What do you think of when you think of workplace privacy? I’m guessing it’s either your headphones or 4 walls and a door? And on some level you’d be right as that’s how we’ve traditionally handled privacy in the workplace. But with the continued prevalence of the open plan office, new ways to mitigate privacy concerns are front and center for CEO’s, facility planners, designers and most of all employees!

It seems as if articles are appearing daily in major publications bemoaning the lack of privacy in today’s workplace. The Boston Globe’s recent story, “Open offices seem great — until you work in one” chronicles the reasons the open office is so prevalent – 80% according to the Globe – namely the quest for innovation. The theory goes that increased collaboration, even if it’s happenstance, generates engagement and spurs innovation. Which is undeniably true. However, it’s just one side of the story. In order to process information, connect thoughts, generate ideas and develop strategy people need time to focus without interruption. Cognitive research clearly shows that the brain needs to rest, much like our other organs, in order to be at it’s best. Which might explain why we get our best ideas in the shower or when we wake up in the morning.

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So, clearly we need to do a better job of building layered levels of privacy into the workplace and we need to do so in a way that takes into account different factors such as;

 • personality type
 • mood
 • mode of work
 • task at hand

When you look at these variables you realize there is not a single solution to address workplace privacy in an open plan office. In fact, there are several types of privacy that can be considered in a floorplan. The ultimate goal is to give the user CHOICE + CONTROL over where and how they want to work based upon 1) how they are feeling and 2) what they need to accomplish. Here’s a quick primer on the types of privacy to consider (acoustic, visual, territorial and psychological) and some innovative workplace solutions for each.


This is the most common type of private space today. With 4 walls and a door, today’s demountable wall solutions offer a high level of acoustic privacy. But they don’t need to be huge spaces, many organizations today are building in phone booths and small huddle rooms with a singular lounge chair to allow employees an easy place to duck into for conversations. There are other ways to achieve acoustic privacy such as sound masking systems that help to cancel noise within the open plan as well as publishing clear office protocols such as muting your cell phone within the office. And then there’s always the old standby…your headphones.


When we think about psychological privacy we think about the ability to control stimulation and how much you share. You don’t necessarily need a private room to achieve this sense of safety — a quiet, comfortable spot shielded from the action can provide just the right amount of respite needed to regroup.


Visual privacy, whether in a lounge space or resident workspace involves limiting visual distractions both in front and around the periphery. We are programmed to sense visual disturbances and react to them – which explains why on average employees are distracted every 11 minutes at work! And it takes up to 23 minutes to get back to that productive state called “flow”. So, whether you use walls, screens, or panels, the goal is to create spaces where visual distractions are minimized and the user can stay focused.


Lastly, territorial privacy involves having a space that you can call your own. Different people require this on different levels but it doesn’t have to mean everyone gets a private office. Just defining a space with panels, bookshelves and even accessories, can give the user a sense of ownership and pride in their workspace.

Want to learn more? Steelcase 360 Magazine did a whole issue on Privacy and it’s packed with research and insights.

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