Articles produced by Dr Edward Finch and Dr Guillermo Aranda-Mena, May 2020. Download PDF of this article

Part Two of the series: Creating the emotionally intelligent home workspace

Based on ‘Creating Emotionally Intelligent Workspaces
A Design Guide to Office Chemistry

2019 Outstanding New Textbook – Engineering – Award Winner

This pandemic may have prompted you to hurriedly create a home workspace. There is an abundance of ‘Top 10 Tips’ about finding the right space, lighting, hardware and ergonomics. By the way, you might even look into ‘adding some little things’ or personal touches. But far from being ‘little things’, these seemingly insignificant changes will dictate whether you will thrive in your home working environment. In this article we consider how our ‘emotional intelligence’ can be undermined by remote working. It also suggests that creating the right office can get us in touch with our own authentic self.

Enfeebling your emotional intelligence

You’ve now been entrusted with designing your own office. But you know nothing about office design. You may have unwillingly been confronted with jargon like ‘virtual private networks’ or ‘synchronised backups’ – but when it comes to workplace ‘soul’ the guys at the computer store had little to say. After a few days of crazed homeworking you may find that you’ve started to lose it. You’ve got ‘writers block’ and the domestic front is challenging.

The casualty of remote working is emotional intelligence – that precious skill that appears top of employers’ recruitment profiles. It’s also the skill that will determine whether you keep your job or not (a better predictor than IQ). Technology may get your IQ connected – but not your emotional intelligence.

A recent report by a prominent research institute [1] suggested that:

“Emotional Intelligence (EI) – the essential skillset for the age of AI, EI will be a must-have skill in the future, with demand likely to rise six-fold within the next five years.”

So what exactly is emotional intelligence? It’s an idea that was first formulated by the academics Salovey and Mayer from Yale university back in 1990 and was popularised by the journalist Goleman. It describes: –

“The ability to engage in sophisticated information processing about one’s own and others’ emotions and the ability to use this information as a guide to thinking and behaviour”[2]

Latterly, the term has been hijacked by ‘positive thinkers’ who advocate a state of happiness by simply choosing to be happy. But emotional intelligence is entirely different, as Mayer pointed out:

“Emotional intelligence, however, is not agreeableness. It is not optimism. It is not happiness. It is not calmness. It is not motivation. Such qualities, although important, have little to do with intelligence, little to do with emotions, and nearly nothing to do with actual emotional intelligence.” [3]

What effect does homeworking have on our emotional intelligence? Similarly, what effect does enforced home-schooling have on the emotional intelligence of a generation preparing for a workplace that craves these skills?

Working from home can affect our emotional intelligence. In this article we highlight the limitations of technology and the ‘instrumental’ home office. The frustrations of working from home invariably arise from simply thinking of our workspace as a tool.

“something that serves as a means to an end; an instrument by which something is effected or accomplished.”[4]

This technological view of our workspace undermines our efforts to understand our own emotions and those of others. Whilst our thoughts become preoccupied with productivity and efficiency, we leave little space for understanding our emotions and those of others [5], [6].

Is homeworking the way ahead?

Perhaps homeworking is the way ahead? The coronavirus outbreak has caused some business commentators to suggest that homeworking will become the work style of choice:

“Remote work is here to stay. The coronavirus crisis is making companies and employees increasingly more comfortable about working from home or out of the office.” [7]

But despite the prospect of reduced real estate costs and access to a wider flexible employment pool, many organisations have resisted homeworking as the default. It’s surprising that it’s the giant tech companies that have avoided homeworking. Back in 2013, the CEO of Yahoo banned employees from working remotely. A memo from the human resources chief indicated that “to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.” The memo went on to argue “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings…speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”[8]

Yahoo’s knee-jerk attempt to get people back to the office backfired. More than one third of their staff left within a year. But many other tech companies such as Google and Apple continue to rely on an office-based culture. As recently as 2017 IBM sought to move 2,000 employees back to the office – despite the fact that 40% of their 40,000 employees did not have an office at the time.  In a statement it was said that “in many fields, such as software development and digital marketing, the nature of work is changing, which requires new ways of working” [9]

Emotional intelligence is a vital resource, yet homeworking technology often fails to capture this elusive quality. Companies have been haemorrhaging trust, loyalty and commitment. Despite the outward language of agility, process and efficiency- it’s the inward language of emotional intelligence that is driving the corporate office.

When the well runs dry

Now we are approaching the post-Covid era, remote working has been shown to be wanting. As the saying goes “You never miss the water till the well runs dry”. Well for many of us, the emotional well has truly run dry.

You may have watched comedy panel shows on the TV during the Covid lockdown. Different heads appearing on different backgrounds: all attempting to deliver gags. The material is there, but somehow the banter is missing. There is no immediacy letting the comedian know whether the gag has worked and whether it has fired off the imagination of the other panel members. It’s that elusive chemistry that somehow only crystallises when people are together. We may well have experienced the same impediments when logging onto FaceTime or Skype or Zoom from home.

The problems today are less to do with connection speed, latency or hooking up. The difficulties revolve around turn-taking, picking up on side discussions, eye contact and detecting the ‘humphs’. And the casualty in all this is ‘emotional intelligence’. We don’t know when people are bored, frustrated, energised or indifferent. Actually picking up on these emotions can be challenging in the virtual world – yet they are profoundly important to understanding the success or failure of a linkup.

