Counterpoising the ‘feel good’ office culture in favour of a more emotion-inclusive atmosphere, Lola Tual suggests employing an antipode of the Chief Happiness

In the lead-up to each issue, we challenge emerging designers to respond to the Frame Lab theme with a forward-looking concept. The past year has shed new light on the role of the office, prompting those who use one to reconsider its relevance. There are lessons to be found in not just the pandemic period, but the time before that. In our current issue Frame 138, we ask: What were workplaces missing? What has working from home taught us? What would make us want to go back to the physical office? We asked four creative practices to share their ideas.

A graduate of the Communication Department of Design Academy Eindhoven, French designer Lola Tual likes to ‘edit reality’ through her work. To authenticate and appreciate the more negative feelings that can rule among office staff, Tual suggests the addition of a manager of misery, aka Chief Bitch Officer, to a company’s workforce.

Your concept, inspired by the rise of ‘Chief Happiness Officers’ (CHO) in many companies, communicates the idea that negativity shouldn’t be ‘artificially eliminated’ from the workplace and that the ‘feel good’ corporate philosophy can be damaging.’ Why?

The proliferation of CHOs questions our relation to happiness as a society. Individuals have different and personal definitions of happiness. A 'happy' corporate philosophy can become detrimental to workers' wellbeing when it is omnipresent yet remains superficial: 'feeling good' develops into an umpteenth job requirement.

This hyper-normative and hyper-utilitarian vision of happiness is forced onto workers, and other ways of feeling are neglected. Interestingly, positivity is so undeniably valued by most that its influence can be very insidious and manipulative. If you are encouraged to feel the same way everyday there is a risk that your core identity and free-will get undermined.

A 'happy' corporate philosophy can become detrimental to workers' wellbeing when it is omnipresent yet remains superficial

For many people COVID-19 has put a magnifying glass over the emotional range they experience throughout a workday. In a time when employers are increasingly seeking to instrumentalize those emotions, what are some ways you think people can own their mood at work – whether that be positive or negative?

I believe that it is important to maintain a clear division between who you are at work and who you are at home or in your personal life – especially when people work in structures where the corporate culture is strong or when working from home. Establishing a distance to separate oneself from situations by intentionally treating them with a grain of salt, keeping some things private or simply socializing outside the office community appears necessary.

By defining yourself through a variety of cultural activities, interests or hobbies that don't necessarily relate to your job, you strengthen your self-determination. COVID-19 prevents us from implementing these elements into our daily lives, making it even more difficult to build a healthy mindset.

Tell me more about the Chief Bitch Officer. Who are they? How do they differ from their archnemesis: the CHO?

The Chief Bitch Officer (CBO) mirrors and reciprocates the Chief Happiness Officer's (CHO) presence. Their role counterbalances the CHO's actions and attitude by encouraging negative behaviour and representing unease, affliction and pessimism, otherwise absent aspects of humanity in the office. They are the 'manager of misery', and most importantly a symbol that supports a consideration of the workplace social situation as a theatrical game.

Dedicated bitching rooms, pessimistic affirmations, conflict initiation workshops. These are among the key aspects in ‘Misery Management’ that the CBO is responsible for. Your work offers a satirical commentary, yet as you point out a counterbalance to positivism is necessary. What benefits do you believe that could have?

Through placing negative and positive psychology techniques at an equal level of consideration, firms keep paying attention to their employees’ emotional states without forcing one way of feeling onto them. The ironic tone inherent to the CBO puts things into perspective: it ridicules all actions carried out by either the CHO or the CBO. Thus, whether you participate to a 'gratitude workshop' with the CHO or regularly spend time in the 'bitching room' of the CBO, by developing a sceptical attitude towards both you can freely decide which behaviour to adopt. These activities remain temporary and fun exercises with which people choose to agree or not.

Humour can be a powerful entry point to openly discuss emotions in the workplace

How do you think companies can more realistically approach the emotions of employees? And how can design help?

Even beyond the office world, emotions are a general taboo that not many feel comfortable talking about. I believe that humour can be a powerful entry point to openly discuss the topic. Through designing workplace interfaces with an intentional ironic twist to them, a space (mental and physical) is created to address emotional problems in light-hearted ways.

Heavy issues such as work-related stress are not to be taken lightly, but subtly inviting people to open up about their difficulties without forcing it seems like an important first step. This can take the form of emotion-related events or spatial implementations that look like jokes, but are fundamentally serious. Prior to aiming at cheering up everyone, the entire office organization can benefit from genuinely listening to what employees feel, and use it as incentive to take action.

Get your copy of Frame 138 here.