Articles produced by Dr Edward Finch and Dr Guillermo Aranda-Mena, May 2020. Download PDF of this article
Part Three 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
In the previous article we discussed the limitations of the purely instrumental office. In this article, we examine the ‘aesthetic’ possibilities of the home office and the potential benefits of a working environment designed to suit you – and only you.
Being rather than doing. It’s something we can’t find space for nowadays. When we enter our ‘home office’ we are full of trepidation as the work awaits us. Our challenge is to be as productive as possible in an undisturbed closet. After all, that’s what pays the bills isn’t it? But we can’t neglect ‘being’ – being in touch with ourselves. Perhaps we separate being and doing according to rooms in the house. Outside of the office we are congenial, open and empathetic. In the office itself we just want to be left alone. That is the maxim of the instrumental office.
But a home office should provide space for being too. After all, isn’t thinking and reflection just as important. We might call this daydreaming – but this is a little unfair. With the evolution of AI and automation, it’s our unique human ability to cogitate that remains unchallenged. I hear you say “I do most of my reflection when I’m walking the dog” – but the home office can also provide a suitable environment.
Before the 20th-century, the home office was also a place where we could confront and understand our own emotional state. In Dickens’ book ‘Bleak House’, Mr Jarndyce always retreated to the growlery whenever he felt the ‘East wind’. It’s defined as:
“A place of refuge or retreat when one is out of sorts or in ill humour”
Even the U.K.’s national newspaper The Times, advocated the use of a growlery – during the covid lockdown period. And of course, we don’t just need the home office when we are ‘out of sorts’. We also need the growlery to nurture positive emotions (perhaps we would call this self-actualisation or self-development).
The aesthetic home office
So what are the features of the modern-day ‘growlery’? In our book ‘Creating emotionally intelligent workspace’ we identified three key facets of office space (based on a study by ):
Instrumental + Aesthetic + Symbolic
The aesthetic qualities of any space are often seen as inessential – peripheral- nice to have but not important. But current scientific thinking shows that our environment has a significant influence on our emotional awareness, wellbeing and productivity.
Aesthetics and emotion influence our here and now. They impact our sensory system, without the intervention of cognitive processing. We feel things with our ‘heart and not our mind’. One type of affect that is particularly important in our home office is mood. Unlike emotion, mood is more generalised and is not tied to any particular trigger or event. Mood is that feeling that can last for minutes, hours or even days. Our environment can amplify or change our state of mind. As we walk around an art exhibition, we experience different emotions as we interact with particular exhibits. But when it comes to restaurants, we refer instead to the ambience or mood. The same could be said about home offices where mood is the most important effect, having lasting effects on our state of mind.
Mood and emotion are best understood from the point of view of evolutionary psychology. We like to think we can upgrade our printer, our computer or even our lighting system in the office. But when it comes to our own human ‘make up’ changes are not so easily made. In fact, we are hardwired in a way that reflects our human ancestry. In particular, evolutionary psychologists argue that our modern-day behaviours, emotion and thinking reflect our ancestral environment where our forefathers survived. For a large part of human evolution, humans survived in the savannah grassland. As a result, humans acquired shorthand psychological adaptations to solve recurrent problems. These adaptations included the ability to infer others’ emotions, discern kin from non-kin, and identify healthy mates. When designing our own home office, evolutionary psychology provides a key insight as to why some working environments are more attractive, more stimulating and less threatening than others.
The bespoke office
What are the design issues we should be thinking about in our home office? We have one thing working in our favour if we are freed from the constraints of the work office. We can arrange things so that they fit with our own temperament and mood. No more compromises with shared space. Everything from lighting, seating position, temperature and decoration are all under your own control. No interference from the workplace police.
But given this flexibility, what are the choices that will bring out the best in you?
Below are listed 5 key areas that you might consider (all of which are now the subject of scientific research).
