Ask your friends and colleagues what they think of open plan offices and you are likely to be confronted with a range of differing opinions. While some will claim that these ‘bullpen’ spaces serve as the perfect breeding grounds for creative collaboration, interdepartmental interaction and a sense of camaraderie among workers, others will cite endless distractions, noise and lack of privacy among their open-plan bugbears. If a business owner suspects that open plan offices are a threat to productivity and privacy, they may be tempted to do away with this design altogether. However, there is no need to start erecting walls and cubicles just yet; with a little creativity and the right affordable office furniture, companies can have the sociable atmosphere of an open plan with all the confidentiality of a private office.
The death of privacy?
While electronic communication, internet usage and call monitoring is commonly practised in work environments today, all workers are entitled to some degree of privacy. With more and more companies implementing CCTV, location tracking, stop-and-search procedures and drug testing, you may feel that businesses are merely paying lip service when it comes to protecting privacy. However, it is important to remember that data protection laws are in place to protect workers’ confidential information in the workplace.
Having a ‘quiet word’
There are many situations that may arise during the working day that necessitate freedom from eavesdropping and interference. As all good HR managers know, conversations relating to sensitive and confidential issues, such as salary, contracts, health, bullying, harassment and dismissal, should be conducted in a private setting. While single offices may be the ideal location for some exchanges, others will not require the same degree of seclusion. For example, if a manager wants to have a brief and discreet conversation with a subordinate, having a ‘quiet word’ in a partitioned section of the office may suffice. In many cases, making use of noise-reducing partitions will be enable workers to conduct sensitive or confidential discussions without drawing attention from other members of staff.
No more prying eyes
Furthermore, personal data, such as bank account information, details of disciplinary records, staff appraisals and details of sickness records, should only be accessible to relevant members of staff.
Employees that need to record and retrieve personal information relating to other workers should be provided with the means to do so without others being able to view this data. For example, a payroll administrator may be issued with desktop or floor screens to prevent other employees from seeing confidential material regarding payments. Such screens allow workers to keep classified knowledge private without hampering the flow of other information in the workplace.
It is important that business owners keep in mind that situations relating to a worker’s personal life will crop up from time to time. For example, a worker may need to take a phone call from their doctor, their child’s school or someone they care for during working hours. While every effort should be made to limit the impact of such situations on productivity, there will doubtlessly be times where unforeseen circumstances calling for privacy emerge. For example, if a member of staff receives a call on their office phone relating to an private incident, such as involvement of a loved one in a accident, screens that reduce sound will enable a worker to carry out their conversation in a dignified, private way.
While the strategic positioning of office desks, screens and partitions will go some way in creating a private atmosphere in an open plan office, it is important that business owners draw up policies relating to privacy in the workplace. Codes of conduct and company practices regarding monitoring, surveillance and confidentiality should be communicated to all workers and clearly set out in a staff handbook, which should be provided to all employees.
It’s clear that building walls does not have to be the answer to creating privacy. Businesses can foster a culture of knowledge sharing and collaboration without putting confidentiality at risk. All that is required is common sense approach and some inventive office furniture solutions.