Workplace Privacy is a Growing Need

Topic(s): work environment
Publication: Harvard Business Review
Article: Balancing “We” and “Me”
Authors: C. Congdon, D. Flynn, and M. Redman
Reviewed by: Jonathan Wong

Workplace privacy is not something we think of often, but a new review (Congdon, Flynn, & Redman, 2014) has highlighted this interesting and important topic. First, the review points to a growing percentage of US workers who are concerned about workplace privacy, say they can’t concentrate at their workstations, and don’t have access to quiet places where they can focus on getting work done. Why is this happening?

One of the reasons they suggest for this rise in the concern for privacy is social media, such as Facebook or Twitter. Large amounts of personal information are available on social media sites, which may make people feel vulnerable. Combine this with a workplace where there is no privacy, and employees may feel as if they are being watched the whole time. This may be causing people to crave more alone time.


The article defines two aspects of workplace privacy: information control and stimulation control. Information control is the ability to keep personal information private. Stimulation control encompasses the noises and other distractions that break concentration or inhibit the ability to focus.

How do employees control stimulation? Neuroscience discusses three separate modes of attention: controlled attention, stimulus-driven attention, and rejuvenation. When in the controlled attention mode, we need to control the environment around us so we do not get distracted. While in the stimulus-driven attention mode, we may tolerate or even welcome distractions. Lastly, the rejuvenation mode is a time-out for our brains; we stop what we are doing and go to either a quiet place or a crowded place depending on personal preference.

People need to be able to move between these three modes of attention when necessary, and workplaces should be designed so that employees can freely move between modes as they see fit. This will help their ability to control stimulation in the environment.


The idea of privacy and how it is valued is different across cultures. On average, people in Germany allocate 320 square feet per employee, people in the United States allocate 190 ft, people in India have 70 ft, and in China, people have 50 ft. On the other hand, natives of both India and China express more satisfaction with their work environment than either Germans or Americans. They feel as though they are able to concentrate more easily and work without disruption. Studies also show that Chinese employees are more concerned with information control, while Americans are more concerned with stimulation control.


Companies interested in enhancing employee privacy can give employees greater latitude in deciding how to minimize workplace interruptions. If employees decide that they work better alone, with less co-worker interaction, then organizations should allow them to relocate to a quiet place in the office whenever possible.

Another idea is for organizations to designate an area in the building as the quiet section and another area as the open section. This way, employees can choose the area that helps them get their work done efficiently. The bottom line is that privacy is a serious need, and people need it in different ways. Organizations that are quick to recognize and respond to these employee needs will best set up their employees for workplace success.