Balance Openness and Privacy In Your Office Space

Posted by Kristin Arnold on July 1, 2019

Thank goodness. We are moving into the next generation of office design.  We’ve been hanging out with the open office space for years.  Executive and managers would have private offices lining the outside of the building with employees in open office environments (otherwise known as the”bull pen”) with communal meeting, eating, and recreation spaces.  Nothing was private, so you had to mind your manners and try not to be annoying.

In a new Harvard Business Review article, authors AJ Paron Wildes and Chloe Simoneaux discuss the need for safe spaces, privacy and transparency especially in the #MeToo era.  Here are my takeaways to

Rethink your office spaces to be more safe while retaining the ability to work as a team:

  • Traditional private offices bring visual and acoustical privacy, but lack transparency – no one can see inside the office.  If that employee is asking themselves, ‘Am I safe here?’ how confident, productive or expressive with they be? The answer: Provide visual transparency such as a floor to ceiling wall/door combination made of frosted or partially frosted glass, a window to the open space, a transom next to the door that still maintains acoustical privacy.
  • Working in a bull pen with no place to go can make workers feel exposed and uncomfortable.  Create semi-private spaces by strategically placing furniture to provide visual privacy.
  • Take a good look at your private spaces such as bathrooms, private meeting rooms, and wellness rooms.  Are they safe? Can they be locked?  Can you monitor access?
  • It’s great to have fun community spaces that offer opportunities for frequent interaction.  Coffee shops, eateries, video game consoles, and ping pong tables create a more relaxed atmosphere where people are more likely to share ideas and spark innovation.  But what are your policies for use before and after hours when one person could be alone?

Especially in the #MeToo era, office design is about a balance of openness with the right level of privacy. Leah Bauer, a director of interior design at HDR finds “a layering approach works well…a thoughtful progression from private spaces, to semi-private, to open.”

What do you think?  How can you make some simple changes to your office design to provide that balance of openness and privacy?


KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CPF, CSP is a high-stakes meeting facilitator and professional panel moderator.  She’s been facilitating teams of executives and managers in making better decisions and achieving greater results for over 20 years.  She is the author of the award-winning book, Boring to Bravo: Proven Presentation Techniques to Engage, Involve and Inspire Audiences to Action.

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