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Maintaining Privacy in Open Office Setting Requires Creativity

Maintaining Privacy in Open Office Setting Requires Creativity Banner Image

Privacy within the workplace always has been important, but it has taken on new meaning over the last several months, as COVID-19 has thrust us into a new way of life. Privacy traditionally has been perceived as a luxury with-in an open office setting; now it has become essential both emotionally and physically. The open office setting likely will never go away because it inherently fosters the engagement, interaction and collaboration that make up a company culture. It also helps balance real estate equations and offset costs through efficiency. So why does privacy matter, and how can it be successfully incorporated into the open office?

Why does privacy matter?

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety is a basic human need for all people. Emotional safety for many is often achieved through privacy. On-demand privacy has become a necessity, and arguably even a right, in workplace environments. As humans, we need places where we feel safe and effective, particularly for those of us with more introverted personalities. Also, most people re-quire or desire a space to have confidential, in-person or phone/virtual discussions at some point during their workday. This is true for most industries, but especially true for finance, law and aerospace

Privacy also provides employees with a sense of autonomy. When people feel trusted and empowered to have a private conversation or simply find “heads down” distraction-free working time, often they are more productive. Privacy also can provide the freedom for people to personalize their space, making them feel more comfortable, while also aiding in productivity. On the contrary, morale and productivity tend to be lower when people feel as if they are constantly being monitored. The Harvard Business Review notes that in an effort to protect personal privacy and focus, people often begin to block out their surroundings. Addressing actors, 18th century French philosopher Denis Diderot wrote that performers should “imagine a huge wall across the front of the stage, separating you from the audience, and behave exactly as if the curtain had never risen.” He coined this concept the fourth wall. Imagining the fourth wall allows performers to block out distractions from what they cannot control (the audience) while focusing on what they can (the scene). People in open office setting are adapting to do the same through overt as well as subtle ways, from noise-cancelling headphones and do-not-disturb signs to simple body language signals. Typically, the bigger the open office space, the bigger the fourth walls. Giving people the option of privacy helps them control their own working rhythms, yielding happier, more focused and productive employees.

How can privacy be incorporated?

The amount and type of privacy in workplaces differs based on each company’s employee needs. Many of our clients value having an open environment, so we incorporate privacy by planning areas such as private phone or focus rooms designed for a single person, huddle rooms designed for two to four people, or other adjustable furniture solutions to maximize privacy. Wellness rooms also are incorporated for individuals to have a peaceful moment or provide private space for self-care. Sound masking also is commonly incorporated to muffle distracting noises and reduce conversational eavesdropping. Like many of law firms we work with, professional service-oriented companies require most, if not all, employees to have their own soundproof private office. We also have aerospace and defense clients that require the highest degree of confidentiality such as controlled secure spaces. In these cases, privacy is baked into the architecture of the rooms through measures such as sound batting in walls and/or ceilings, adding additional layers of gyp board to demising walls, as well as sealing off any possible areas of sound transmission from room to room. . Additionally, materials with acoustic absorptive properties such as wall or ceiling baffles can be incorporated within enclosed rooms or open office environment to assist with additional sound absorption. Finally, if visual privacy is a concern, window film and/or opaque roller shades within glass rooms can be integrated as desired.

The best office is the one that gives people choice in how much stimulation (relational, audio, visual, etc.) they are receiving at one time. As an example, our client Bartlit Beck, a law firm serving high-profile clientele, expressed at the onset of the project that sound privacy was the most important driver for its new space. To meet this need, we incorporated soundproof private offices and conference rooms throughout the design. A large conference room also was designed to accommodate highly confidential meetings, complete with double-paned glass and foam, wavelike ceiling panels for sound absorption, secure technology and opaque window coverings. By incorporating a variety of different spaces all equal in level of privacy, Bartlit Beck attorneys, as well as their clients, have peace of mind that they are in control of their private conversations.

A word of caution.

No matter where on the spectrum your company falls, from a completely open work environment to a solely private environment, I always encourage our clients to incorporate at least some measure of privacy into their space. That being said, designers and their clients should work together to understand and meet the needs of each specific organization. There is no one-size-fit-all recommendation for providing privacy.

Again, some industries will require more privacy than others and everyone is adjusting to the hopefully soon post-COVID-19 world, but I believe there is such a thing as too much privacy. Work environments have evolved over the years from a more isolated, office-intensive paradigm to a more balanced percentage of open to closed office space. In addition to office-intensive settings being operationally less efficient, the movement away from this ideal decreases the feeling of isolation and resulting purposelessness. Finding the right equation between the two is an art that is generated through thoughtful collaboration at project onset and a deep understanding of each client’s operational and cultural needs. Included in this equation is the importance of infusing space to support privacy on-demand. Each project must seek to find that middle ground between complete privacy and complete openness that suits its employees best. It is one way companies can show they trust and value their employees, not to mention enhance productivity.

Having worked with a variety of clients across different industries, I’m learning that it’s OK to respectfully push people out of their comfort zones by increasing or decreasing the amount of privacy opportunities within a space, as long as you’re making informed design decisions in response to their specific needs and culture, backed by support from leadership.

This article was originally featured in CREJ's Building Dialogue Magazine.

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