Designing around privacy in open-plan offices

Lack of privacy is not the #1 complaint in offices, according to research

by David Strydom — Office-based businesses are facing an unprecedented privacy crisis with their employees, according to research carried out by market researchers IPSOS and the Workspace Futures Team of Steelcase late last year. 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, the research said.

As many as 85% of people are dissatisfied with their working environment and cannot concentrate, while 31% even leave the office to get work completed. More than 10,000 workers across 14 countries were questioned about their office environments and working patterns.

Key findings from the research include office workers are losing 86 minutes per day due to distractions; too many employees are chronically disengaged at work; they are unmotivated, unproductive and overly stressed; they have little capacity to think and work creatively and constructively; and the right balance between private and collaborative working spaces can deliver a step change in employee engagement and productivity.

Bostjan Ljubic, VP of Steelcase UK & Ireland said: “The drive for collaborative working spaces was founded on getting people working better together. It’s been enormously successful and has delivered efficiency on a major scale but too much interaction and not enough privacy has reached crisis proportions, taking a heavy toll on workers’ creativity, productivity, engagement and wellbeing.

There’s a privacy crisis among employees brewing in open-plan offices, research indicates. Does that have implications for how we design our offices?

“People not only expect privacy in their private lives — they want it at the office as well. Our research has found that for people to collaborate with their colleagues more effectively they need less ‘we’ time and more ‘me’ time than they are getting today.”

We asked several experts in workspace in a modern environment what their thoughts are with respect to open-plan privacy, and how FMs can innovate to ensure workplaces inspire wellbeing and productivity among employees.

Hannah Nardini, workplace strategist and designer for twenty20design said: “Distractions are commonplace in open-plan environments. Statistically, an occupant is likely to be disturbed every three minutes which makes their ability to focus and perform tasks quickly and accurately are hindered significantly.”

Nardini thinks the open-plan is ‘clearly a concept here to stay’ but that the emergence of agile working goes a long way in solving the problems of lack of privacy. “In this new working model we see occupants encouraged to move around the workplace to find the most suitable place to ensure maximum productivity. This could mean moving to a quiet room for focused working, a collaboration area for chats with colleagues through to call-booths for phone calls. With a well-designed workplace offering alternate settings as well as basic disciplines and rules in office etiquette being implemented we can see the problems to lack of privacy being overcome effectively.”

But there are innovations available to open-plan offices, Nardini says. “Office acoustics are becoming a bigger problem in the workplace; industry has responded by creating an array of products to lessen the impact of noise. The old strategies of soft finishes and less hard surfaces still holds true but the emergence of acoustic panels hung on walls or ceilings help soften sound but being considerate of design aesthetics. The traditional open-plan creates obvious noise problems so segregation of the work areas into smaller pockets of space can be effective. Likewise the introduction of acoustic masking systems can offer further improvements on managing sound in an open-plan office.”

FMs can get involved in lessening the disadvantages of open-plan offices by moving emphasis away from ‘place’ and focusing on ‘people’, Nardini believes. By understanding how people need to work to be most productive, workplace designers are turning the open-plan into just one of many work settings that has its place within the organisation.

“The open-plan needs to be well-designed to support tasks, appear uncluttered, contain efficient storage systems, have clear circulatory corridors and encourage interaction among staff. The spirit of collaboration should be promoted and the open-plan can provide perfect opportunities for these random collisions. The office must be inspiring, flexible and fun if it’s to become a place where people want to be and work at their best.”

Michael Page, joint MD of Saracen Interiors, says the lack of privacy in open-plan offices is a common problem but there are many creative ways to overcome it, depending on available space. “We’ve had American-owned clients who prefer the cellular office style but struggle to accommodate this in UK office spaces and we’ve had to work with them closely to come up with acceptable solutions, taking into account cultural differences.”

But open-plan is not just a privacy issue, Page points out. “There are noise levels to factor in which can effect concentration and have a knock on effect on productivity. We’ve worked out ways to compensate for this with low level screening just above mouth height to muffle noise — which also allows for a degree of privacy — and the introduction of what we refer to as ‘phone booths’.”

These booth-style solutions have two sides and a back and include a phone and a shelf with a datapoint for the plugging in of laptops and any other necessary equipment. They give extra privacy for phone calls and enable the occupant to work in these spaces, which can be glass-panelled, with a door making up a fourth wall for maximum privacy, if specified.

“We also suggest diner style booths for some of our clients which, again, allow for more flexible working away from the main open-plan areas. For example, we use benches against solid walls with long tables as a potential space for a meeting. It’s less formal than a conference room and the benches and tables can be placed in a breakout space.”

Page says Saracen has just completed a project for a design agency which included a ‘den’ — a comfy area, especially designated for those who need privacy to conduct phone calls, proof documents etc. This was included to address the open-plan issue as it was suggested staff would appreciate a space they could move to, separate from the shared office environment, for quiet time and privacy.

“Part of our role is to empathise with the needs of the client and work with the facilities and office managers to plan space around the various functions of the business. Our clients come to us because, as workspace specialists, we are expert at thinking around the structure of how the business is run and planning the space accordingly — ultimately, it’s our job to make the space work.”

Adam Burtt-Jones and Steve Brewer from architect firm Burtt-Jones & Brewer advise FMs to take a step back and ask why they thought going open-plan would be good for them and their organisation in the first place. Next speak to staff, so you can determine and benchmark what the problems really are. It could be that the main issues are just around acoustics and the need for private phone conversations. This is something that can be easily managed and not a major design or FM problem.

