First published in i-FM Net, September 2019

The subject of emotional intelligence seems to be everywhere – in bookshops, magazines and Twitter feeds. All of the publications remind us that conventional intelligence (IQ) is not a very good predictor of an individual’s likely success – either in work or socially. It seems that emotional intelligence (EQ) is a much better predictor. EQ describes “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions”[1].  Daniel Goleman popularised emotional intelligence in 1996 in a book of the same name that has sold over 5 million copies worldwide. He also co-authored a book entitled ‘The emotionally intelligent workplace’ that might have caught the facility manager’s attention. But (somewhat disappointingly) the book’s point of reference is people and organisations. The physical environment it seems, plays no part in emotional intelligence: an opinion that is reflected in most publications on the subject. 

Nurture versus nature

‘She leaves dead bodies in her path’ or ‘his lift doesn’t go to the top’ are expressions we might (perhaps unfairly) use to describe co-workers or managers who lack emotional intelligence. A medical condition known as alexithymia, suffered by 10% of the population, actually characterises people that are short of empathy, lacking in awareness, social attachment and interpersonal relating. Should we look to personality tests in order to weed out those with low EQ?

The HR profession has been quick to embrace emotional intelligence measurement tools, engaging EQ consultancy firms in a whole industry influencing recruitment and training. Today it has a profound influence on the shape of the modern-day workforce; in the way that we select and mould employees. It has also been the subject of growing criticism, with the potential for prejudicial recruitment policies. Used in the wrong way, emotional intelligence can create a homogenous ‘cookie-cutter’ work culture at a time when companies need to tap into neurodiversity. Variations in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions is now recognised as an organisational asset rather than a problem. Societal barriers, including workplace design, are the main contributing factors that impair people

What possible relevance does emotional intelligence have in the FM field? In our recent book ‘Creating the emotionally intelligent workspace’ [2] we wanted to find out whether the office landscape itself could enhance or undermine our ability to monitor our own feelings and the feelings of others. Instead of looking solely at the individual person, we wanted to look at the emotionally intelligent environment. Following our two-year study involving consultation with practitioners and leading research, we came to the conclusion that emotional intelligence was not the exclusive domain of the human resources department. In fact, facilities management could provide a more inclusive and wide-ranging approach to the EQ.

Emotional traction in the non-territorial office

Emotional intelligence is irreplaceable in the ‘non-territorial’ office, where boundaries are unspoken and rules are nuanced. Employees have to exercise some of the key characteristics of emotional intelligence: –

  • perceiving emotions – in ourselves and others (their faces and voices)
  • using emotions – choosing tasks that fit their current moods or using emotions to accomplish problem-solving activities in the workplace
  • understanding emotions – being able to perceive slight variations and nuances
  • manage emotions – being able to harness emotions including negative ones to fulfil goals.

A workplace designer may be struck by how each of these four characteristics is influenced by the physical environment. Changing the emotional setting alters our ability to make sense of other individuals, groups and ourselves. Studies have shown that the way we perceive faces is significantly affected by background. In one study[3], participants were asked to rate the perceived dominance of neutral faces that appeared in front of different backgrounds (classified as either low or strong dominance – where dominance describes the strength or potency of an individual or background). The findings suggest that everyday dynamic background textures can influence facial dominance. Similar findings emerge when we look at different lighting and acoustic settings. In another study[4], virtual acoustic rooms of varying sizes were used to assess listeners’ emotional responses. Small rooms were considered more pleasant, calmer, and safer than big rooms, although this effect of size seems to disappear when listening to threatening sound sources. Sounds heard behind the listeners tended to be more arousing, and produced larger physiological changes than sources in front of the listeners.

The instrumental workplace

Management theorists have until recently thought of emotion as an unwelcome distraction in the workplace – at odds with a rational approach to work. Behavioural approaches have tended to focus on how we think rather than how we feel. Even with the increased interest in emotions in the 21st-century, the focus has tended to be on stress and satisfaction. Satisfaction is a very non-specific measure that facilities managers use to describe whether occupants feel ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the workplace. However, two employees may indicate feeling equally satisfied with their work environment, but one is expressing the general feeling of contentment and calm whilst the other is feeling excited and enthusiastic: user satisfaction is a very blunt tool. Another problem is that stress and satisfaction provide only very weak predictors of organisational outcomes such as absence, performance, turnover or health.

In the world of the ‘instrumental’ workplace, emotions most often arise as negative emotions. Our aim as facilities managers is to minimise negative emotions (for example, anxiety, frustration or more intense emotions such as anger). Often issues revolve around discomfort or IT issues. The FM plays the role of ‘fixer’ responding to negative feedback. Adopting this instrumental view, users and FM’s alike are encouraged to think of the workplace as a ‘tool’ for supporting individual productivity and organisational effectiveness. In this worldview technology plays its part in a task driven, future oriented workplace.

