Less ‘we’, more ‘me’

2014

Privacy is a universal, basic need. But after decades of open plan offices and an unrelenting drive for shared work spaces, the number one complaint from office workers is that a lack of privacy is undermining their ability to do their jobs.

Far from achieving the right balance between working in privacy and group activity, many organizations are driving their staff to distraction with frenetic and noisy open-plan spaces that undermine productivity and morale.

A survey of 10,000 workers across 14 countries by market researchers IPSOS has found that that 85 per cent are dissatisfied with their working environment and cannot concentrate. Almost a third (31 per cent) said that they have to leave the office to get work completed.

Almost seven out of 10 worked in open spaces or in a combination of individual and open space offices and on average, 86 minutes per person per day are lost to distractions.

Tellingly, almost all those surveyed (95 per cent) said that having the ability to work privately is important, but only four out of 10 said that they have that opportunity.

The survey also found links between employees’ satisfaction with their work environment and their level of engagement. Engaged workers were most satisfied with their work environment while the least engaged are also the most dissatisfied. The most satisfied and engaged workers said that their environment was one in which they could concentrate easily, work in teams without being interrupted and choose where to work within the office. They felt more relaxed, calmer and have a stronger sense of belonging.

“People not only expect privacy in their private lives, they want it at the office as well,” said Bostjan Ljubic, vice president of office furniture manufacture, Steelcase, which commissioned the research.

“For people to collaborate with their colleagues more effectively they need less ‘we’ time and more ‘me’ time than they are getting today.”

“The drive for collaborative working spaces was founded on getting people working better together,” he added. “It has 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.”

But this doesn’t mean that open plan offices should be abandoned altogether, he argued. Instead, a balance needs to be struck between privacy and collaboration, with an ‘ecosystem’ of different spaces where employees can choose the level of privacy they require.

“What people are now looking for is choice and control in their workspace and that is now what is redefining privacy in the working environment”, Bostjan Ljubic said.

The findings are the latest to undermine the case for open-plan offices. A 2013 study from the University of Sydney Faculty of Architecture found that the costs of lost privacy and increased distraction in open-plan environments are not outweighed by any benefits in communication. “The argument that open-plan improves morale and productivity appears to have no basis in the research literature," the Australian team concluded.