Future Workspaces: Designing an Emotionally Intelligent Workplace

While some might have an awareness of their own and other people’s emotions, how can emotional intelligence be learnt if it doesn’t come naturally?


While in the past somebody’s IQ has been a celebrated metric in determining someone’s intelligence and intellectual aptitude, the importance of emotional intelligence has become an even more important indicator of a person’s ability to work effectively with others.

While some people might have grown up in an environment that encouraged the awareness of their own and other people’s emotions, or might intuitively know how to identify and deal with these, how can emotional intelligence be learnt or encouraged if it doesn’t come naturally?

When it comes to ensuring an effective work environment, there are those that believe that workspaces can be designed to be emotionally intelligent. In simple terms, this means designing a workplace that takes into consideration the ways that people feel and how this influences their behaviour and the way they interact. Designers and thought leaders in this space believe it’s possible to create opportunities for meaningful emotional exchange by being conscious of the ways in which the physical environment influences communication and employee engagement.

The importance of employee engagement has been made clear in various studies, such as one by The American Psychological Association, which found that companies with highly engaged employees generate 19 percent more operating income. However, another study by Ipsos in 2012 found that although many managers think that emotional intelligence is important, 75 percent of the managers interviewed were not strong in any of the key areas of emotional intelligence, which are the following:

  • self-awareness
  • self-regulation
  • motivation
  • empathy
  • social skills

To put it into concrete terms, emotional intelligence is defined as “…the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions; to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships; and to manage your own and others’ emotions.” This has obvious importance not only for the way in which employees interact with each other, but also how management interacts with and values employees. This can include everything from the way in which meetings are structured, the manner in which feedback is given, and the ways in which employees are given, or not given, the opportunity to communicate their frustrations.

In design terms, this can extend to the underlying assumptions present in the way workspaces are conceptualised and constructed. The tradition of separate cubicles and closed off meeting rooms don’t do much to create a sense of openness, with a perhaps subconscious desire to implement control, conformity and isolated focus. To create an environment where employees can express themselves and are given permission to deal with their emotions, consideration needs to be given to the way in which the office layout affects the way people feel, and how it enhances or restricts communication .

For example, this could include having open, collaborative spaces for meetings and team events, thereby also creating opportunities for spontaneous interactions. On the other hand, this also means creating more private, relaxing spaces where employees can retreat if they are having a bad day and just need to be by themselves. Creating an emotionally intelligent workplace could even include making sure that employees have access to comfortable furniture and other necessities like food, water and natural light. With this kind of awareness , employees feel that their needs are taken care of, and are more motivated to contribute and engage within this supportive environment.

As contemporary workspaces move towards more open, collaborative design, made famous by large multinationals like Google, it’s possible that we are already moving towards implementing these kinds of spaces naturally. However, as many companies are made up of remote teams where a physical workspace is not always applicable, emotional intelligence also needs to be implemented digitally. Designing an emotionally intelligent workspace in this case will involve communicating company culture via less tactile means such as regular meet-ups and interpersonal communication that values being able to deal with all kinds of emotions constructively.

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