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Desperately seeking privacy at work

The Privacy Crisis – Taking a Toll on Employee Engagement

In organizations all over the world, people are facing brand-new problems that require sharing information and putting knowledge together in new ways. For all the right reasons, collaboration has become the big engine for progress and innovation.

« The need the privacy sometimes – at work as well as in public – is as basic to human nature as is the need to be with others. »

Donna Flynn

Although workplaces today make it seemingly easy for people to collaborate, most leaders remain dissatisfied with the pace and frequency of breakthroughs. Uncertain of what to do next, they hire new talent, carve out trendy group spaces, add technology or step up team training efforts—but still don’t see the gains they desire. Paradoxically, most efforts to fuel more successful collaboration are only making it worse. New Steelcase research has revealed that, while togetherness at work is vital for value creation, in excess it’s a killer. Throughout the world, too much interaction and not enough privacy has reached crisis proportions, taking a heavy toll on workers’ creativity, productivity, engagement and wellbeing. Without question, successful collaboration requires giving coworkers easy access to each other. But it also requires giving each individual the time and places to focus and recharge, and too many workplaces today aren’t delivering on privacy as a necessity. “The need for privacy sometimes—at work as well as in public—is as basic to human nature as is the need to be with others,” explains Donna Flynn, director of Steelcase’s Workspace Futures research group. “The harder people work collaboratively, the more important it is to also have time alone—to be free from distractions, apply expertise and develop a solid point of view about the challenges at hand. People also need privacy to decompress and recharge. A key takeaway from our study is that the open plan isn’t to blame any more than reverting to all private offices can be a solution. There is no single type of optimal work setting. Instead, it’s about balance. Achieving the right balance between working in privacy and working together is critical for any organization that wants to achieve innovation and advance.”

Desperately seeking privacy 

More than ever before, workers are going public with complaints about their lack of privacy at work. Blogs and online chat rooms are chock-full of soliloquies about what everyday life in an open – plan workplace is like: how easy it is to be distracted, how stressful the environment can be and how hard it is to get any individual work done. Many say they literally can’t hear themselves think. Seeing the opportunity, one high-end headset brand has started advertising its products as a way to hear your favorite music or simply to hear the sound of silence instead of your coworkers. But what the ad doesn’t say is that wearing headsets cuts people off from hearing and engaging in conversations that could be valuable for their work, thereby eliminating a potential advantage that open-plan workspaces are intended to provide. And audio distractions are only part of the problem. Meanwhile, beyond the chatter of cyberspace and advertising, other strong signals have been mounting that workers’ lack of privacy is a problem that needs C-suite attention ASAP.

Gallup’s recent report on the State of the Global Workplace found only 11% of workers around the world are engaged and inspired at work, and 63 percent are disengaged— unmotivated and unlikely to invest effort in organizational goals or outcomes. But slicing the data shows that, at least in the United States, those who spend up to 20 percent of their time working remotely are the most engaged of all workers surveyed. This finding suggests that these engaged workers are able to balance collaboration and interaction with colleagues at the office and are working remotely to achieve the privacy they need for some of their individual work. And yet, many business leaders recognize that sending people home anytime they need privacy isn’t efficient and it can threaten versus strengthen innovation by diluting the cultural “glue” thatinspires workers and keeps them connected to the organization’s goals. Moreover, a recent Steelcase study of the workplace conducted by the global research firm IPSOS of more than 10,500 workers in Europe, North America and Asia confirms that insufficient privacy in the workplace is an issue throughout the world.

The survey results show that being able to concentrate, work in teams without being interrupted or choosewhere to work based on the task are frequently unmet needs. Yet the 11% of workers who had more privacy and were more satisfied with their workplace overall were also the most engaged. Conversely, employees highly dissatisfied with their work environment were the least engaged.

This study confirms observations by Steelcase researchers: The workplace has a very real impact on employee engagement.

An epidemic of overwhelm  

One condition that impacts workplace satisfaction and thus engagement is when employees have no choice but to work in environments that are saturated with stimuli. According to Susan Cain, author of the bestseller, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking,” many people perform best without others around them constantly. Despite this, she contends, teamwork is often elevated above all else. The result can be a psychological phenomenon that has been coined as “groupthink”—people’s natural inclination to succumb to peer pressure and go along with othersrather than to risk being isolated by contributing a differing point of view. The way forward, according to Cain, is “not to stop collaborating face-to-face, but to refine the way we do it.” Instead of providing only open-plan work settings, Cain urges organizations to “create settings in which people are free to circulate in a shifting kaleidoscope of interactions”, and then be able to disappear into private spaces when they want to focus or simply be alone.

