Employee privacy: Importance and execution

It’s fair to say that in recent years, the trend in offices has very much lead away from employee privacy. One of the biggest changes to work environments is the implementation of so-called “hot desking;” a practice by which no employee has their own desk, and instead chooses to sit wherever is convenient every day.

Hot desking is a controversial practice that employees overwhelmingly dislike – and it’s not the only change that has reduced the privacy of employees in the workplace.

You may be wondering why this matters. After all, your employees are there to work; their privacy is largely irrelevant, surely? Privacy is a matter for our private lives; it’s not your concern to ensure that your employees always feel comfortable while at work. How they work is your concern; whether or not they are afforded a degree of privacy during this time… isn’t.

If you think the above paragraph sounds about right, then it’s perhaps time to look at the issue from another perspective. Privacy is important to all humans– even when we’re at work.

The problems a lack of privacy can cause

Returning to hot desking for a moment; studies have found that employees who work for companies who practice hot desking find the whole process incredibly uncomfortable. They described the experience as making them feel less comfortable at work and less trusting of their colleagues. While some of this is undoubtedly due to the way that hot desking makes everyone feels misplaced, the loss of privacy is almost certainly a concern.

A lack of privacy can have a disastrous impact on the productivity of your employees. Rather than feeling safe and secure at work, they feel on edge, constantly invaded, and unable to relax. Employees that feel insecure and uncomfortable at work are not productive employees. In fact, it could be a big enough factor for some employees to consider leaving the job. This will result in you having a high turnover rate, which can be financially ruinous.

It therefore naturally follows that employees should be afforded their privacy at work. Here’s a handy list of the reasons to help keep this firmly in your mind:

  1. Lack of privacy makes employees feel insecure. Insecure employees don’t perform as well in their daily tasks. This has the potential to cause havoc with your business productivity levels.
  2. Employees may feel so uncomfortable due to the lack of privacy that they leave the job. A high staff turnover rate is very expensive for any business to cope with.
  3. You should want your employees to be happy in their jobs. Happy people are more productive and will stay in the role for longer. Given that a feeling of privacy has a huge impact on happiness levels, it follows that privacy is something you should take seriously.
  4. Any business that cannot offer its employees privacy — or will not — is probably doing it out of a lack of trust in their employees. A thought process along the lines of: “well if I don’t keep an eye on them, how can I know they’re doing what they should be?”. If you find yourself thinking this, then you might want to investigate your recruitment strategies; you should be hiring people that you know you can trust because they’re absolutely the right person for the role.
  5. A sense of privacy at work allows your employees to feel more like part of the team because a fundamental requirement is being met. Good teamwork and integration are essential to the success of any business.

Hopefully, you should now be well aware of why privacy is so important for employees. So, the next area to cover is… how do you ensure that your business is respecting your employees’ privacy at all times?

There are multiple ways you can do this; systems you can put in place and office alterations that can make a huge difference. What’s more, these don’t need to cost the earth. Given that your company could ultimately benefit, and you won’t have to spend too much to implement these solutions, this decision is something of a no-brainer. With the decision made, here are a few changes that you might want to consider:

1) Cubicles and room dividers

Yes, the fashion is very much for open-plan offices, where everyone can talk to everyone else and there are no hidden spaces. Those kinds of offices look great from an interior design perspective, but from a privacy perspective, they’re a big fail.

Sometimes, your employees are going to be having a bad day. They may feel unwell, be going through a tough time and feel emotionally vulnerable – whatever the cause, their need for privacy is going to be all the more important. With open-plan office spaces, those bad days have to be played out in public, often with the entire office staring at the employee in question and wondering what’s wrong.

However, if you use cubicles and room dividers, then employees can temporarily shutter themselves off from the world if they need to. There are also fewer distractions when staff are meant to be working on individual projects; everyone has their own little space to do with as they please. Cubicles may seem outdated – and they’re definitely going to spoil that open-plan office design that every magazine seems to encourage you to adopt – but they’re inherently better for your staff.

Installing cubicles in your office can be of great benefit to your business, but you may be wondering about the expense. If your budget is tight, then you can look for used cubicles to install in your office. After all, it’s the function of the cubicles rather than the aesthetic that is most important.

2) Personal life discussion is voluntary only

Don’t be the boss who invades their employees’ privacy by asking about their personal life. Far too many bosses do this; some even think it’s a good thing, as they’re “showing an interest” in their employee’s lives.

Sure, some employees might take it that way too, but others will absolutely hate it. As a general rule, you should never ask an employee about their personal life. It’s simply not your business to know whether they have a partner or what the name of their pets are– that’s something you discuss with friends, not staff.

If your employees volunteer this information, then that’s absolutely fine. Plenty of people are happy to share with their boss. However, it’s dangerous to assume that employees are all like this, so it’s best to let employees choose to share with you rather than outright requesting information.

3) Allow all employees their own space (And don’t invade it)

Lockers have been popular with workers for years – for good reason. They have their own space where they can store items unrelated to their workday, and it means they don’t have to work with a bag cluttering up space under their desk. Lockers have largely gone out of fashion in workplaces now, but it’s well worth considering bringing them back.

If you do install lockers, then it’s very important that your employees 100 percent trust that the locker is theirs and theirs alone. You shouldn’t have a master key; there’s no need for it. If employees know that you have a master key, then they’re never truly going to feel like the space is their own.

4) Don’t electronically track employee movements

Here’s an unpleasant-but-possible scenario that you can find yourself faced with if you use staff passes or electronic methods to track where your employees are at all times. You call an employer (we’ll call her Melissa) into your office.

You: “Melissa, I can see from the tracking data that you’ve left your desk six times this morning. Can you please explain this to me? We’re working on a big project and I would hope that you’d be focused on it.”

Melissa: “I’ve needed to run to the bathroom.”

You: “Six times? That’s excessive – it’s only 2.30pm.”

Melissa: “I’m pregnant. It’s morning sickness. I’m not 12 weeks yet so I didn’t want to tell anyone as it’s not safe to do so…”

Tracking staff movements just isn’t a good idea. As the above shows, if you decide to act on the information you gather, then you can open a whole can of extremely awkward worms on the situation.

If you feel the need to track your employees, then it probably comes out of a sense of distrust. Perhaps you don’t feel that work is being completed as quickly as it should be, or you’re worried that your employees aren’t focusing as much as they should.

However, these issues aren’t truly resolved by tracking – they’re just pushed into the background. What truly resolves problems of delays and lost productivity is talking to employees, finding out what’s holding things up, and going the extra mile to ensure everyone is confident in what they’re being asked to do. Tracking does nothing but provides you with worthless data for something you should have noticed naturally anyway.

Conclusion

Give your employees privacy, taking the steps necessary to ensure they feel comfortable at work. At the end of the day, it’s both their well-being and your continued business success that are set to benefit.