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Can Open Offices Offer Privacy?

by Keith Fentress / April 3, 2015

In my previous posting Focus Spaces, I discussed the fact that, in the absence of private offices or dedicated workstations, staff members who frequently work from locations outside the office still require part-time accommodations to focus intensely and individually on their primary job assignments. Touchdown stations and get away booths were included as current examples of focus spaces. Although the concepts seem ideal, do these two spaces really work as intended? Specifically, do they offer employees of open offices the opportunity for privacy when needed?

The recent article Privacy Crisis Engulfs Open-Plan Offices emphatically asserts, “Office-based businesses are facing an unprecedented privacy crisis with their employees…. After decades of open plan offices and an unrelenting drive for shared work spaces, the number one complaint from office workers is now a lack of privacy.”

As stated in Google got it Wrong in The Washington Post, “A 2013 study found that many workers in open offices are frustrated by distractions that lead to poorer work performance. Nearly half of the surveyed workers in open offices said the lack of sound privacy was a significant problem for them and more than 30 percent complained about the lack of visual privacy. In a previous study, researchers concluded that the loss of productivity due to noise distraction … was doubled in open offices compared to private offices.” The author further concluded, “It’s like being in middle school with a bunch of adults. As a result, I can only work effectively during times when no one else is around, or if I isolate myself in one of the small, constantly sought-after, glass-windowed meeting rooms around the perimeter. If employers want to make the open offices model work, they have to take measures to improve work efficiency. For one, they should create more private areas, ones without fishbowl windows.”Open Offices - Fentress Inc.

The Open Offices Experience

This assessment coincides with my own observations. Although I have observed that touchdown stations are unquestionably effective for temporary use by staff members needing to spend time focusing on their primary job assignments. They do not seem to be ideal for longer-term use. Additionally, even for temporary use, they must be augmented by more private accommodations such as get away booths. I also agree with the assessment that get away booths should be provided in an ample ratio of booths per person and should offer both visual and acoustic privacy. These two points are critical to any effort to create a working environment that truly supports mobile work practices and open offices.

Additionally, I have found that solutions to the privacy dilemma such as the creative but somewhat “far out” designs described in the article Open Office Or Private Space?, must be complemented by procedural solutions that guide the employees on issues of privacy enhancing courtesies. Both are critical to the success of a mobile office environment.

In my next post, I will address the issue of privacy as it is encountered in collaborative spaces.

Tags: Flexible Workspace Open Office Design Mobile Workforce Solutions

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Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress is the founder and president of Fentress Incorporated. He has an extensive history of consulting to real property organizations. His skills include organizational development, program evaluation, and business process improvement. He enjoys outdoor pursuits like backpacking, canoeing, and snorkeling.