Often it is the case that going open-plan was poorly implemented in the first place, usually as a rushed, ill thought through cost saving exercise, which is now backfiring. But there isn’t always a need for a knee-jerk reaction. “We should question the premise that cellular offices are actually being re-introduced. It’s probably more that there is a perception that they are because of the general criticisms of open-plan. Perhaps it’s more about a waxing and waning of demand together with the natural process and cycle of change. But to an extent the trend for change is limited to specific business sectors and driven by a desire to keeping up with the Joneses.”

Law firms are guilty of this say Burtt-Janes and Brewer: one leading law firm known for innovation frequently changes its attitude to offices and open- plan working. “This inspires and demands that their competition need to change as they can’t be seen to standstill. This domino effect is then played out across the sector, frequently moving geographically, with a trickle down effect from the larger corporate organisations to the smaller businesses, each finding its ‘edge’ and differing implementation criteria.”

When asked about innovations that cause fewer problems in open-plan offices, Burtt-Jones and Brewer say it may not be a case of having to be innovative. “Like we said earlier, when you look at a problem closely, the seriousness of it shifts and it’s not always as bad a situation as first perceived. So, don’t take a hammer to crack a nut.”

The crucial thing for FMs to realise is anyone can potentially operate within a single open-plan environment, but that every individual has different needs and requirements. “That means allowing for an individual’s need for a quiet space from time to time — maybe the allocation of an area or zone to be used for specific activities away from the main open-plan area and the inclusion of a mix of different styles of furniture, lighting and acoustic treatments.”

The harder issues can be tackled with practical and visible solutions, such as acoustic systems to the desk and ceilings. Even altering lighting can have a positive impact, such as adding alternative lights for quiet working settings. “The most valuable tools are often the simplest — education and expectation. Educate the users of a space what to expect. Inform through intuitive (and collective) decision-making. Listen carefully to their requirements and question them. It could be the solution isn’t about noise, but about their specific desk orientation, or not being positioned near a noisy colleague, etc.”

Both architects advise FMs to treat the problem holistically, reviewing hard (physical) and soft (HR/people) elements. “It’s tempting to offer immediate practical advice, to answer the queries raised directly — especially in the FM world. But more often than not a more sensitive and investigative approach will reap greater rewards. This could be asking questions indirectly, even to those not related to the issue. Be a sounding board, potentially walking away from a conversation without commitment to a solution, instead promising you’ll investigate the issue for them.”

If you’re shepherding a business in a change from open to cellular, approach with a carrot, and gently tap with a stick, say the architects. “Offer rewards for the change, such as better or free coffee, a desk lamp or choice of desk furniture from a list you agree with your supplier. Even simple things such as a pen pot or refreshing the planting can improve moral. It’s important not to underestimate minor changes to personal workspace as countless studies show personal autonomy improves productivity.”

Dr Craig Knight, director of Identity Realization says too often open-plan space is installed as a cost- saving measure and/or as a management device for increasing productivity. Both options show a lack of knowledge, he says. “The cost of staff massively outweighs the costs of marginal space. Even the suggestion of ‘cellular offices being non-negotiable’ highlights how crass space management policies can be. There is no such thing as a perfect space. It’s almost certain some tasks will benefit from being conducted in an open-plan area while others will benefit from the privacy of a cellular space. Decent space pays for itself.”

The problem here is that companies don’t know how to measure productivity (how do you measure in an HR office for example?) and so they measure cost savings instead, says Knight. “This takes us into the toxic realm of the lean office, which is a scientific busted flush. Yet because lean and other management systems ostensibly save money they flourish. Yet they cost unmeasured millions.”

According to Knight, these questionable practises require open-plan environments. ” It’s difficult, for instance, to impose teams and to monitor those teams in cellular space, so we bring down the walls with no usual reason beyond a heuristic one. Why don’t we can the bunkum and snake oil and learn to measure productivity? Then we can see how much money can be made and how much happiness engendered.”

It’s a product of over a decade of research that happiness and productivity are joined at the statistical hip and travel in the same direction, says Knight. “So, if a company saves money with its open-plan offices, it needs to calculate how much these savings cost (for instance, I deny you a square metre of workspace saving the company £9,000 per annum, your output falls by £20,000 — or by nothing at all. The saving on its own is a hopelessly misleading statistic). Because if privacy affects performance what kind of a mug denies privacy?”

Open-plan offices receive a lot of flack — not all of which is deserved, says Knight. “Open-plan can provide collegiate, sociable and engaging spaces. Sadly it’s also the perfect space for specious practices, excessive monitoring and corporate penny pinching.”

FMs can help considerably depending on the authority they wield, Knight explains. “If the open-plan space resembles a melamine featureless plain then enrich it. Plants are a cost effective way of doing this, but art and much else produces similar effects. On this point don’t use corporate art, most people know why they’re at work. Save the corporate stuff for your visitors. Enrichment of a space is always good compared to a Spartan environment. Human beings are just another animal there’s no beast on God’s green earth, from an ant to an elephant, that thrives in a plain unenriched space. Business theories can be so stupid.”

If people feel as though they’re in goldfish bowls maybe screens would help, Knight suggests. “But the best thing any manager can do is ask the staff what they want. The workers in the space know its shortcomings better than anybody. Then cooperate with the people to give them a space they enjoy. The rewards are massive. And by massive I mean up to a scientifically published 32% compared to a lean space.”