Defining Privacy for the Future of Workspace Design

Brady Mick on how we can work to find the right balance between privacy and collaboration.

What is today the headquarters of BHDP Architecture, began as a command and control office environment for Crown Overall Manufacturing. Image courtesy of BHDP.

The astounding rate of change and complexity in the marketplace in the beginning of the 21st century precipitated a shift toward barrier-free workplace design. Many business leaders believed that collaboration, fostered by open-plan workspaces, would stimulate the innovation required to meet the needs of the changing marketplace. However, the need for privacy in the workplace has curbed the appetite for the open-plan workspace. Today, workspace design client-facing focus groups hear these complaints more than in previous years: “I just don’t have time to think!” Or, “It’s too distracting to think.”

The need for quiet and privacy in the workplace has architects, designers, and employers scrambling to strike the right balance. To create environments that maximize employee engagement, innovation, and productivity, designers need to grasp why and how people work.

Pivotal inventions and designs

The era of modern office architecture didn’t begin until the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the Industrial Revolution summoned workers out of their farms and into factories and offices. Of the many inventions during that period, Elisha Otis’s 1853 elevator made taller buildings acceptable work places. Until that point, architects helped their clients maximize their space utilization in huge rooms prone to heat, noise, and poor lighting. It wasn’t until 1937 when the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) compelled overtime pay beyond the 40-hour workweek[1] that work conditions started to change for the better. As the laws changed, workers’ expectations of their work environment changed along with them.

There are several other notable markers in timeline of building that contribute specifically to modern office design and its relevance to privacy. The first is the Bürolandschaft office movement of the 1960s, which incorporated curved screens, potted plants, and organic geometry to promote collaboration within the “pods” of people working on similar projects. The 1980s ushered in an era of “hot desking” or “office hoteling,” which assigns desks ad hoc, based on who’s there at any given time. Workers have neither their own desk, nor a personal space to hang a family photo. The 1990s introduced the cubicle as the premier “one-size-fits-all” solution to workers’ needs for security.

Workers’ privacy, collaboration, and office design

Harmony among privacy, collaboration, optimal space utilization, and worker productivity (and engagement) has not yet been found. Since the complexity of the work being performed has increased in recent decades, meeting time has doubled: workers report spending too much time in consultations, in conference rooms, or on virtual calls with distributed teams. The requirements of work interactions have restricted the time needed to concentrate and think about the complex problems presented by today’s volatile marketplace. Open collaborative office designs are contributing to that problem.

Yet three out of every four CEOs in a 2012 survey of 1700 CEOs, IBM identified collaboration as the most important trait that they were seeking in their employees.[1] It is not surprising to find that management favors collaboration and the type of workspaces that offer visual access to team members. The problem seems to arise from the way the workplace is constructed to drive creative, problem-solving thinking and, as a result, innovation.

Collaborative environments continue to be delivered across all BHDP industry designs and customers, including this new workplace for Unum. Image courtesy of BHDP.

Creativity requires a balance between privacy and collaboration in order to foster innovation. Design firms, therefore, wrestle with how best to optimize their clients’ effectiveness by making sure privacy and collaboration are in balance. To accomplish this goal requires an investigation of how workers generally define privacy and how much privacy they need.

Defining the terms

Business and architectural workspace designs are inextricably linked because businesses are comprised of people. How do people negotiate their places of work to produce results? Why do people no longer benefit from their workstations, offices, and conference rooms? What do they need to be productive? Is privacy important to them and in what way?

Synonyms and antonyms for “privacy” provide a reference point from which to discuss office privacy, if only as defined by its opposite.

Table courtesy of the author.

The same person who complains of too much distraction at an open office layout workplace may find refuge at a noisy, high-bar bench seat at Starbucks with their monitor open to prying eyes. In this example, the worker has gained control over the interruptions, not the ambient noise or presence of people, giving insight to his definition of privacy.

The challenge in today’s workplace is to be sensitive to individuals’ needs, knowing that some people work better in collaboration than in privacy, while others need the opposite. Designing for the range of needs is important; designers serve their clients best by delving deeply into their clients’ social dynamics — and definitions of privacy — to balance the full spectrum of expressed needs.

Choice has become the stronger design strategy for people working between the behaviors of collaboration and the behaviors of privacy, such as this multi-function work environment for Timken Steel. Image courtesy of of BDHP.

Meeting workplace privacy design challenges

At first blush, the answer appears easy: construct a working arrangement that has an adequate square footage of both private and public spaces, with frictionless access to whichever is needed for the function and the role in question. But hardscape design (walls, doors, windows, noise, colors, ceilings, and lighting) is not the only answer to people’s craving for privacy; personal preferences and company culture are of equal importance. Each must be factored into the design plans.

Consider the following questions to aid in finding the right mix:

  1. How much privacy does a person in a particular role need to accomplish their job? Is this driven by their temperament or their specific function? Does their privacy need require a closed door or merely freedom from interruption? Does the resulting workspace create privacy risks, as in the case of working on proprietary information in a public venue?
  2. What is the appropriate balance of time spent in collaboration vs. solitude? Is there a resulting ratio of the type of square footage to allocate? How do the company’s mission, vision and culture inform that mix? What materials will best accomplish those objectives?
  3. How can science and art, architecture, management, physical attributes (plumbing, heating, ventilation, etc.), enhance collaboration and privacy? What can social sciences such as psychology, physiology, and anthropology contribute to the design?
Diagram courtesy of the author.

Privacy and collaboration need to coexist in a balanced environment that allows all temperaments to thrive. The most significant part of the “build” is in the preparation stages, where possible design elements are explored for suitability, but also with sensitivities to budgets and problem solving.

For the near future

Designers who create interior spaces realize that while open space layouts promote collaboration, too much collaboration may lose the best human resources for a lack of privacy or “time to think.” The solution involves the “soft-scape” behavioral sciences as well as hardscape design. Sorting out the behaviors that promote productivity, and designing for them, might just restore equilibrium.

Designing environments that affect the key behaviors necessary to achieve strategic results can be done with effective communication and analysis of organizations’ needs, their employees’ roles, and an honest appraisal of the current and future work in what is currently called “the workplace”. Human behavior impacts the bottom line of every business and it always will; designing spaces that honor the variety of privacy needs is a workplace win for the long run.



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