June 22, 2018

Affective Computing

Pervasive adoption of social norms in workplace interactions

Mónica Sara Santos
An anonymous online system for flagging violations of cultural norms can address potential conflicts in open-plan offices.

Today's organisations are characterized by fast-paced relationships among co-workers, often mediated by high-tech, asynchronous communications,1,2 which can facilitate uncivil behaviour. The prevailing and costly effects of workplace deviance are considered one of the most serious problems organisations currently face.3

Workplace incivility is a kind of deviance that, although occurring regularly in many organisations, is not always easy to recognize and address.1 The offender's intent to harm is ambiguous because behaviour may be perceived differently from the perspectives of the offender, the victim and other observers. The instigator might be violating norms without knowing and unintentionally. Workplace incivility is, therefore, defined as ‘low-intensity deviant behaviour with ambiguous intent to harm the target, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect. Uncivil behaviours are characteristically rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others.’2

Behavioural norms are found in every community and culture,4 although they are expressed differently in different contexts. Observing the rules of interpersonal conduct enables people to live and work together.5 Open-plan offices are no exception, and norms exist so that people can achieve their individual goals in shared work spaces. These norms can be defined a priori and officially imposed by the company, or mutually agreed upon by co-workers. However, they are frequently broken, which can disrupt the workflow. Moreover, although norm violations can hinder personal work and decrease overall productivity, often nothing is done to avoid them or punish violators. This can damage relationships among people who share a workplace, creating a poor working environment.

A solution is needed that would encourage civility, promote forgiveness and increase engagement among co-workers, so that group interactions in the workplace could be improved. It should also be able to restore the office to an ‘emotive equilibrium’ after an episode of incivility, contributing to a better quality of experience in the office environment.

We propose a way of addressing incivility in the workplace that allows people who share office space to anonymously flag others' violations of the social norms defined for that workplace and then allows violators to apologize or explain their actions. Our method assumes that social norms have been created and agreed upon by all involved. These guidelines provide the basis for determining what is and is not considered appropriate behaviour in a given environment. Each workplace will have a unique set of norms, which might vary with time, requiring occasional modification to reflect current needs.

Because the flagging is anonymous, people who might feel reluctant to directly confront a co-worker do not feel constrained in signaling offences. This reluctance might arise for various reasons. For instance, the offender might be the victim's boss or an aggressive person, or the victim might be too shy to confront someone else. Of course, allowing people to flag someone else's inappropriate behaviour anonymously could raise another problem. Instead of improving communication among co-workers, it could be used as a tool to abuse others by flagging situations falsely. To avoid this, a validation routine should be used to authenticate each flagging event.

Figure 1 displays an overview of a typical sequence of events in the proposed model of communication. Person X breaks the social norms, and as a result person Y flags this behaviour in the system. All inputs need to be considered, including data from the physiological sensors associated with the victim and the offender, data from the environmental sensors in the room, historical data from this workplace, the reputations of the parties involved and the relevant norms. The event is then validated, and a decision is made regarding whether to take action.

Typical sequence of events when someone (person Y) flags the behaviour of a co-worker (person X).

To create this model of communication among co-workers, concepts of stream and affective computing, norm-governed systems, trust/reputation/forgiveness, interface design and avatars should be integrated. One way of verifying whether someone is affected by another person's behaviour is by measuring relevant physiological signs and looking for changes in affective states. If people are affected, their physiological signs should change. This information could be used as a validation variable for a flagging event. Environmental sensors, such as microphones that capture both background noise and spikes, should be used to validate flagged events as well. Past behaviour and reputation should also be considered.

Figure 2 presents one way to assess workers' affective states. Cameras in the room show both their faces and the room as a whole. This allows a display of affect to be associated with the event that caused it if the event is visible in the cameras' field of view. If the event is considered to be real, further action could be taken to address the situation. For example, the violator could be notified and given an opportunity to apologize or explain his or her actions. If the person who initially flagged the event accepts the apology or explanation, he or she can then increase the reputation of the person who broke the norms. When offenders are able to apologize and repair the damage they have caused, the victim's trust can be restored.6 Thus, these actions could play a major role in restoring the affective equilibrium of the workplace because they would promote better understanding among co-workers.

Images from cameras may be used to assess people's affective states.

Figure 3 shows our proposed interface for flagging norm violations. Through self-representation by an avatar, each person in the workplace is displayed. This could increase feelings of belonging and self-awareness. The interface shows each person his or her current reputation and reputation history, and allows individuals to flag the behaviour of others.

Proposed interface for flagging norm violations.

In summary, companies today must deal with workplace incivility because open-plan offices combined with the fast-paced nature of interactions among co-workers facilitate discourteous behaviour. We propose that this problem can be solved by creating social norms for a workplace and then allowing people to flag inappropriate behaviour of others. In addition, offenders should be given an opportunity to apologize or explain their actions. Tackling incivilities at an early stage should prevent their escalation into more serious problems, such as conflict and aggression. The next step is to create an online questionnaire for people who share workplaces. Our goal is to elicit information about existing norms, the kind of uncivil behaviour encountered in the workplace and ways of addressing it. The responses will establish the basis for creating the communication model described here.


Mónica Sara Santos
Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Imperial College London

Mónica Sara Santos received her Licenciatura and her MSc in informatics engineering from the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Porto (Portugal). She is currently a PhD student in the Intelligent Systems and Networks group. Her research interests are human-computer interaction, affective computing, incivility and conflict in the workplace and workplace design.

  1. C. M. Pearson and C. L. Porath, On the nature, consequences and remedies of workplace incivility: no time for ‘nice’ Think again, Acad. Manag. Exec. 19 (1), pp. 7-18, 2005.

  2. L. M. Andersson and C. M. Pearson, Tit for tat The spiraling effect of incivility in the workplace, Acad. Manag. Rev., pp. 452-471, 1999.

  3. R. J. Bennett and S. L. Robinson, The past, present, and future of workplace deviance research, Org. Behav.: State Sci. 2, pp. 247-281, 2003.

  4. E. Hartman, Organizational Ethics and the Good Life, Oxford University Press, 1996.

  5. C. M. Pearson, L. M. Andersson and C. L. Porath, Assessing and attacking workplace incivility, Org. Dynamics 29 (2), pp. 123-137, 2000.

  6. A. Vasalou, A. Hopfensitz and J. V. Pitt, In praise of forgiveness: ways for repairing trust breakdowns in one-off online interactions, Int'l J. Hum.-Comput. Stud. 66, pp. 466-480, 2008.

DOI:  10.2417/2201004.002871