How to maintain privacy in a contemporary office environment

Despite all this, “when they sit down to work, they are more focused, work longer hours and are more productive than those with low engagement.” Trust and flexibility are clearly key components of an engaged workforce. Yet, in a modern office environment, these can be rare commodities. In fact, according to a Harvard Business Review study of nearly 20,000 employees around the world, over half don’t even feel respected by their bosses, though those who said leaders treated them with respect were 55 per cent more engaged.

We believe that an organisation’s approach to employee privacy plays a key role in encouraging trust and respect. In 2014, Great Place to Work UK, which seeks to develop high-trust workplace cultures, took a look at what employees in low-trust firms said about their managers. It highlighted comments like, “my manager is very controlling,” or, “I feel like I’m being watched over my shoulder constantly.” What’s going on? We know that engaged and productive employees are frequently distracted, or spend time on unrelated activities, yet higher-ups are determined to clamp down on these behaviours, often invading staff privacy in the process. 

To combat this, and promote trust and high engagement in the process, we’ve put together our top tips to maintain employee privacy in today’s offices:

Redefine privacy

Traditional and scholarly definitions of privacy are often either overly simple or extraordinarily complex. Many studies focus only on acoustic, visual and territorial factors. Others consider further dimensions: employees’ rights of solitude, limitation of access, anonymity, information privacy, bodily integrity and intimacy. The trouble is that simple definitions can lead to inadequate policies, while complex definitions are difficult to implement.

Any useful definition must also consider the workplace of today, where we’re more accessible than ever, both physically and virtually. Steelcase, a provider of workplace products and services, suggested a more practical understanding of privacy be put into practice which considers two simple but comprehensive categories.

Information control includes standard measures on personal data and file control, but it also tackles wider issues such as researching job candidates online or whether staff can access personal Twitter accounts at work. And stimulation control covers anything that’s capable of disrupting focus: all the traditional acoustic, visual and territorial factors, alongside more subtle design factors, like whether a workstation is best suited to the task at hand.

In the end, how you define privacy is up to you, but a clearly defined set of considerations will help ensure a more comprehensive policy. More importantly, a transparent approach to privacy will enable staff to react and engage with you, building trust and helping to foster a positive company culture.

Monitor with caution

Today’s offices are truly Orwellian. The American Management Association revealed that nearly 80 per cent of major companies now monitor employees’ use of email, internet or phone. On top of this, Gartner estimated that 60 per cent watch workers’ social media. UK figures are more difficult to obtain, but with frequent horror stories reported, monitoring appears just as popular this side of the pond.

But how effective is workplace surveillance? Conventional wisdom would suggest that these systems boost employee productivity, reduce liability, improve customer service and protect against security breaches. The evidence however is far from clear-cut. In an article for Perspectives on Work, Rosemary Batt points out that performance incentives based purely on fear of disciplinary action are “short-lived as they are offset by longer-term burnout or exhaustion.” Call centres that make high use of electronic monitoring also experience doubled rates of absenteeism and labour turnover.

Of course, there are many legitimate reasons to monitor your employees. But when monitoring becomes a managerial crutch, a shortcut to short-term performance goals, or a way to avoid genuine interactions with staff, something has gone wrong. Many are tempted to implement monitoring by technology vendors or consultants – be sure you can make a compelling and ethical case for why these systems are in place, and err on the side of caution.

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