excitement up there, as well as in our San Francisco office, where we did the survey. And people are becoming more and more interested not only in being a part of the survey, but then the findings and the data collected from those and applying those to their current projects. So that's been, it's been fun to include them in the research.

CCB: [00:20:57] How about we talked about what what HOK does with the insights kind of internally, and how you incorporate that into conversations with clients, regardless of kind of the discipline. What about the design industry? You you HOK has been inordinately generous with all of the the research, do the survey and, you know, any of the other tools go along with that. Is that open source as well, or is that does that stay inside the firm?

Katelyn: [00:21:30] I think the findings are released, right. But if the question is the specific questions or the survey format. To be able for someone else to administer the same survey. I'm uncertain about that.

CCB: [00:21:44] Yeah, it's just an interesting thought because some some tools are, you know, are open source and other tools are very firm specific. So, you know, it just that's a that's a question that we probably will find out, you know, as we move down the road because I know you are, you will be continuing with the project.

Katelyn: [00:22:06] Yes. So, our biometric research is mentioned is still underway. As we're all familiar, and I'm sure many listeners are familiar with schedule changes and and those getting pushed out. So we are currently administering our biometric study on our Seattle office in their current space. And their current space was not designed to be neuroinclusive and did not incorporate the design strategies that we uncovered from our survey results. However, their new office, which will be ready in, I believe, uh, May. Sarah, May, June, June, June, June, maybe, maybe a few more weeks of a schedule push. They will be moving from the current office into the new office, where they will continue to wear their biometric monitors, and we will compare the health wellness from those biometric results between the two time frames, and see how those environments have affected the wellness and sensory processing in the new space.

Sarah: [00:23:14] CCB, I want to go back to your question, because within the design industry as a whole, we have partnered with other groups, and I want to note that we did work with Berkeley's Center for the Built Environment as a third party validator, that they reviewed our survey questions and made sure that we weren't leaning into the bias of the fact that we are architects and we are familiar with spaces already. And so, we got really great input from them, and are continuing to work with them to validate that our findings are objective. So that's been a great partnership. And in the past we've actually also worked with Tarkett, um, on, you know, how does flooring impact neurodiversity. And those kinds of partnerships, as well as our partnership with one workplace has all furthered that that research along. And I think they've all been wonderful relationships. And it's great to have those types of partners who want to be part of making spaces better as a whole. So, thank you for all of your efforts there.

CCB: [00:24:19] Oh, certainly. I mean, we're we're delighted to to be partners in this, you know, continuing research. And I do want to reinforce that, that that I know we know that OKk continues on with this and, and remind listeners that on the website there are on we’ll have along with the podcast transcript. There will be links to many of the references that Caitlin and Sarah have made. So you can actually go back and find not only all the research in the research document, but any of the references, they'll be linked. So we try and make it as easy as possible for you to find if listeners have a greater interest in learning more, where they can find it will be pretty clear. Okay, so we're coming, you know, kind of coming towards the end of the conversation. And I wondered, beyond this project. What's next? What's next with this work? You've got the two, uh, offices that are going to have, you know, some design implications, as you know, from the impact of the survey results. But where does this project, you know, continue? It has a life of its own, in a way. So I just wondered,

Katelyn: [00:25:38] it does. I think for me at least, it's the hope that these design strategies won't be a quote, add on package to clients anymore, but rather the baseline of design moving forward, because our qualitative proof from our studies will incline clients to just include them for the benefit of the masses.

Sarah: [00:26:00] Regarding the research specifically and how we can continue to push this, I you are totally right that it does have a mind of its own. There's so many different directions that we can take this, but I think that we're going to continue to try to hone in on, you know, what are the specific strategies that are making the biggest difference so that we can help guide clients towards like here are the here are the areas for impact, right, that we can really make the biggest difference on your workplace, your airport, your sports stadium that makes a big difference for your employees, your guests. And our research covers like every sense, right? You think about most of the time when we're talking about design, we're talking about visually what you see and maybe what you feel. But those, you know, we have to figure in, you know what you smell, what you hear and your sense of space as a whole. And I think actually the auditory element is a really interesting one that we're working towards pushing, pushing in more detail in the future. Just the level of impact that sound has on different individuals in a space, and their productivity and so stay tuned for more on that.

CCB: [00:27:16] For more on that. So to remind listeners that all of this research literally, you know, it's like another CEU in the in the content from the research report that that there it is so deep and so inclusive. The research as well as the topic in general. II had one question that came to my mind as both of you were talking, which was often that that add on package, you know, is looked at from the perspective of cost, but this one doesn't really have a cost impact.

Katelyn: [00:27:51] I might challenge it not having a cost impact slightly, just because by providing these varied environments, you're probably having to either decrease in dedicated desk space or decrease in another way in order to have the footprint space needed to have all these neuroinclusive environments. And so it is sometimes a compromise we're asking clients to make in regards to perhaps some archaic understanding of what an open office is. And asking them to trust us and maybe have a slightly larger space in order to incorporate more of these environments, which in turn larger space, a little higher rent.

CCB: [00:28:33] Okay, well thank you, I stand corrected. I was thinking about the in today's world where we don't see one person, one desk at all with hybrid and remote work, I mean, it's, it's it's much less, that that trade off tends to be kind of less burdensome.

Katelyn: [00:28:55] For sure it's becoming more and more common for a hoteling scenario.

CCB: [00:28:59] Yeah. Okay. So we are at the end of our conversation. You guys have, uh, you you folks have done an amazing job and sharing, and you each get the opportunity to say one more thing. If there's anything at all you felt we didn't address or that you would like to underscore as something horribly important that listeners should not forget, or you could just say, thank you so much. This was a great conversation.

Katelyn: [00:29:26] There. There is one quote that we've unearthed in our research that has really stuck with me, from an autistic student who stated, “we are freshwater fish in saltwater. put us, put us in freshwater and we function just fine, put us in saltwater and we struggle to survive.”. So again, honing in on if we design for the extreme or benefiting the mean, what's stopping us from designing a slightly dialed up environment where we support the success of neurodivergent individuals and in turn also support the success of the remainder of the employees? It just seems like a win-win.

Sarah: [00:30:09] I think that's an excellent way to close. I don't think I can do any better than that. I would just say thank you, um, to everyone who tuned in today, and thank you to CCB and the entire team at One Workplace for including this, including us at HOK at this wonderful ONEder grant.

CCB: [00:30:29] Well, thank you very much for spending time with us and for sharing all that great research. And people are going to have the opportunity to see you, hear you, read you, and we're delighted to offer that to you all. Take care and come back and listen to another ONEder Grant. It's always available on Spotify, Google, Apple, any of your streaming platforms. CCB. signing off. Thank you.