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Why privacy at work is important (even if you don’t have any secrets)

Work is collaborative, but privacy is necessary to be effective. Tracy Brower of Steelcase outlines why and discusses the crucial difference between access and visibility.

Why privacy at work is important (even if you don’t have any secrets)
[Photo: Halfpoint/iStock]

Remember when you were a kid and you had the sign on your bedroom door that said, “Keep Out,” or masking tape on the floor marking your side of the room? From the youngest age, it seems we’re wired to want to control our environment, protect our territory, and maintain privacy.

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Offices used to offer plenty of privacy and were defined by walls and private offices. Status was based on moving up to the higher-floor corner office that had floor-to-ceiling windows. More recently, however, no matter what your status, the workplace has taken away much of the opportunity for privacy. In the worst cases, offices are like bullpens with nothing but rows of work surfaces. Some employees say they can’t find a place to take a private call—from the doctor, their child’s school, or for a work matter—unless they go to the bathroom or outside to their car. This could be funny if it weren’t true. Many office designs have overvalued collaboration, transparency, and openness and in so doing have gone too far and negated the opportunity for people to have a place to get away.

Work is fundamentally social, and plenty of work requires collaboration to accomplish results. Both extroverts and introverts need people and connections—though to greater and lesser degrees. But no matter what your style, you also need time that is private.

In 1890, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis wrote “The Right to Privacy” for the Harvard Business Review and coined the term “the right to be left alone.” This concept communicates that what each of us does is nobody’s business but our own. It sets up appropriate social boundaries and implies freedom—freedom to choose what we do, what we share, and who has access to us or our information. Privacy in the workplace is perhaps more important today than ever because we’re also having debates about our information privacy. The scale of the data available today is overwhelming, and the documentary The Great Hack explains our personal data has exceeded oil in value.

Four reasons why we need private time at work

Privacy is important because it is required for ideas to gain traction, especially if they are new (or even subversive). Every new idea requires a quiet discussion between trusted colleagues before it goes before a larger group. The conversation on the down-low is what allows the idea to be developed and tested. The riskier the idea or the more it pushes the envelope of the current system, the more it requires confidential conversations to process and incubate.

Privacy is also required for creativity. Far from a process that always emphasizes brainstorming in big groups, creativity must also include quiet moments for reflection and focus. It is a process that flows between groups and individuals and between convergent and divergent thinking.

Privacy facilitates focus. In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport argues we need more focus. In a world marked by superficially scanning and skimming from one topic to the next, we must make room for profound thinking, reflection, attention, and concentration. These are best done with some privacy.

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Privacy is related to engagement. My company’s research found when people have greater amounts of choice in their workplace, they tend to be more engaged. Choice implies various levels of privacy as well as spaces that offer differing levels of buzz, postures, and connection.

Whether privacy is facilitating innovation and the creative process, focus, or engagement, it translates into effectiveness. People need some level of privacy to be at their best.

Privacy occurs in different ways

My company has researched privacy—from the overwhelm people feel to the ways the office can respond. In particular, privacy may be acoustical (I can’t hear others and they can’t hear me), informational (people can’t see what I’m working on), visual (I can’t see others, or be seen by them), or territorial (I have space that belongs to me [for now]).

While everyone needs all these kinds of privacy at one time or another, few people need all of these at once. The best offices offer people a choice so that they can access the kind of privacy they need. And the most effective company cultures allow people to make their own choices about where to work throughout their day.

It’s also helpful to think about the differences between access and visibility and the research my company has done in these areas. We may want to be visible—via transparent offices or conference room walls—but not accessible for people to stop by. On the other hand, it is possible to be accessible—via instant messaging, texting or phone calls—without being visible, as someone might be offsite or in a home office. Designing offices for these differences and educating people about what kind of privacy they need to facilitate various kinds of work can help people be most effective.

Privacy is fundamental. The freedom to choose how we work and where we work, as well as our levels of visibility and accessibility, is important not only to our work experience but to our rights as humans as well. Design that allows for all kinds of privacy, and organizational cultures that embrace choice and control for workers, have a clear advantage in terms of people who are both engaged and highly effective.

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Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.

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