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Privacy in the Workplace: Matching Employee Behaviors and Workspaces

office layout
Katie Cavanaugh
Published on

Picture this. You get home from a long day at work and feel like your ears are still being bombarded with office chatter, your computer screen is being traced up and down by wandering eyes and you can feel the breath of your close quarter coworkers on your neck.

You’re craving privacy. So, you lie down in a dark room and talk to no one. Or, if that’s not possible because of kids, friends, errands, etc you desperately wish you could. Sound familiar? 

The lack of privacy in the workplace can be overwhelming to the point of detracting from employee productivity and satisfaction, not to mention seeping into their personal lives. When organizations don’t design to allow for privacy, employees end up feeling overstimulated, overexposed and over-scrutinized. The stereotypical open office -- with few barriers between coworkers and little variety in types of work areas -- creates an overwhelming workplace experience.

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Control is key to create privacy in a workplace environment

Whether it’s visual, auditory, or spatial privacy (also phrased as “can we hear each other?”, “can we see each other?”, “do I have a place just for me?”), employees need to feel a sense of authority over their daily experience or otherwise satisfaction suffers, according to Harvard Business Review. Organizations should consider what types of spaces they provide for their employees to give them a healthy sense of privacy without needing the respite of a dark room and no human interaction. Hint: a variety or layering of spaces works really well, according to Leah Bauer, director of interior design at HDR.

Offer a spectrum of spaces to match employee behavior

Every office has a specific culture and tends to attract specific people. That being said, it would be incredibly challenging to find an office without a spectrum of personality types whose needs shift throughout the day.

For example, some people feel most focused in a high-energy, communal work area with music playing and colleagues chatting while others prefer a shielded corner area with minimal visual or auditory distractions. Or, even more likely, most people require different types of environments at different points of the day depending on a combination of their mood, energy level, and type of work to be completed. The best way to accommodate all types of employees is to offer a spectrum of spaces that they can use whenever they need to, such as in an activity-based working model.

First, let’s review the type of work employees tend to do during a typical day at the office. Usually, employees work either completely individually, with others outside of a structured meeting, or in a structured group.

Here are a few examples of typical employee work styles:

Every employee is different and so is their working style

Next, let’s look at the typical spaces available in the office. Here’s a brief matrix showing the spectrum of privacy available in different types of workspaces in an office:

An office should have a diverse range of spaces available for employees to use

Looking at the different types of workspaces, the ones at either end of the spectrum -- completely private and completely exposed -- both deprive employees of control over their work environment. They either have to be entirely solitary or completely exposed with limited options to modify the space or amenities within the space. On the other hand, the semi-private areas offer flexibility to either opt-in or out of privacy in multiple ways. 

For example, in semi-private areas employees can: 

  1. Decide whether or not they even want to work in the space since these spaces are often flex areas and not individual work stations 
  2. Orient themselves to have their back to a wall, or high seat back so their screen isn’t exposed
  3. Give signals as to whether or not they are open to live conversations i.e. wearing headphones vs not, sitting in a secluded one-person chair in a lounge vs at a couch around a table in the same area 
  4. Often accommodate each style of work including completely solitary, unstructured group work and even structured group work

You can’t hold a brainstorm in a cubicle and good luck finding an open conference room to hunker down to work in privacy. You can, however, roll over a dry erase board in a huddle zone and hold a quick group brainstorm or find a shielded chair in the lounge, facing away from the foot traffic to focus. Semi-private areas, also sometimes called “thirdspaces”, let the employees pull the levers around their environment to gain the exact level of privacy they need at the moment.

Here’s the type of activity you can do in each type of work environment:

Depending on what your office looks like you can do a variety of different types of work

Only the semi-private areas can support every single type of work while completely private or completely exposed either falter when it comes to accommodating different types of group work.

Another way to look at workplace privacy is if the different types of spaces in the office represented a different stoplight color. Private spaces are red, semi-private are yellow, and exposed are green.

Similar to stoplights on the road, each color implies actions that are and aren't appropriate in an office setting. With yellow, you determine when action occurs. You yield, but ultimately, the next step is in your control (within the constructs of appropriate and safe behavior, of course). The same goes for semi-private areas you can either opt-in or out of in an office. It hasn’t already been decided whether or not you're supposed to stop interactions outside your private space or if you're going to be completely open to them. The choice lies in the employees' hands.

Yielding suggests an imminent choice. When employers curate a workplace where employees choose how, when and where they work, trust between the organization and individual is implied. That trust gives employees a sense of confidence and control. When employees feel in control of their environment instead of cast into a silent, solitary corner or floating in an overexposed fishbowl, customized privacy is easy to achieve.


If Goldilocks walked into your office would she come across a homogenous sea of exposed workstations, entirely secluded private offices or a mix of customizable, flexible workstations that are “just right” for employee privacy?

Of course, that’s a silly example. But really, when it comes to protecting employee privacy in a workplace environment, it’s all about the balance between the variety of spaces available in an office and how employees can customize those spaces to fit their work style and comfort level.

Sources: OfficeLovin', Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business Review, IPVM

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