The Productive Workplace: The Socially Intelligent Space

Social Intelligence is the second of the future skills that we will need to create working spaces for.

Social intelligence: ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense and stimulate reactions and desired interactions.

What has the social interaction between people got to do with work spaces though?

We all recognise spaces that are socially unintelligent, we normally call them words like impersonal and sterile. Organisations have recognised this too. It wasn’t that long ago when on entry to a bank you would be met by a set of dark wood cashier desks with a thick glass barrier. These would form a barrier to anything that went on behind, it would also form a barrier to any social interaction. If you wanted to talk to someone you would have to do it through the glass or make an appointment. At the appointed time you would be shown into a dark wood panelled office and discuss your finances over a desk with a person in a suit with very limited social interaction.

While this type of bank still exists in places the move to internet banking and other demographic changes has enforced a change that has made the typical bank configuration not that dissimilar from a coffee shop. If I do go into a bank, which isn’t very often, I will be met by a person stood by a table with a tablet on it. They will check my appointment and show me to a comfy seat, from there I will be greeted by someone who will show me to a small booth, with more comfy seats, where we will discuss the business of the day. The bank can no longer differentiate itself by the efficiency of the way that it processes my transactions, that’s a given, they have to compete for my attention and if I don’t like the experience I’m not going to give them my attention, my money follows my attention.

There are other places where a similar shift has, to a certain extent, taken place. If I go to see the General Practitioner (Doctor) I sit alongside them rather than across a desk.

The purpose of this shift is to help me to interact socially.

The Breakout Area of the Future

There have been many initiatives and management fads aimed at getting people to interact in their workplaces. We’ve had management by wandering around; stand-up meetings, two pizza meetings, walking meetings, the third place and many more.

Looking at the office in which I work most there is precious little social interaction. We’re primarily IT people so perhaps it’s not surprising, we do have a certain nerdy reputation after all. I’ve worked with most of the people who sit near me long enough to have seen them in different spaces, put us together in a restaurant and we’d interact quite socially. I know because I’ve seen it.

Even the simple step of moving a conversation to a table changes the way that people interact. The intelligence comes from knowing this and using this knowledge to change the context.

It’s interesting that we still call these places Breakout Areas, which suggests that they are the place where we take a break from the important activity that we should be doing. If we remind ourselves that the machines are going to be doing more of what we traditionally regard as work, then we have to start seeing these areas as the place where the real work gets done.

I was recently looking around a university with my daughter and the faculty building where she would be based had far more breakout area than classroom. It was in stark contrast to so many offices that I see.

In many ways we are only just starting to understand the true impact of spaces on our ability to interact socially. There are reasons why people prefer to have meetings in coffee shops, all of those things that we call ambience have an effect: lighting, noise, colour, smell, temperature. It’s not surprising that someone has written an application to create ambient coffee shop noise.

Looking forward this shifts is going to be even further reaching as we become globally connected and see our interactions with the smart machines becoming more sophisticated.

In the global connected business world we spend so much time with words and voices that we overlook all of the other gestures that our minds are processing constantly and mostly subconsciously. A massive amount of business takes place through written communication which strips away much of the social intelligence. Another lump of global business takes place on the phone, which strips away another set of social cues. Where we have people co-located we create office environments that place people at desks interacting with a screen on written communication and talking on the phone.

I could, like many, write a book on the comedy of conference calls and the inhumanity of it. Only today I was on a conference call while one of the contributors was in a noisy vehicle on his way to a funeral. The intelligent organisations are already recognising that there are more socially intelligent ways of working that produce better results. Organisations that look at it from a return-on-investment perspective will fail to invest, that will be a mistake.

Many of the person-to-person interactions that we currently undertake are already ready to be overtaken by person-to-machine interactions. Just a few years ago I would have phoned my insurance company at renewal time, now I go to a web site (or two) and interact with a machine. These interactions require little social intelligence, but the higher the levels of social intelligence the more I feel like I want to do business with this organisation. When there’s little to choose between insurance companies then they have to make want to do business with them in other ways. As I interact with a machine via a screen the dimensions of social intelligence being used are very narrow.

It’s rare that we interact with a machine and don’t recognise it as a machine, because it doesn’t behave in the same way as we expect a person to interact. There’s lots of change coming quite soon though.

For a long time we’ve built spaces that enable us to easily interact with the machines limited ability to interact – we wouldn’t choose a screen and keyboard. As the machines get better as communicating in more human ways we won’t feel the same need to place ourselves in these impersonal working locations, we will demand far more social interaction.

Some videos:

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