Articles produced by Dr Edward Finch and Dr Guillermo Aranda-Mena, May 2020. Download PDF of this article
Part Four 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
How do we create the workspace that is truly connected with ourselves and our colleagues? In the previous article we explored how changes to the workplace could provide a sensory environment that could reconnect our emotions – getting us in touch with the here and now. But as well as re-engaging with the present, the office also needs to get in touch with the past. Only by creating a coherent narrative about the past can we engage with our organisation and others sharing our domestic environment.
What is a symbol?
As well as providing the functional requirements, our home office also has the potential to speak to us; to speak to those seeing us through the aperture of a webcam; and speak to those that inhabit the blurred boundaries of our home. In normal circumstances, we can use gestures, non-verbal intonations and expressions to ‘speak’ to others. But we can also use our office environment to do exactly this through symbolic communication. The office itself and the objects and spaces within can possess symbolic meaning. In Edmund Spenser’s poem of 1590 a symbol is described as:
“something which stands for something else” from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590)
That something else can be an object, idea or relationship. When we think of the office as an idea or relationship -rather than just an object or space – we start to understand the full potential of symbolic communication. We also unravel the conflicts that inevitably arise in a shared home environment. For many homeworkers, the home office is not dedicated, but instead is a multipurpose, transient space with fuzzy boundaries. Symbolism rather than Cartesian geometry is required to convey territory and space.
When we open up our home office to others through the use of web cams, a microphone or even an open door, people become more than observers. They become Interpreters of the physical environment rather than just participants in an exchange. The perceived office conveys many intended and unintended meanings. For example, when a home worker displays a well-stocked bookshelf as a background in a web conference, they might intend to convey the idea of being erudite, cultured or scholarly. For the remote observer, they may feel that the bookish display suggests insecurity, pretension or even deceit.
The impromptu nature of the home office during the Covid 19 pandemic illustrates how the office needs to be understood in symbolic terms:-
“This is not normal working from home. This is working from home, unexpectedly, during an unprecedented crisis. The normal benefits of working from home do not apply. Rather than working in a remote office or well-appointed home office, some people are working in impromptu in bedrooms, at kitchen tables and on sofas while partners, children, siblings, parents, roommates, and pets distract them. Others are spending all day alone in a studio or one-bedroom apartment.”
Closely related to the idea of symbolism is the term sense-making. It’s definition reminds us that any symbol relies on two things 1) memory and 2) some form of emotional attachment.
“the ongoing retrospective development of plausible images that rationalize what people are doing”
As we design our home office, as it evolves, as we create a history within it – these images together form a coherent set of images that enable us to make sense of our work and our organisation.
The idea of sensemaking was originally conceived by Weick  in the 1970s who sought a change in traditional organisational theory away from decision-making to ‘how meaning drives organising’. Despite its widespread adoption in management publications, scant research has been applied to the role of the physical environment in sensemaking. This stems from the common belief that sensemaking is a purely cognitive process. Contrary to this ‘purely cognitive’ approach, other authors have argued that ‘materiality’ and the physical environment are pivotal in creating a coherent narrative about ourselves, our work and our organisation. In other words, sensemaking should not marginalise environment-behaviour as a sense making mechanism. The office itself can change that way that we see things.
Bakke and Bean refer to the “emergent trend in organisation studies that recognises and emphasises the materiality and corporeality of organisations and societies, which can be understood as thinking, working, and collaborating bodies within buildings, among technologies and art, together with a myriad of other artefacts, which all are interwoven in an equally complex material society.”
It’s been observed that “senses ‘make sense’. That is, they co-constitute and shape feelings, thinking, meaning and action as well as the culture of organisations.” Much the same could be said of artefacts as symbols in the workplace. It seems that our office tells a story – one that is deeply embedded and influential in our daily routines and our wider understanding.
Symbols in the home office
So we know what a symbol is. But how does my home office communicate meaning to myself and others? Symbols play a key part in creating and evolving a workspace at home. Sometimes the meanings are intended or unintended. Knowing the secrets of symbology can really make a difference. Issues to consider include:
- How we use space to define territory
- How we use space to enable transition
- How we become attached to space and express ourselves
In the remaining parts, we explore practical issues surrounding 1) territory; 2) transitions and 3) place attachment in our home office.
