Over the last decade, the open floor plan has replaced the traditional segmented office layout. Businesses are finding that these open settings promote transparency and collaboration. However, they also come with a unique set of challenges – including problems with privacy.
Learning how to overcome these challenges is key to the longevity of open floor plans.
The Problem With Open Floor Plans
There’s been a sharp rise in the number of open floor plan offices in recent years. Popularized by trendy tech companies, the goal of these open plans typically involves increased collaboration. But research and the court of public opinion say it simply isn’t true.
“Converting traditional offices with walls and doors and separation into open-plan offices causes face-to-face interaction to plummet, not rise,” serial entrepreneur David Heinemeier Hansson writes. “People try to shield their attention (and sanity!) by retreating into headphone-clad cocoons, and instead rely on instant messaging or email to interact.”
Things become even more problematic when you have people from different departments in the same room. Sales, support, marketing, administration – employees in these departments each have starkly different roles. Some need quiet to focus, while others spend the entire day answering phones and participating in conference calls. Mixing them together is like adding vinegar to baking soda. There’s going to be a reaction.
But of all the issues with open floor plans, privacy is one of the most significant. This is especially true in sensitive industries like healthcare, law, and finance, where confidential information can’t become public knowledge.
In an open office where employees sit next to one another and coworkers are constantly walking by and dropping in, phone calls, emails, video conferencing, meetings, and computer screens can all be observed, copied, or even sabotaged (in highly competitive settings). And when employees know that privacy is at risk, the rate of productivity quickly declines. Thus, a lack of privacy can have a direct and negative impact on the bottom-line.
3 Tips for Enhancing Privacy in Open Floor Plan Offices
If you currently have an open floor plan office and are worried about these issues, it’s important that you proactively come up with a plan for promoting privacy.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Establish Designated Private Areas
If you’re going to have an open floor plan, you must have some designated private areas where employees can get away and work alone or collaborate with coworkers. This could be a conference room, glass office, or even a rooftop patio.
- Use Sound Masking Technology
Even with designated private areas, there’s still a need for privacy in open spaces. Among other things, you may consider an investment in sound masking technology.
As industry leader IVCi explains, “Sound masking is an excellent low-cost option for creating speech privacy in open office spaces and healthcare environments. Not only will it muffle conversations to compensate for the lack of walls in modern floor plans, but it will also keep patient care conversations confidential. But, that’s not all. A sound masking solution can also serve as a mass notification or phone paging system.”
At the very least, you should investigate the feasibility of such a system and see if it would work with the acoustic setup of your floor plan.
- Create a Smarter Setup
In order to enhance privacy in an open office, you have to be smarter with your setup. Here are some practical things you can do:
- Reduce the way noise carries in the office by installing soft furnishings, acoustic paneling, and other noise-dampening features.
- Add pull-down screens to conference rooms and windows so that privacy can be optimized according to the situation.
- Provide employees with noise-canceling headphones to block out distractions and stay focused on their own work. Ideally, this will reduce the frequency of eavesdropping.
- Create some separation between workspaces by using tall plants, tall furniture, and other natural privacy features.
- Use moveable furniture so that employees can create impromptu private areas when they need to discuss something confidential.
Establishing privacy in your office is all about being aware of the circumstances and giving employees options.
Add Privacy to Your Office
There’s a case to be made for open floor plans, but you shouldn’t automatically assume it’s the way to go. Privacy is an issue, and you’ll need a strategy to handle some of the problems that can arise when multiple people are working in the same space.
Take this into account as you weigh your options.