The Machine Stops
Image by Carolina Moscoso, graphic artist based in brooklyn

The emotional inadequacies of video calls were made plain by Forster over one hundred years ago, when he describes a dialogue between Vashti and her son:

“‘I have called you before, mother, but you were always busy or isolated. I have something particular to say.’

 ‘What is it, dearest boy? Be quick. Why could you not send it by pneumatic post?’

‘Because I prefer saying such a thing. I want——’

‘Well?’

‘I want you to come and see me.’

Vashti watched his face in the blue plate.

‘But I can see you!’ she exclaimed. ‘What more do you want?'”

(from “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster in The Oxford and Cambridge Review,November 1909).

Okay, Forster didn’t get it quite right. We now use a ‘tablet’ rather than a ‘blue plate’ and the Internet has proved more popular than pneumatic post. But in essence, we still have the same problem.

Remote working – it’s what we do

It seems that ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’ Living in a country that is almost the same landmass as the US, with a population that is less than 10% its size – has made Australians all-too-familiar with the challenge of remote working and remote education. At the same time that E.M. Forster was speculating about videoconferencing in 1909, the state of Victoria in Australia was busy developing its first distance learning correspondence program. The unique challenge of an extensive landmass and a dispersed population made remote working and distance education part of their culture’s DNA. By 1931, 1.5% of all Australian children were taught using a correspondence course.

‘technology has been intertwined through Australia’s history of distance education, impacting on today’s developments in education and all educational sectors’ [10].

By 1951, teachers routinely conducted classes with students in rural Australia using two-way wireless equipment.  Correspondence was reliant on the postal system and the teachers themselves depended on a correspondence qualification. Instead of electronic packets, many distance educated students had grown up with physical packets at the doorstep.


School of the Air Broken Hill and Hay
School of the Air Broken Hill and Hay

One of the reasons why audio communication proved so successful is the capacity of voice to communicate emotion as well as fact (as illustrated by the Australian early pioneers of distance education). A recent study at Yale University [11] found that it’s easier for people to comprehend emotions from a voice alone than when watching video. “Listeners tend to be more accurate at gauging speakers’ emotions during a voice-only interaction.” We often think of video communication as being rich in portraying body language and facial expressions. But it appears that it is precisely because we can be more deceptive about how we appear on screen, we have learnt to mislead our viewers. Doing the same with our voice is much more difficult because controlling vocals is much harder.

So perhaps less is more in the instrumental homeworking office?

Looking forward

After Covid, everything changes. We will understand what homeworking is good for and isn’t good for. For now people are starting to tap into the benefits of homeworking: and these are manifold. Whilst emotional intelligence is often disregarded in the ‘instrumental’ office, it doesn’t have to be that way.  

In the following two articles we emerge from the task-based confines of the instrumental office. Instead of being preoccupied with deadlines, plans and the future – we look at ways to embed the present and the past. This is achieved by looking at the ‘aesthetic’ and ‘symbolic’ world of workplace design. You don’t have to be a trained architect to embrace these ideas. We hope to show practical steps that are not about ‘adding those little things’ but ‘creating those great things’.

And unlike the modern open plan office, the home office doesn’t have to be ‘hot swappable’ – you can make it your own – ‘emotionally durable’.

References

[1]          ‘The effect of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on Emotional Intelligence (EI)’, Capgemini UK, Nov. 19, 2019. https://www.capgemini.com/gb-en/2019/11/the-effect-of-artificial-intelligence-ai-on-emotional-intelligence-ei/ (accessed Apr. 27, 2020).

[2]          J. D. Mayer, P. Salovey, and D. R. Caruso, ‘Emotional intelligence: New ability or eclectic traits?’, American Psychologist, vol. 63, no. 6, pp. 503–517, 2008, doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.63.6.503.

[3]          J. D. Mayer, ‘What Emotional Intelligence Is and Is Not’, Psychology Today, Sep. 21, 2009.

[4]          ‘Definition of TOOL’. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tool (accessed Apr. 27, 2020).

[5]          D. Stokols, ‘Instrumental and spiritual views of people-environment relations’, American Psychologist, vol. 45, no. 5, pp. 641–646, 1990, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.45.5.641.

[6]          S. Brand, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built. Penguin Books, 1995.

[7]          A. Lazarow, ‘Why you may still be working from home after the coronavirus crisis is over’, MarketWatch. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/why-you-may-still-be-working-from-home-after-the-coronavirus-crisis-is-over-2020-03-26 (accessed Apr. 24, 2020).

[8]          ‘“Yeah but, Yahoo!” Learning from Remote Work’s Biggest Fail’, DistantJob – Remote Recruitment Agency, Feb. 07, 2019. https://distantjob.com/blog/yeah-but-yahoo-learning-from-remote-works-biggest-fail/ (accessed Apr. 24, 2020).

[9]          ‘IBM tells employees working at home to get back to the office’. https://money.cnn.com/2017/05/19/technology/ibm-work-at-home/index.html (accessed Apr. 24, 2020).

[10]        E. Stacey, ‘The History of Distance Education in Australia’, Quarterly Review of Distance Education, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 253–259, 2005.

[11]        ‘Listeners Glean Emotions Better from Voice-Only Communications’, Yale Insights, Oct. 10, 2017. https://insights.som.yale.edu/insights/listeners-glean-emotions-better-from-voice-only-communications (accessed Apr. 29, 2020).