David Rock, a performance management consultant and author of “Your Brain at Work,” points to the latest findings from neuroscience. Most workers, he says, are suffering from “an epidemic of overwhelm” due to huge increases in the amount of information we’re expected to deal with every day and a significant increase in the distractions that come our way. Science has shown that the human prefrontal cortex, where most knowledge work processes take place, is small, energy-hungry and very easily distracted, Rock notes. Many researchers’ work has proven that any belief that people can successfully multitask is essentially wishful thinking. Humans can give controlled, full attention to just one thing at a time. When we try to pay attention actively to any two memory-dependent tasks at once, we’re easily distracted and end up doing neither one well. Given this reality, achieving peak performance in today’s work environments has become much more challenging than it was even just a few years ago.

“As we got better at sharing information and building software and techniques and tools for collaborating, we’re leveraging the fact that information travels literally at the speed of light… And so with all this efficiency of information flow and of communication, we’re hitting up against the final bottleneck, which is our ability to pay attention and make decisions. In the average morning download of emails, many people have to process in a half hour what your brain probably needs a day or two to process at the right kind of pace. We’re definitely stretching our capacities in some challenging ways,” says Rock.

« In the average morning download of emails, many people have to process in a half hour what your brain probably needs a day or two to process. » David Rock


Office workers are interrupted as often as every three minutes by digital and human distractions. These breaches in attention carry a destructive ripple effect because, once a distraction occurs, it can take as much as 23 minutes for the mind to return to the task at hand, according to recent research done at the University of California. The problem, Rock explains, is that the network in the brain that controls impulses—known as the brain’s braking system—is easily tired. This means that once we’re distracted by something, it’s harder to stop ourselves from being distracted by something else. He makes the comparison of using your foot as a brake on a motorcycle. “Your foot is very effective until you start to move. It’s a little bit like that with distractions. Before you’re distracted, you can stop yourself from being distracted. But once you start being distracted, once you start moving, your brakes don’t work very well.”

5 privacy insights

By synthesizing findings from academic studies with their own primary investigations, Steelcase researchers identified and defined these five privacy experiences.

Strategic anonymity: Being unknown/ “invisible”

The ability to make yourself anonymous is a key aspect of privacy, in that it frees you from the restraints incurred through normal social surveillance. Being unknown allows people to avoid interruptions, as well as express themselves in new ways and experiment with new behaviors. The key is that it’s strategic— individuals choosing when and why to make themselves anonymous. For instance, when people go to a café to get focused work done, they are often seeking to block the social distractions of the workplace. The low-level vibe of strangers can be just right to stimulate thinking without attention becoming diverted. Examples: Going to work at a café or other place where you’re unknown, engaging in online discussions using an avatar or handle.

Purposeful solitude: Separating yourself

Isolation is a state of mind—it’s possible to feel isolated from a group while that group surrounds you. But solitude is physical: intentionally separating from a group to concentrate, recharge, express emotions or engage in personal activities. People in individualistic cultures, such as the United States, may take times of solitude almost for granted, but even within a collectivist culture, such as China, being alone sometimes is a fundamental need. Examples: Finding an enclave, going outside, sitting in the farthest empty corner of a large room.

Selective exposure: Choosing what others see 

Our innermost thoughts and feelings, our most personal information and our own quirky behaviors can only be revealed if we choose to do so. People choose to reveal some information to certain people or organizations, while revealing different information to others. Identity construction is a well-established concept in the social sciences, recognizing that people represent themselves differently to different people. Today, as personal information is being shared across new channels, people are raising new questions about what’s “safe” to divulge. While the decision to share information involves the weighing of benefits and risks, the choice is different for each person. Culture, gender and personality influence the choice through implied permissions or inhibitions, as well as personal comfort. Behaviors that are permitted in one culture—such as naps at work in China or relaxing with wine at lunch in France—may be frowned upon in other parts of the world. Examples: Opting for a telephone call instead of a video conference, choosing which personal items to display in a workstation.

Entrusted confidence: Confidential sharing 

Privacy isn’t just about being alone. We also seek privacy with selected others. When we choose to share personal information or our emotions with someone else, there is a measure of trust involved—an assumption that the other person understands that the shared information isn’t for general public consumption. There are many instances in daily work when small groups—two or three people—want to confer. But in today’s mostly open-plan workplaces, it’s difficult to find places where such conversations can occur without being scheduled. In too many cases, this reality translates to lost opportunities. Examples: Discussing a personal situation with a colleague, being in a performance review with your manager.

Intentional shielding : Self protection

Personal safety isn’t just about protection from physical harm. There is a strong psychological component, as well. The feeling of personal invasion that people report after a home break-in indicates the close connection between personal territory and sense of self. We take active measures to protect ourselves from such intrusions. Though less traumatic than a theft of personal belongings, people experience similar feelings of invasion at work and seek ways to protect themselves from distractions and prying eyes. Self-protection may also involve developing a point of view without the distracting influence of groupthink so that, when the group comes together to collaborate, individuals can bring stronger, more compelling insights to the challenges at hand. Examples: Wearing headphones to block out audio distractions Sitting with your back against a wall Hiding your computer screen.

Source: Steelcase 360 Magazine.



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