Naturalness: Often referred to as biophilia or ‘love of life or living systems’. The social psychologist Eric Fromm used it to describe a psychological orientation towards all that is alive and vital. But this involves much more than simply placing a pot plant on the windowsill. The modern-day scientific interpretation revolves around our understanding of ‘fractal rich’ environments – this is the visual landscape that mimics the level of complexity encountered in nature. Whilst it is popular to talk about decluttering (as in the popularised Marie Kondo approach), research in biophilia suggests that a level of visual complexity derived from naturalness can significantly improve our ability to concentrate and maintain attention.
Restoration: Art Restoration Theory (ART)  suggests that mental fatigue and concentration can be improved by time spent in or simply looking at nature. To be effective, a restorative environment needs to have the following four characteristics: –
- Provide a level of immersion in a natural setting
- Provide a level of escape from habitual activities
- Provide ‘soft fascination’ such that the environment can attract a person’s attention effortlessly
- Be compatible with a person’s willingness to appreciate the environment
ART is intimately linked with biophilia. The ability to see clouds passing by, hear trees rustling in the garden or any other ‘soft fascination’ provides a restorative influence in the home office. Depleted mental resources can be restored by immersion in nature. Unlike in the instrumental office where attention is voluntary and directed by cognitive control processes, in the aesthetic office attention is captured by inherently intriguing or important stimuli.
Colour: Choice of colour room colour is something that occupies the mind of most home office designers. It seems that different colours have different effects. Red can increase heart rate and respiration rates and is seen as the ideal for increasing performance and productivity but it can also increase tension. Blue and green are found to have a calming effect. Yellow is an optimistic colour that can stimulate creativity. White can create a sense of optimism as well as making the home office look bigger. Blue is often preferred because of its ability to enhance brain function and mood. But in the words of a leading colour specialist:
“To assume that colour can improve wellbeing and productivity on its own would be reductionistic and unrealistic.”
One other problem of focusing on the home office colour is its fixity. Desired moods may change according to task; time of day; well-being – and emotional state. Researchers have instead turned their attention to using coloured lights to facilitate these changes.
Light: Traditionally, lighting designers have focused on the amount of light falling on the horizontal or vertical plane in order to accomplish tasks (task illuminance). Today, designers are showing a greater interest in the relationships between light-based emotions and behaviours, and the psychophysical responses to lit environments. Light stimuli (i.e. sensory input) is able to induce specific emotions, behaviours and mood, as well as influence bodily and mental health, but also the level of aesthetic appreciation by the perceiver towards a given environment.
If you are fortunate enough to be in a home office with adequate natural light, you will benefit from its well-documented health benefits in terms of preventing diabetes, osteoporosis and heart disease. Even with full-spectrum lighting – designed to mimic natural light – it is not possible to reproduce all of the benefits of sunlight. Another characteristic of sunlight is its rhythmic nature that accords with the circadian rhythm of the human body. Anybody that has experienced jetlag will know the stress effect of being out of touch with the daily rhythms. Recent attempts to design dynamic lighting at work  may provide some hope for those seeking to reproduce the natural activation and relaxation of natural light in the home office.
Artwork: Many organisations use artwork in the reception area and in meeting rooms. But rarely do they use it in the main office area. This is surprising because of its ability to reduce stress and increase morale. In a holistic UK study involving 350 workplaces, it was found that 70% of the workplaces had no artwork installed and 95% of people could not see a piece of artwork from their workstation. In the same study the colour of the walls, air temperature, air movement were changed as was the introduction of artwork. Artwork was found to be the most significant predictor of alertness and satisfaction. Having the ability to look at something other than their work was seen as important to overcoming their afternoon slump.
Doing it your way
The homeworker is uniquely positioned to create a work environment that fits exactly with their temperament, mood and workplace activities. Compare this with the modern office that is constrained by the competing interests of brand, appearance, commoditisation, exchangeability and cultural conflict. All of these concerns invariably compromise the possibilities of the ‘aesthetic office’. Being able to ‘bring the outside in’ and embrace the aesthetic of naturalness provides a unique asset for the home working environment.
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