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How to maintain privacy in a contemporary office environment

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Rethink the open office

The open-plan office is now the default choice for most companies. 70 per cent of offices in the US have an open floor plan, and here in the UK, 49 per cent of us work in open offices twice the global average. The noble goal was to encourage communication and collaboration at minimum cost, and there’s some evidence to suggest success in these areas.

However, the past few years have seen an extraordinary backlash. Recent studies reveal the appalling impact of open offices on employee privacy, health and productivity. Researchers at the University of Sydney found that almost half of open office workers are dissatisfied with sound privacy and a third with visual privacy. That’s important because privacy boosts job performance. What’s more, the Asia-Pacific Journal of Health Management found that 90 per cent of studies looking at open-plan offices linked them to health problems.

So what’s the alternative The key is flexibility. Provide your staff with a variety of workspaces and let them decide which works best. A balance of open areas for collaborative projects and more solitary breakout spaces for focused tasks. If it’s not possible to provide different spaces, give workers more options at their workstations. Furniture companies are responding to current trends and offering ever more flexible solutions, developing units that promote visual and aural privacy. Small measures can also make a big difference: computer privacy screens or employee lockers all give staff a sense of having their own space.

Culture is King

Breakout spaces and privacy screens will achieve nothing if attitudes aren’t aligned. A 2005 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) showed how wide the gaps in attitude can be between HR departments and employees. When asked whether firms had the right to monitor computer use, a 30 per cent gap in agreement emerged. Similar figures surround email use, internet use and other metrics.

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Of course, it’s unsurprising that employees don’t like being watched quite as much as managers like watching them. The problem is that, as SHRM point out, “The largest differences between HR professionals and employees were observed in their assessment of the motivation behind monitoring employee activities.” Employees believe they’re being watched to ensure they’re productive, but the strongest motivations are actually protection against viruses, hackers and loss of proprietary information.

It seems bosses are not communicating their aims to employees effectively. In many cases, attitudes towards privacy are confined to unwieldy policy documents. Though these are an invaluable resource, the most effective way to express your organisation’s values is to lead by example. Ensure your managers are working hard to respect and resolve privacy concerns, and are seen to be doing so putting protocol into practice will help make privacy a part of your everyday workplace culture.

Tom Brialey is the owner of Action Storage.

Meanwhile, with advice from HubSpots Brian Halligan, Bryan Adama covered the essential steps to cultivating strong relationships with employees, customers and candidates, unlocking the the power of internal brand culture.

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