Emma Mitchell

By Emma Mitchell
Senior Workplace Consultant |

Today’s workplace is more open than ever. Most offices have fewer walls and more sharing of common spaces and facilities. But how does this impact staff wellbeing and productivity? Is your right to be left alone overlooked in the design and fit out of your office?

Where did our privacy go?

It’s not front page news by any stretch; commercial real estate is costly. Rising prices of office space has driven down the average footprint of workplaces; CEOs have moved out of their private offices and hot desking is a new norm. As a result a whole new set of workplace behaviours has sprung up, most of which are detrimental to a collaborative culture. Noisy colleagues distracting their neighbours, ducking into the stairwell to take private calls, using headphones to create a barrier and working from home just to concentrate.

Gallup’s recent report State of the Global Workplace found only 11% of workers around the world are engaged and inspired at work. In the United States, those who spend up to 20% of their time working remotely are the most engaged of all workers surveyed. This suggests these engaged workers are able to balance collaboration and interaction at the office with working remotely to achieve the privacy they need for individual work. The office alone simply isn’t meeting their needs.

The importance of being left alone

Lack of privacy is a crime against productivity and workplace dissatisfaction correlates with being unable to manage stressors which reduce our ability to perform. Mental and emotional fatigue through environmental stress from overcrowding and noise, for example, can erode an employee’s ability to cope with additional task demands.

Studies show privacy is even a concern in the much-celebrated activity based working model, which encourages people to move around the office to find a suitable zone for the task at hand (De Been I., & Beijer M., 2014). Without proper communication of how to work in this way, your collaborative efforts may be in vain. Further research shows that in open plan environments workers spent 73% less time face to face, email rose 67% and instant messenger use went up 75%. Activity based working only really has a positive benefits when people take into account proximity, privacy and permission.

Claiming back your privacy

Privacy in the workplace allows people to determine for themselves what extent of information is communicated with others. In some cases it may be physical solitude or the seclusion of a few people; and in others, creating a psychological barrier against unwanted intrusion.

There are four key types of privacy:

1. Acoustic privacy

The ability to work undisturbed by noise, or to be able to create noise without impacting others, is a big win. Supporting concentration with acoustic privacy can be done in two ways. Firstly, absorbing sound effectively. Soft furnishings and furniture, partitions, carpets, perforated ceilings, acoustic panels and even plants or living walls can help you meet this goal.

Secondly, providing quiet zones, either secluded earmarked spots or distributed throughout the office. In both these scenarios, etiquette for usage needs to be clear and well communicated. If adhered to, everyone should be able to find a space perfectly suited to the task at hand without hampering the productivity of others. We provide quiet spaces in most of our office designs, as they are incredibly popular with staff. These spaces, such as this one designed for Morgan Sindall Group, help empower staff throughout their day. On average 75% of staff can now find somewhere to concentrate, and almost 80% of staff feel they can easily find somewhere to work away from their desk when needed.

2. Visual privacy

Good office design can help employees free themselves from sight-induced distractions by offering what we call visual privacy. Try to remember that each person has a unique threshold for what they can manage. We also believe people need spaces where they can hide out from others and not be seen. This is an important part of self-regulating internal and external stressors; to remove all stimulus and retreat to a calm space to regroup.

The good news is you can provide a level of visual privacy by simply considering your layout. Place contemplative zones away from areas which naturally attract more traffic. If possible, they should be located away from noisy gathering spaces and thoroughfares to curb potential disruptions and distractions. Even the orientation of a piece of furniture in a different direction can help you achieve visual privacy. Equally, just like our design for Housing Solutions, incorporating plants, soft furnishings, hanging partitions and other design elements can create private enclaves.

3. Territorial privacy

Claiming a space and controlling it as your own, this is what territorial privacy looks like in today’s office. While there is some merit in creating individually owned spaces, it can be hard to achieve in an open plan setting. We encourage our clients to think about how the office space can be optimally used to support people instead. In some workplaces this might be assigning individuals with their own workstations, but in others it could be a ‘neighbourhood’ set up. Neighbourhoods bring together colleagues within the same team to an earmarked bank of desks, for example, instead of a specific seat.

Or, consider storage. Pedestals have fallen out of favour in exchange for lockers. While pedestals easily become overstuffed with outdated paperwork, lockers provide a home for more than just work items. This is important because it gives employees a sense of belonging, especially for those who don’t have a desk to call their own. From a design perspective, lockers - like those we installed for Livability - can double as a partition to divide your space, deflect sound and even add a pop of colour.

4. Informational privacy

Everyone can relate to awkwardly taking a call in the echoing stairwell or corridor, just to be out of earshot of others. The right to keeping information private is universal, but somehow within the confines of the workplace it can be perceived as negative secrecy. This couldn’t be more untrue. If you trust your employees to work ethically, most times they will. Monitoring real-life and digital conversations will only serve to breakdown professional relationships.

Providing spaces for confidential interactions tells your employees you respect them. Our design and fit out for Lane4 does exactly this. We created numerous areas for solo privacy, as well as small meeting rooms for two-to-three person interactions. According to a study by MIT, most employees won’t travel much further than 40 ft in their workplace to find a suitable space for their needs. With this is mind, we created a corridor of private booths alongside the interior of the building’s atrium which borders the open plan office.