Office Design Trends Are Causing A Privacy Crisis

At first, open office designs seemed like a harmless egalitarian design choice. These spaces tended to feature simple privacy shields, adjustable spaces for collaboration, a space to host video conferences, and perhaps a makeshift auditorium, or place to gather for larger speeches and discussions. However, the original goal of developing a close-knit company culture while saving expenses seems to be backfiring.

All over the country, workers are going through what can be described as a crisis of privacy. Gone are the days of hanging a “do-not-disturb” sign on your office handle or cubicle to warn others that you were focusing. Now your best bet is to throw on a pair of noise-canceling headphones, or hoping you get a relatively quiet corner of the open area in which to focus. Productivity has been shown to decline in tandem with privacy.

This is a point of concern, given the explosion in popularity of open office designs over the past 20 years. In 2017, there was an open office floor plan in 70% of offices in the US. Some companies, including Netflix and Hubspot, are so open, their CEOs do not even work in private offices. 

Why did open offices become popular? They set a new generation of entrepreneurs apart from their predecessors. The environments felt more equal, connected, young and energetic. They allowed for more natural lighting and fresh air.

In time, the drawbacks of their spaces are emerging. Design decisions may be made for the sake of excitement over a trend rather than genuine increased productivity. One person’s phone call can capture the attention of the entire office. Desk sizes are getting smaller to fit more people into one room. Employees are beginning to speak out against this trend. For example, when Apple Park debuted a fully open “pod design” last Fall, some employees sent emails with threats of quitting.

Not only that, when CEOs work side by side with you, there is a strong sense of increased scrutiny. Not only that, bad moods and distress become more contagious simply by virtue of being more visible. Not only that, the off-the-cuff creativity that the spaces hoped to produce instead may have resulted in fewer creative risks due to the high-visibility of potential failures. On top of that, screens, notes, and side conversations can all become the source of gossip, adding a layer of stress and suspicion to the environment. Depending on the environment, it can even become the tool of sabotage.

Finally, it can create a lack of clarity about personal space. We are all naturally in need of boundaries and structure. Rather than feel themselves equal, employers could look at the lack of categories and feel a lack of clarity about their own role.

Is there a solution in sight?

Companies are beginning to introduce an activity-based workplace design (ABW). ABW offer a combination of open, private, and semi-private spaces in order to offer the ideal environment in which employees can find the environment best suited to the task at hand. This only has a small foothold in workplace architecture but may signal a coming return to privacy.