The digital nomad

But what if we consider a world in which the workplace is seen not as a tool, but as an end in itself? What if we thought of the workplace as a ‘context in which important human values are cultivated’[5]?  Not all commentators have embraced the workplace’s ‘spiritual’ potential for positive emotion. The 20th century management theorist, Maslow (well-known for the ‘hierarchy of needs’), investigated psychological growth and transcendence at work. However, he didn’t believe that the physical environment had any role to play in it:

“…. I feel we must leap beyond these statements, admirable though they may be, to the clear recognition of transcendence of the environment, independent of it, able to stand against it, to fight it, to neglect it, or to turn one’s back on it, to refuse it or adapt to it” [6, p. 180]

This view was also expressed by W. Somerset Maugham, the English playwright:

“One cannot find peace in work or in pleasure, in the world or in a convent, but only in one’s soul”.

Modern-day digital nomads may also claim to have transcended their work environment – that they do not look to the workplace as a source of self-fulfilment. Such employees appear to fit nicely in a ‘clear-desk’ environment, in which standardisation and modularisation eclipses uniqueness or customisation. Technology allows a ‘friction free’ work experience with no hassle. ‘It’s not supposed to be fun – that’s why it’s called work’ is a common refrain. The unspoken office etiquette called ‘civilised indifference’ is symptomatic of this disengagement process – people look away rather than engage in conversation. The emergence of headphones in the workplace encapsulates civilised indifference.

Designing with soul

In our pursuit of an interchangeable workplace we may have inadvertently designed-out its soul. The instrumental ‘Teflon’ workplace repels the human need to put down roots. But a growing number of remote workers feel they are missing out. The office provides the camaraderie and ability to stay in touch. But it provides much more than a ‘tool’. It enables unplanned conversations, can stimulate creative ideas and highlights issues that go unnoticed in the online world. These seemingly intangible benefits can only be understood if we look beyond the instrumental workplace. 

We naturally focus on the future-oriented instrumental workplace. After all, employee productivity and performance are measured in terms of output. But emotional intelligence recognises two other dimensions that are prerequisites to functioning as human beings:

  • Symbolism (past) – enables us to make sense of our world by attaching meaning to our environment. Symbolism allows people to imbue meaning in their surroundings. Positive emotions are most evident when employees have had some involvement in designing or implementing a workplace solution. The IKEA effect shows emphatically that people place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created. This scientific finding helps to explain the popularity of co-working and codesigned space. Symbolism also enables organisations to present their values and heritage.
  • Aesthetics (present)- enables us to engage in the present using our senses. It makes use of sensory design principles in which sound, touch and odour are treated as the equals of sight. Initiatives to incorporate biophilia and biomorphism illustrate the growing understanding of creativity and its human requirements.

Unlike the instrumental dimension where we combat negative emotions, the symbolic and aesthetic dimensions of the workplace make positive emotions possible. These are the ‘self-actualising’ emotions that allow us to flourish and realise our full potential. Examples include delight, joy, gratitude and serenity.

Moving forward

Facilities managers are no longer a sideshow in the burgeoning debate over emotional intelligence. Many organisations recognise that particular workplace interventions can heighten our positive emotions, contrary to the views of early management theorists. ‘Emotional traction’ can be implemented in offices that until now have endorsed the ‘friction-free’ work environment. Developments in neuro-architecture; neuro aesthetics and neuropsychology are providing irrefutable evidence that by dealing with the past and present we are able to facilitate the future. In this way we are able to make sure that the lift really does go to the top.¶


[1] J. D. Mayer and P. Salovey, ‘What is emotional intelligence?’, in Emotional Development and Emotional Intelligence, Basic Books, New York, NY., 1997.

[2] E. Finch and G. Aranda-Mena, Creating Emotionally Intelligent Workspaces : A design guide to office chemistry. Routledge, 2019.

[3] A. Toet, ‘Natural dynamic backgrounds affect perceived facial dominance’, Matters, vol. 2, no. 12, p. e201610000018, Dec. 2016.

[4] A. Tajadura-Jiménez, P. Larsson, A. Väljamäe, D. Västfjäll, and M. Kleiner, ‘When room size matters: acoustic influences on emotional responses to sounds’, Emotion, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 416–422, Jun. 2010.

[5] D. Stokols, ‘Instrumental and spiritual views of people-environment relations’, American Psychologist, vol. 45, no. 5, pp. 641–646, 1990.

[6] A. H. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being. Simon and Schuster, 2013.

[7] J. M. Malnar and F. Vodvarka, Sensory Design, First edition edition. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 2004.