Back to work: how to keep moving forward thanks to emotional intelligence

While we’re planning to the return to the office, we risk facing a great paradox. We might see people more in the office, but we risk hiding all of those life dimensions that became visible while they were working remotely. Those dimensions could become invisible: seemingly irrelevant to our professional lives, fitting in before and after our time in the office.

The relationship between work and life was a problem before the pandemic. It was normal to talk about “balancing” these two aspects, as though conflict was inevitable. But it was really about being aware of slow growth, meeting resistance in a working system that was born without having to think about families. Even though families have been a key part of women entering the workplace over the past 50 years, the world of work has continued to see them as an exception.

In order to change a system that “works”, we need a shock. Without that shock, things that were already there will always win over the uncertainty of change. We prefer to keep making the same mistakes, no matter how big they are, rather than trying something new. The shock came, but maybe it’s not enough. The system that we’re up against has a powerful structure and resilient dynamics. It’s easy to go back to our old ways. They’re so comforting, after all. The rigidity of the old way of doing things gave us stability. Narrow minded views reduced our perceptions of complexity. Through these mechanisms, power dynamics were born – and they’re naturally resistant to change. Scientists and opinion makers continue to tell us that we “can’t go back”. We’ve “seen” and now we can’t go back to being blind.

But there are two human factors that mean it risks being an option.

The first is effort. Uncertainty and a sense of urgency naturally push us towards what we already know. The word “return” is reassuring in itself. Almost as though we’re returning to safety, to normality, to the office. If this effort is multiplied by the number of people that managers are responsible for making decisions for, the pressure to restore our former ways only increases. The alternative would be carefully listening to both ourselves and others to define new frameworks and new mistakes. Mistakes that seem unsustainable in today’s world because they would tip our fears over the edge.

We tell ourselves that we can’t cope with any more uncertainty. Hybrid models are uncertain. If we make space for hybrid models, we need to be ready to not be sure of what lies ahead. If a person doesn’t turn up to a meeting and tunes in remotely, are they still feeling motivated? If I can’t see who is there and who isn’t at the start of the day, what can I understand about my team? If I can’t use my old ways of measuring presenteeism, how can I measure or understand it? As the psychologist and Columbia University professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzik said in a recent Fast Company article:

We cannot un-know what we’ve learned about our teams: Who they are outside of the office is a critical part of who they are, period. We now have a unique opportunity to invite that whole person back into the workplace and make sure they feel not only that they belong but also that they are cherished for the whole person they represent.

The second risk factor is our rational intelligence. It’s our powerful ability to optimize, to find the most simple and direct path, helping us to find and choose certainty. We have entire statistic systems that are born to help us be rational and reduce our risk. But statistics themselves know that this is impossible. Our species’ survival has counted on a different characteristic, one that’s much more useful and efficient in times of change and uncertainty. After all, change has been constant and complex for our entire human history, both in small and large events. We all have this natural ability because it’s part of our species. It’s called emotional intelligence. 

Emotional intelligence is a superpower that has two effects that are vital in these circumstances. It helps us to understand how we are and it allows us to help others to feel well in themselves. Self-awareness and the ability to manage our emotions, as well as knowing and recognizing them, are the keys to emotional intelligence. They allow us to keep a constant picture of who we are, even while we’re changing. This social awareness and relational ability, guided by the mysteries of empathy, allows us to “feel” who those around us are feeling. It allows us to understand that which our rational minds can’t grasps, even when we’re missing information or living with uncertainty.

Emotional intelligence can touch where rationality can’t. When we trust it (and ourselves), we can go back to seeing others without forgetting all that they are. Maybe we’ll feel ready to make new mistakes to change things. We can’t go back. But maybe we don’t want to either.

This article was originally written by Riccarda Zezza and published on the Il Sole 24 Ore blog, Alley Oop. To read the original article (in Italian), please click here