Privacy Issues Can't Be
Ignored In Office Planning

August 13, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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HOLLAND — Tina the Tech Writer is not alone.

Tina is a fictional office worker, one of cartoonist Scott Adams' "Dilbert" characters. Tina knows exactly what Teresa Bellingar, an ergonomist at Haworth Inc., was talking about recently at the 2007 NeoCon World’s Trade Fair in Chicago. For Tina — and for real office workers, as Bellingar knows — privacy is a critical issue in the design of an office environment.

Recently, Tina the Tech Writer complained to her HR manager about her co-worker, Wally, who insists on eating "loud" snacks in his cubicle. Most real office workers have similar “war stories” about a disruptive lack of privacy on the job, situations that have driven them to do something drastic — like building a cardboard wall.

"People will try to adapt their work space to get the privacy they need," said Bellingar, who presented “Privacy Matters" at NeoCon, information about visual and audio privacy issues in the office environment.

"We have gone into places where people will build cardboard walls to give them visual privacy," she noted. She said there are also "definitely a lot of people wearing headphones to try to block out noise."

"We" is Bellingar and Virginia Kupritz, a professor at the University of Tennessee, who together conducted a study of office privacy issues for Haworth in 2005. Both women hold Ph.D. degrees.

In her presentation at NeoCon, Bellingar quoted other research that indicates office workers are interrupted or distracted up to one-fourth of the work day, which obviously means privacy is a productivity issue in many office environments.

Privacy issues can be divided into two types: audio and visual. Then there is another key division: group privacy versus individual privacy.

In the group category are office workers meeting with others to work on a project. A meeting in an open environment can disrupt or distract other individuals working nearby. Conversely, the group itself may have a critical need for privacy. Personnel matters — such as a human resources staff meeting — may demand a secure setting where no one outside the group can overhear the conversation. The same setting, ideally a private conference room, would be required for an R&D team working on a new product or sales/marketing strategies, or a legal team discussing litigation. Audio privacy is the first requirement.

But visual privacy could be just as important for some group work. There may be product prototypes present, or large charts and graphs reflecting sensitive information. Many conference rooms have glass walls or extensive interior windows that compromise visual privacy.

For many individual office workers, audio privacy is the first consideration. People who have a critical need to avoid distractions are those doing large amounts of "heads-down work," such as data entry, and they tend to be administrative support and technical support personnel. They are usually assigned to open office environments, while "the people who get the private offices are managers," noted Bellingar, and some managers only spend 35 or 40 percent of their time in their offices.

"One thing that some companies are finding is that they have to reconsider how they assign these offices," said Bellingar.

"It's really assessing what your employees are doing," she added, rather than assigning offices based on titles. An organization ought to "identify who needs a private office, based on the function."

Bellingar said that one of the most common mistakes made by people responsible for setting up office environments is "thinking that individual privacy isn't as important as group privacy." The study found the two “are of equal need," she said, noting that even individuals who do a great deal of work in groups are still working solo up to half the time.

This summer, Stiles Machinery is building a two-story call center in Kentwood that will be occupied by 30 employees. About 100,000 calls are received by Stiles each year, for parts orders and technical support information. One of the big factors affecting productivity in any call center is the sounds made by other people sitting close by, including phone conversations. Stiles is putting almost $1 million into its call center, which will include the latest in electronic "white noise" technology to mask the sound of voices emanating from each workstation, without the need for walls. White noise generators and amplifiers will be installed above each desk, making it difficult to hear a conversation taking place only a few yards away.

As in Tina the Tech Writer's case, the real world often must involve the organization's HR department to solve disruptive infringements on audio privacy. For example, many employees listen to music CDs or to the radio on their computers and the boss may not have a problem with that as long as it doesn't reduce the employee's productivity. But if the music or radio commentary bothers an adjacent employee, that's an issue that will often fester until the HR department establishes rules. Most often the basic rule is to require that the employee listening to music or radio use headphones.

Phone courtesy is another big issue in audio privacy. Bellingar notes that "lots of times people will use their speaker phone in their cubicle, in an open office environment" — and others trying to work nearby can't help but hear every word. "That's when you should use a conference room, instead of making that call out in the open," she said.

Of course, that means there has to be a nearby conference room equipped with a speaker phone.

Taking steps to ensure audio privacy will often also help solve visual privacy problems, said Bellingar.

While audio privacy issues seem to be just a little more pressing than visual privacy, a lack of visual privacy can also cause frequent disruptions that impede productivity and concentration.

There are two aspects of visual privacy: being visible to co-workers in the office and seeing co-workers in the office. When both parties make eye contact, work is disrupted. A common visual privacy situation is where "people want to be placed away from main aisles. It distracts you when people walk by your desk and they happen to catch your eye. It's almost automatic to say 'Hi,'" said Bellingar.

"We're a polite society," she added.

Interior glass panels around a workstation can create a "fishbowl effect," said Bellingar, which can cause stress because the occupant may subconsciously feel he or she is being watched by supervisors or managers.

An organization that ignores privacy issues will soon discover that the afflicted employees will take matters into their own hands.

"You'll have people altering their offices as they see fit to get the privacy they need," said Bellingar. "People will rearrange their office, especially if they are on a main aisle, so that they aren't facing the aisle."

In a fishbowl office, she said, "You will see people put up posters on their windows, or tape up photos of family and friends to block out the view" of another person working nearby.

A do-it-yourself office reconfiguration prompted by privacy needs can present practical problems as well as aesthetic problems. An improvised wall panel put up for privacy might be high enough to block a sprinkler head in the ceiling, which poses a safety hazard. Or it might block the daylight appreciated by other workers in the area, noted Bellingar.

The aesthetic ramifications are something the facility manager will ultimately have to deal with, so it's never a good idea to ignore privacy issues.

"In any office environment, you are trying to create a professional look. If you have clients or other individuals walking through, a cardboard wall somebody built doesn't have that professional look," said Bellingar.

"If everyone is allowed to make changes to their offices as they see fit, it may not present the look the company wants for itself. Of course, it depends on the culture of the company," she added.

Or lack of it.

A white paper written by Bellingar and Kupritz is available on the Haworth Web site, www.haworth.com. On the left, click on "Knowledge & Research," then click on "Alphabetical listing — all docs” and look for "Privacy Matters." BJX

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