Beatriz Arantes tells Alan Hosking how and why workplace privacy keeps employees engaged.
What’s the connection between workplace privacy and employee engagement?
Most organisations know that they aren’t achieving the full potential of their workforce, but fewer have figured out how to achieve the level of engagement they need. New research sheds light on the impasse. The number one issue of employees’ dissatisfaction is lack of privacy. In addition to needing places that support group work, office workers around the world also need private places to focus and rejuvenate.
Around the world, CEOs recognise a clear correlation between employee engagement and business performance. Although the negative bottom-line impact of disengagement has been well documented by Gallup and others, few organisations can identify the factors that positively affect employee engagement, and even fewer know how to improve it.
As organisations struggle to create strong office cultures, the signals are stronger than ever that many high-potential employees are chronically disengaged at work – unmotivated, unproductive and overly stressed, with little capacity to think creatively, collaborate successfully and generate the innovative solutions that organisations desire.
What workers say they need most for productive work is what most offices today lack: privacy. Lack of privacy is workers’ number-one complaint about their workplace, and the imbalance between collaboration and privacy at many offices has reached crisis proportions.
Aren’t privacy and collaboration mutually exclusive?
Our ongoing research and work with leading companies continues to strengthen the insight that privacy and collaboration must coexist in the workplace. Collaboration remains essential for driving innovation, and workers’ needs for togetherness are as compelling as their needs for times of privacy. The key is to achieve a balance and provide workers with the ability to choose a work setting based on individual needs of the moment.
Are you saying that workplace satisfaction strengthens engagement?
A recent Steelcase-sponsored survey, conducted in 14 countries by the independent research firm IPSOS and including more than 10,500 workers, has confirmed that the majority of people working around the globe (69%) are not fully engaged. Significantly, the results show a strong correlation between employees’ satisfaction with their work environment and their level of engagement. Engaged workers are the most satisfied with their work environment (31%), while the least engaged are also the most dissatisfied with their environment (69%).
The most satisfied and most engaged workers (11%) say their workplace allows them to concentrate easily, work in teams without being interrupted, choose where to work within the office based on their task, and feel relaxed and calm with a strong sense of belonging. In contrast, 85% of workers are dissatisfied. They say they can’t concentrate easily in the office, and 31% go outside of their office to get work done.
What is your basis for saying privacy should be reinvented?
Our researchers recently completed a focused privacy project in North America, Europe and Asia that validated the importance of workers having private times and spaces to focus, reflect and rejuvenate during the workday.
Building on prior studies that explored the spatial properties of privacy (acoustic, visual, territorial and informational privacy), the new research sought to better understand people’s psychological needs for privacy and the types of privacy experiences that are important to people who work in online worlds as well as physical space. By administering surveys and conducting interviews and observational studies, the researchers concluded that that need for privacy exists across cultures, though it may be expressed differently and, within any culture, privacy is contextual to each individual – that is, depending on personality, mood and task. Today’s workers need both information and stimulation control to achieve the privacy they need, repeatedly shifting between revealing/concealing and seeking/blocking stimulation.
What types of privacy do workers seek and what should be done to accommodate these needs?
Researchers identified five distinct types of privacy experiences that workers seek. They are:
– Strategic anonymity: Being “unknown” or “invisible” for a while in order to avoid normal social distractions and restraints;
– Selective exposure: Choosing what others see by being selective about the personal information and behaviours that we reveal;
– Entrusted confidence: Sharing information confidentially within a trusting relationship;
– Intentional shielding: Protecting yourself from others’ sightlines to avoid being observed or distracted, or to develop a personal point of view without the influence of others; and
– Purposeful solitude: Physically separating yourself from coworkers in order to concentrate, express emotions, rejuvenate or engage in personal activities.
Because people experience privacy in these different ways, the key is to design a workplace that supports them all. The paradigm of workplaces dominated by enclosed offices won’t solve the engagement problem. The best way to support today’s workers is to provide the ability to move between individual time and collaborative time, fully leveraging the power of the workplace to strengthen satisfaction and engagement by an ecosystem of different kinds of spaces where people can select the right level of stimulation and informational control.
Beatriz Arantes is the Senior Design Researcher and Psychologist at Steelcase, based in France. She has a Master’s Degree in Environmental Psychology from the Université René Descartes (Paris V) and has previously worked as a Research and Teaching Assistant at Work Psychology and Ergonomics Laboratory/Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina. Beatriz speaks French, English, Portuguese and Spanish.
This article appeared in the August 2015 issue of HR Future magazine.