Workspace privacy and its impact on productivity
In The Power of Workspace for People and Business, the value of privacy in effective workspaces is explored. Privacy at work is like money: no one ever thinks they have enough. Workspace research often asserts that employees are ‘dissatisfied’ with their privacy at work and would like more solitude. What does this mean and how can stakeholders who plan, design and manage workspaces apply this information to value-adding decisions about workspace?
To respond to reactive employee feedback – which is often emotional – and create private and enclosed offices to support employee privacy is not always the most effective solution, as it translates into less space availability for other functions and activities. Moreover, having a private and enclosed office does not ensure that people will work better (improved performance) or ensure more satisfaction, but it does meet the psychological need for social status.
When media and topical studies reiterate that employees do not like sitting in open-plan work environments at identical workstations, they are telling us what we already know – that people tend to feel that they have a right to more privacy. What is missing is information on what helps them get their work done. In The Power of Workspace for People and Business Dr Vischer and I present a HI-WAVE (How to Invest in Workspace to Add Value) approach to workspace planning and designing that bases decisions about how much privacy employees should receive on what employees need to get their work done and not on their dreams of a corner private and enclosed office. The need for privacy is a good example of the distinction between what people like and what they need for work, which is also discussed in the book. While users’ likes and dislikes are sometimes too individualised to be useful for design decisions about investing in workspace, group feedback on what people need to get work done is a solid and reliable basis for workspace decisions on issues such as privacy.
Through experience and research, Dr Vischer and I identify that privacy at work has three important functions including ensuring autonomy, providing an emotional outlet and allowing self-evaluation, synthesis of information and decision-making. The need for privacy is associated with:
- retreat from interruptions and distractions
- control over information and access
- regulation of social interaction, and
- territory and status.
Assessing the need for privacy
People at work assess their privacy in two ways. Functionally, privacy means freedom from interruptions and distractions in order to concentrate. There are two components to functional privacy: visual and acoustic. Physical barriers that need to be considered in effective workspace design provide visual screening and a degree of acoustic privacy. This consideration is becoming more relevant as modern workspaces incorporate greater flexibility that promotes workspace sharing and movement: such environments are less ‘familiar’ to employees, making employees more sensitive to acoustic and visual distractions.
At a psychological level, privacy is related to exclusivity, status in the organisation and being able to control one’s accessibility to others. When asked how they feel about their privacy, employees’ dissatisfaction reflects a lack of psychological rather than of functional comfort. However, as with sound levels, certain workspace layouts provide so much privacy that occupants feel isolated and cut off from their co-workers. More physical enclosures in the workspace do not always solve privacy problems and can even create them by causing isolation. When designing for privacy at work, the objective is to provide a balance between tasks requiring concentration and focus and those requiring interaction and collaboration.
Privacy means balance and having a choice
On a functional level, privacy is an environmental attribute that balances its obverse: social contact and opportunities for interaction. Most people work part of the time alone and part of the time on tasks with others. Traditionally, workspace has managed to do both of these ineffectively: it is neither private enough to enable concentrated work, nor is it spacious enough to facilitate simple collaborations.
Modern workspace approaches – such as activity-based working (ABW) – offer a choice of areas to work. In these settings, employees no longer expect to have to perform all their tasks in the same space, but are encouraged to move to different, convenient, accessible and supportive spaces as their tasks change.
In this way, small, enclosed spaces are available when individuals need to concentrate and large, open and directly interactive spaces are available when groups of employees need to come together.
Employers who provide a choice of places to work offer employees control over their accessibility and availability to others. People who make choices according to their task requirements experience more psychological comfort, whereas those who feel they have no control over their accessibility by others – co-workers can watch them, hear them and interrupt them at will – are both functionally uncomfortable and emotionally dissatisfied. Having control over accessibility and availability allows both privacy and sense of status to be managed.
The author Keti Malkoski is an expert in people and culture considerations at Schiavello. Her work and research at Schiavello aims to promote employee and business effectiveness through value-adding workspaces. Schiavello is a market leader in developing innovative workspace solutions that add value to people and businesses.