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Designing Offices for Privacy

By: Matthew Strawbridge - Updated: 6 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
Privacy Office Employee Designing Space

If offices were to be designed solely to ensure the privacy of their occupants, each employee would be cocooned in a soundproof booth or isolated a long way from the nearest person. However, most employers understand the role that employee interaction plays in their productivity, and clearly this is at odds with confidentiality.

This article will examine the factors that play a role in the overall privacy that workers can achieve within a workspace, and explain the tradeoffs between this and the other concerns of the business.

Worker Density

Because commercial property tends to have fixed costs based on its floor area, it can seem cost-effective to cram as many people into the space as possible. Some organisations take this to extremes, generating vast “cube farms” in which a sprawling area is divided by partitions to give everyone a cubicle, all of which are packed tightly together.

Of course, it is better if employees are not packed together “cheek by jowl”. However, even when an organisation’s logistics or financial situation necessitate a high density of workers, it is possible to give them some degree of privacy. For example, partitions between consecutive desks can help to prevent distractions and can give a sense of seclusion even within a busy environment.

Preventing Sound from Travelling

The choice of environmental materials in an open-plan area can have a dramatic impact on how far sound, such as telephone conversations, can travel. Obviously, if this distance can be minimised, then workers will enjoy greater privacy when they are talking on the phone.

Taller panels between cubicles can reduce sound propagation, as can a good choice for the surface materials of floors, walls and ceilings. Softer materials tend to absorb more sound energy than do harder materials, and so this should be a consideration when it comes to designing the office space.

Even in an open-plan workspace, it is necessary to have private conference rooms, with reasonably thick walls to ensure that conversations taking place inside can remain confidential.

A Safe Harbour from Surveillance

In a business where it is necessary to monitor or record staff telephone calls, it is good practice to provide an alternative service that is not subject to this surveillance for staff to use for personal calls.

Similarly, if there is a need to use CCTV to watch over staff in the workplace (for example, on a shop floor) then it is worthwhile to provide an unmonitored staff room or other facilities for staff to use for their breaks. This gives them relief from the feeling that they are constantly in the spotlight and is good for morale.

The Feeling of Privacy

Workers may equate the feeling of having their privacy invaded with that of claustrophobia. By designing offices with bright neutral colours and plenty of natural light, it may be possible to make employees feel they have regained their privacy even if the real physical situation has remained the same.

Designing for Privacy

The right to privacy should be one of the main considerations when it comes to planning a work environment. If staff feel relaxed and confident, they will be more productive. In contrast, if they feel that they are constantly being watched by management or by their colleagues, then they will find it difficult to concentrate on the job in hand. A little extra time, thought and investment up front in designing an office for privacy can pay for itself many times over.

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