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Rethinking Workplace Privacy

Work privacy is traditionally defined in physical terms: Can we hear each other? Can we see each other? Do I have a place that’s just for me? But with the ever-changing workplace culture, we’re now always connected, reachable and findable (in both a virtual and physical sense). This can enhance our interactions, but also leave employees feeling overexposed. So we need to rethink what the basics are when it comes to privacy in the workplace. Below are the two most defining dimensions of privacy. 

Information Control

As a majority of the world worked from home last year, there was a constant battle to protect and manage their personal information. Throughout the day, employees shift from providing information and concealing it. Who needs this information? How can I keep coworkers from seeing sensitive information? Where can I keep confidential conversations? These are all questions asked daily to keep up the facade of a productive worker who’s not breaching any privacy rules.  

Social media in particular has forced people into compromising their control over their information, whether intentionally or not. Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and other media all have access to critical information – and are tools used throughout the workday so it’s hard to avoid. In order for people to keep this information (e.g. where they live, what music they like, how old they are or what they do as a hobby) to themselves, they have to make a conscious decision in order to do so. If they don’t, which let’s be honest – most of us don’t, then they are left to feel open and uncomfortably vulnerable. 

Stimulation Control

The second form of control that privacy covers are noise and distractions that can break concentration or the ability to focus. Stimulation control has more variations and more characteristics that are considered. Different people have varying preferences when it comes to working conditions. One person’s comfort is another distraction. In an office environment, it’s hard to find a balance of stimulation that works for everyone. Sometime’s we can find background music soothing, other times it’s annoying. However you define stimulation, there always needs to be ways to manage the distractions that come with it. 

When thinking about office design, it’s important to look at neuroscience research that identifies three basic models of attention. Firstly, controlled attention, which refers to a task that requires ‘intense’ focus – such as writing a detailed topic or concentration on a thinking task. These need minimal external distractions or unrelated thoughts. While in this model of attention, being distracted or interrupted is best to be avoided, and the need to control the environment is tighter than usual. 

The second type of attention is stimulus-driven attention – which switches between a strong focus and other menial tasks. So responding to e-mails, scheduling meetings, or catching up on other administrative work where interruptions or distractions are both tolerated and welcomed between tasks. This kind of attention is usually needed within social and open settings (such as a cafe, a home office in a communal space or within a collaborative office). 

The third and final model of attention is rejuvenation attention – where we can wind down from the day and turn off our brains and bodies. It’s a chance to be socially or release emotions that have been kept on a tight leash throughout the day. Some people may seek a quiet area to relax, others may want a highly stimulating environment to engage them – it’s all up to preference. 

Controlling stimulation between the three models throughout the day means we need a variety of workspaces to allow us to have the privacy we need at the time. The challenge offices (both corporate and home) need to conquer is to find the balance between social and private working areas to allow for each kind of work area. 

The Work & Personal Divide

Another important thing to consider is the blurring of the work/personal divide in a digital world. With so much of the world’s population working from home this year and last year, this divide has become even more blurred than usual. Whether certain information is the employee’s private property depends on what device they are using and where. Because of this, employees should maintain a clear line between what is work and what is personal – ensuring to store them separately. When working from home is it important to keep all personal information off of company devices and time (especially is using a company computer), to avoid blurring the line. As well as making sure there are solid boundaries to when they can be contacted (e.g. within work hours) and the expectation that they will do what they need within work hours and personal things outside of those hours. 

Regulation of Privacy

In the U.K. law is being advocated for by Prospect, where employees have the “right to disconnect” – where a clear line is set for when communication during work hours ends. This is particularly useful for remote and hybrid frameworks for privacy. These kinds of laws are necessary for workers to feel protected from their employers ‘overreaching’ through technology. This kind of law has been passed in France and Ireland already.

Most employment laws around the world were designed throughout the 1900s and looked at physical harm and risks, as well as health and safety in the workplace. They weren’t designed to take into consideration the digital age, AI and data. This is just as important now as the older view on health and safety – digital safety needs to be considered now.

In the past, researchers have tended to look at workplace surveillance and privacy in regards to productivity, but since the digital age is well and truly upon us, we need to start thinking in terms of data protection and information privacy. A way this phenomenon has been described is fairness in the way people are made visible, represented and treated as a result of their production of digital data.”  

Reach out to one of our consultants today at A1 Office to see what you can do to promote privacy in your office space!

Also download ourA1 Office_Covid_Checklist_01 for information about returning to work.

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