Many people do not have the luxury of a discrete home office. Some form of distance is necessary to establish a separation between home and work. In a shared environment, work-family conflicts are inevitable. In order to be successful with teleworking, a remote worker needs to establish clear boundaries. Some observers have recommended using barriers to establish a distance between family and work affairs. This process of appropriation (land grabbing!) is described by some as a fairly orderly process:
“During the appropriation process an individual adds his or her own ideas and symbols to a space. During the control process, worker behaviour with respect to the use of the space is laid out and defined by the teleworker. The other members of the household understand this, and follow certain rules to respect the space.”
In reality, we know that this process invariably involves conflict. If people fail to respect the elements that enable the representation of space (symbols), the remote worker will always experience difficulties. Establishing boundaries between work and family life is requisite for successful homeworking.
Goffman  suggested that people manage their individual identity according to whether they are in a ‘public’ or ‘private’ space. In just the same way that actors perform ‘front stage’ or ‘backstage’ people in the home office do likewise. They manage how they present themselves according to the audience in front of them, whether it be their clients, work colleagues, children or spouses. In front-stage regions (front of house) people adhere to certain scripts – they are required to regulate their emotions during interactions with customers, co-workers and superiors. In a videoconferencing context, this emotional control may be difficult to adhere to – with viewers often seen as interlopers on a domestic scene. The term ‘emotional labour’ was used to describe this ‘public face’ by Hochschild . In contrast, backstage regions (e.g. the kitchen) provide private arenas allowing individuals to step out of character.
Liminal spaces represent the in-between spaces that often have a strong symbolic meaning. “Our experiences and how we feel in these spaces are deeply connected to our memories, thoughts and imaginations”[10, p. 636]. The term ‘liminal space’ comes from the Latin word meaning ‘threshold’ and refers to a period of time/space that is ‘in-between’: it is neither front of house or back office. It’s often seen as an environment that is free from structural obligations and where ‘anything may happen’[11, p. 13]. In this transitory space, people have the opportunity to share secrets and speak frankly. Transition spaces are invaluable to home workers – even if they are only symbolised by a threshold, a piece of art or some mistletoe! In the Covid pandemic the ceremony of going to the bathroom and washing hands provides a useful ‘mental’ transition from one role to another.
Unlike the traditional office, the home office enables us to incorporate something of ourselves. We like to feel that we have had some input, expressing our place in our own organisation (albeit remotely). Just how strong is that sense of attachment arising from our personal investment of emotion? A renowned study demonstrated the symbolic importance of ‘self-made’ products. The study entitled ‘The IKEA Effect: When Labor Leads to Love’  involved four exercises in which consumers assembled IKEA boxes, folded origami, and built sets of Lego. The researchers wanted to examine whether an increase in valuation of self-made products occurred – something they referred to as the IKEA effect. The suggestion is that when people imbue products with their own labour, their effort increases their valuation – giving as an example the ‘Build-a-bear’™ phenomena.
In their first experiment they attempted to find out whether individuals (DIYers and novices) attached greater value to goods they had assembled compared to similar goods that were preassembled (by an expert). A standard utilitarian (instrumental) product – an IKEA box – was assembled. This did not allow for customisation to reflect the idiosyncrasies of the individual. The experiment was designed to establish the magnitude of the IKEA effect by comparing participants’ willingness-to-pay for their own creations with that of a preassembled item.
A second similar experiment involved a symbolic item that seemed to satisfy the need for self-expression – or showing off to others. The participants were asked to create either an origami frog or crane, and were offered a chance to buy these creations with their own money.
The findings of the experiment confirmed that people really do believe that their self-made products are as good as the experts. Interestingly, the study also showed that successful completion was an important part of their increased willingness to pay. People who built and then unbuilt their handiwork (or were not allowed to complete the assembly) did not show an increased willingness to pay. Furthermore, the IKEA effect doesn’t just arise simply because people can incorporate their own idiosyncrasies – it seems that simply ‘giving a part of themselves’ makes the difference.
Blood, sweat and tears
So, don’t despair as you put together your flatpack home office. In the blood, sweat and tears (of which there will be many) you can say that you have put something of yourself into your home office. The office has become much more than a tool – it’s become a symbol of yourself.
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