Workplace Designs and Privacy Concerns

November 16th, 2017 | By Jules Halpern Associates | Confidential Information, Employment Law, Privacy, Privacy Rights, Workplace Culture

Over the years, workspace layouts have evolved. First there were individual private offices, then cubicles. Eventually, offices turned into open floor plans, using rows of desks in an open space without boundaries. Some office design experts promote completely open workspaces, while others encourage private offices. This article will discuss the evolution of the workspace layouts and their privacy implications.

From Private Offices to Open Floor Plans

Traditionally, employers utilized private offices for their employees. This office layout continues to be the primary means of allocating space for employees that are higher in the employer’s hierarchy. However, the utilization of private offices is becoming less popular as organizations attempt to squeeze funds from their budgets. Over time, employers began utilizing cubicles as workstations. One concern is that cubicles and open floor plans invade employees’ privacy. On the other hand, it is argued that open floor plans and cubicles enhance communication.

In 2002, around 70% of workers spent their time at work in cubicles. Utilization of cubicles has benefits and detriments. Franklin Becker, Director of the International Workplace Studies Program at Cornell University, once stated that cubicles “provide pseudo-privacy at best, and are terrible for spontaneous communication.” Michael Brill, a workplace planning and design consultant, agreed that “cubicles are acoustic sieves that intrude on your thoughts and conversations.” While these two experts agree that cubicles affect privacy, Becker argued that cubicle walls should come down. As Becker suggested, many offices began utilizing barrier-free workspace designs, where everyone, including management, sat in the open on rolling chairs in clusters or rows of desks.

Over the years, workspace layouts have evolved. First there were individual private offices, then cubicles. Eventually, offices turned into open floor plans, using rows of desks in an open space without boundaries. Some office design experts promote completely open workspaces, while others encourage private offices. This article will discuss the evolution of the workspace layouts and their privacy implications.

From Private Offices to Open Floor Plans

Traditionally, employers utilized private offices for their employees. This office layout continues to be the primary means of allocating space for employees that are higher in the employer’s hierarchy. However, the utilization of private offices is becoming less popular as organizations attempt to squeeze funds from their budgets. Over time, employers began utilizing cubicles as workstations. One concern is that cubicles and open floor plans invade employees’ privacy. On the other hand, it is argued that open floor plans and cubicles enhance communication.

In 2002, around 70% of workers spent their time at work in cubicles. Utilization of cubicles has benefits and detriments. Franklin Becker, Director of the International Workplace Studies Program at Cornell University, once stated that cubicles “provide pseudo-privacy at best, and are terrible for spontaneous communication.” Michael Brill, a workplace planning and design consultant, agreed that “cubicles are acoustic sieves that intrude on your thoughts and conversations.” While these two experts agree that cubicles affect privacy, Becker argued that cubicle walls should come down. As Becker suggested, many offices began utilizing barrier-free workspace designs, where everyone, including management, sat in the open on rolling chairs in clusters or rows of desks.

The Modern Office Design Trend

In 2002, workplace designers speculated whether private office spaces would recapture workplace settings or whether the open office design would take over. The current trend is to cater to the variety of tasks required. These new designs are partly a backlash against the open floor design, which intended to pack more workers into less space. That floor plan was intended to drive collaboration, but now many experts agree it went too far, affecting worker efficiency.

The new design model is largely open. It consists of open spaces, standing tables, couches, portable wall, isolation rooms and technology prohibited lounges. Privacy is also a valid concern. Experts say the goal of the new designs is to accelerate the sharing of ideas, the decision-making process and product creation, as well as to appeal to millennials.

Collaboration v. Privacy

Michael Brill, President of the Buffalo Organization for Social and Technological Innovation, studied the impact of the work environment pertaining to work satisfaction and performance for over two decades. He found that the top two predictors of job performance were (1) the ability to do distraction-free work for teams and individuals and (2) the ability to have easy, frequent, informal interactions. The study revealed that workers spend a majority of their time at work in private or near private activity. Therefore, he suggested that each employee be given a private office, no matter how small. Moreover, Brill argued that most meetings are unscheduled, involving two to three people, which typically occur at the workstation. As such, he suggests that private spaces encourage spontaneous, confidential conversations – which he described as the “backbone” of an organization.

Although many agree that privacy is important, Becker believes that collaboration is at the core of office design. Becker’s studies revealed that workers spend most of their time in teams and resort to private places only when needed. Therefore, Becker recommended a series of small-scale “war rooms” or team offices. He argued that no one works eight hours a day in total concentration; rather, employees work in spurts, therefore they will have the chance to get privacy as needed.

However, job performance and employee interactions are not the only components that employers are supposed to consider when determining workplace design. For example, attorneys are required to keep communications with their clients private and confidential. Specifically, if an attorney and his/her client are discussing a matter face-to-face or over the phone in the presence of an unnecessary third-party, the discussion will not be considered confidential and may be admitted at trial. In addition, requiring attorneys to work in close quarters in an open floor model may reveal confidential and private telephone and e-mail communications because surrounding employees have visual access to computer monitors. As such, an open office design may not be the best option for law firms because it threatens these legal principles of privacy and confidentiality.

As discussed in a prior Newsletter article, other organizations besides law firms are required to protect confidential information, such as employee information, management information, and business information. Employee information includes personal identifying information, such as Social Security numbers. Management information includes discussions about employee relation issues, terminations, disciplinary actions, etc. Business information includes proprietary information and/or trade secrets. In order to protect such information, employers may want to consider using private offices rather than an open floor design.

Implications

When employers design a new office space, it is helpful to utilize trends that foster the employees’ job duties. Where privacy is a necessary component of the job, the use of private offices is encouraged. To the contrary, where teamwork is crucial, an open floor plan may be utilized, but we recommend that those employers consider having a few private offices for instances where privacy and confidentiality concerns exist.

 

Jules Halpern Associates LLC

Workplace and Education Law Advisors

Jules Halpern Associates LLC
JULES HALPERN ASSOCIATES LLC is a boutique law firm committed to serving our clients in all facets of their workplace issues. We provide personalized, practical advice that resonates with our clients’ business objectives.
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Jules Z. Halpern

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