Bringing privacy to the open plan office

An open office can prompt collaboration—or awkward silence. When employees have nowhere to work privately, it’s time for a new look at workplace design.

May 12, 2017

Everyone needs to communicate or work privately at some point during office hours, whether it’s taking a call from their child’s school, reading confidential client emails or brainstorming the next big business idea.

Unfortunately, the sense that someone might be looking—or listening—over one’s shoulder can never really be shaken in some open offices, which account for more office space than any other kind in the U.S. With employee workspace often limited to a single low-walled cubicle, it’s little wonder that many employees end up taking their private affairs to the stairwell, kitchen, or even the bathroom.

In addition to sheer discomfort, this kind of environment can actually stifle engagement, says Bernice Boucher, Managing Director in JLL’s Strategic Consulting group: “The lack of privacy at work is a clear crime against productivity. Enlightened organizations are recognizing that it’s a win-win to treat privacy as a right, not a privilege.”

Indeed, there is mounting evidence that engagement only flourishes when you have the choice to avoid it when you choose.

The hidden value of a well-designed open office

Cost savings are the most visible appeal of an open-plan office, which can cost as much as 50 percent less per employee. But long-term value of the workplace can only be unlocked when those employees feel empowered to do their best work, in the right place and at the right time.

Yet offices don’t always need a complete redesign; some simple measures can help. Movable panels can give people more control over their workspace. For example, a small team could make an ad-hoc private chat area by bringing together a few wall panels.

For employees working in low walled cubicles, screen filters and plants can help provide visual privacy. And discussion rooms can be fitted with frosted glass or blinds as required.

Meanwhile, soft background music or white noise can help to mask conversations. Materials such as wool or felt can be used to line cubicles to keep sound levels to a minimum.

Strategic planning for long-term success

The optimal scenario for an engaged, productive, and privacy-oriented workplace is to design an activity-based planning model, says Phil Kirschner, Senior Vice President of Workplace Strategy and Change Management at JLL. In this scenario, people have the choice to work at individual desks, phone booths or huddle rooms depending on the task they’re completing.

Different workplace areas can have different rules; for example, some companies prohibit phone use in certain quiet zones. And while many organizations design dining and lounge areas for engagement, they also have booths upholstered for sound dampening for private group discussion.

Given that most employees won’t travel much farther than 40 feet in their workplace, according to an MIT study, privacy areas like phone booths should be located on every floor or wing – and these should be clearly signposted.

Getting the most from spaces

While good design is key to a happy workplace, it’s equally important to give people permission to use those spaces, Boucher explains. In industries like finance, a command-and-control culture often makes people feel like they need to be at their desk at all times, so that their managers know they are working. Banks have been working to break that mold, but it requires a concerted effort on the managers to encourage the use the space appropriately.

“Presenteeism thwarts even the best planned workplace. If that’s what working is supposed to look like, then moving around freely looks like goofing off,” says Boucher. “Managers need to be role models by making visible use of these spaces.” She suggests setting specific goals, such as having at least one meeting in an open collaboration space or working at the café three times in the first month. “Managers can’t just talk the talk, they need to walk the talk if they want their employees to use the space appropriately,” she adds.

Open offices have their pitfalls—when they’re not done right. Offices that get it right focus not only on cost reduction, but also on improving the work environment so employees feel motivated to do great work.