Perceptions of privacy may depend on where you worked before

Our perception of privacy levels in the activity-based workplace may simply be rooted in which type of office we worked in previously, according to new Swedish case-study research

How much privacy employees feel they have in an activity-based workplace may depend on the type of office they worked in previously.

That’s the key finding of a Swedish academic study conducted by Forooraghi and colleagues at multiple sites, which explored the range of challenges involved in creating activity-based offices (ABWs, also known as activity-based flexible offices or AFOs).

The researchers discovered that users’ previous office types seem to influence their perceptions of privacy, commenting ‘When users move from shared or open-plan offices to an AFO, their perceptions are more positive . . . while users who move from private offices are more likely to perceive the AFOs more negatively.’

Humans need privacy

This attention to privacy is well placed. Research has consistently shown that humans need real privacy from time to time. When we can’t access private spaces – either because they don’t exist or social norms prevent us from visiting them (for example: ‘we’re team players, we never need time alone’ sorts of attitudes) – we get tense and stress prevents us from doing our jobs well. Stress degrades our wellbeing (Gifford, 2014), and we don’t have very positive social exchanges with the people we’re spending time with when we’d really rather be alone.

Privacy means we have control over who can see or hear us, and who we can see and hear. That’s different from being in a place where people aren’t supposed to distract others (such as a quiet work zone).  A high-backed chair positioned just-right at the farthest end of a space may prevent us from seeing things that distract us, for instance, but it’s not a private spot as anyone can walk up to that chair and speak to us whenever they choose (let’s be real:  even in ‘quiet’ zones, interruptions abound, particularly for ‘good’ reasons).

Westin (1967) reports that when we have privacy, we ponder our recent life events and make sense of them by merging them into our memories of prior ones.  All of this helps us better understand our world and our place in it.

Higher expectations of privacy

As Nippert-Eng (2007) shares, cultures can signal that someone is trying to maintain privacy in different ways—and one way to do so cross-culturally is to enter a space with tall, solid walls and restricted access (usually via a door that can be closed).  People from more individualistic cultures (compared to individuals from more collectivistic ones), have higher expectations of being able to have privacy when they wish (Hofstede, Hofstede and Minkov, 2010).

Further research on privacy at work includes: Zerella and colleagues (2017), which determined that ‘ensuring employees feel they have enough architectural privacy is important, irrespective of the actual levels’. Khazanchi and associates (2018 did a literature review, finding that ‘Both (a) low privacy and (b) unassigned workspace will increase the likelihood of negative ties with coworkers. . . negative ties are low-quality connections that can be damaging to individuals’.

 ‘It seems that some people are seeking privacy in bathroom stalls when working in offices…’

In a sad condemnation of their privacy options, it seems that some people are seeking privacy in bathroom stalls when working in offices.  This issue has been discussed in both the popular and peer-reviewed press. In a reviewed article, for instance, Leonard (2013) shares this quote from a study participant: ‘I find that often, if I really need to think about something . . . the only place I can go to is the toilet, because there is this statutory requirement that you have to have two doors between the toilet and any thoroughfare . . . it’s absolutely silent in there which is lovely at times.’

Read more of the latest research insights from Sally Augustin in Research Roundup, her regular column in the Innovation Zone here.

Research sources

Melina Forooraghi, Elke Miedema, Nina Ryd, Holger Wallbaum, and Maral Chafi. 2023. ‘Relationship Between the Design Characteristics of Activity-Based Flexible Offices and Users’ Perceptions of Privacy and Social Interactions’. Building Research and Information

Robert Gifford. 2014. Environmental Psychology, Fifth Edition. Optimal Books: Colville, WA.

Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede and Michael Minkov. 2010. Cultures and Organizations. McGraw Hill: New York.

Shalini Khazanchi, Therese Sprinkle, Suzanne Masterson, and Nathan Tong. 2018. ‘A Spatial Model of Work Relationships: The Relationship-Building and Relationship-Straining Effects of Workspace Design.’ Academy of Management Review, vol. 43, no. 4, pp. 590-609  

Pauline Leonard. 2013. ‘Changing Organisational Space: Green?  Or Lean and Mean?’ Sociology, vol. 47, no. 2, pp. 333-349.

Christena Nippert-Eng. 2007. Privacy in the United States: Some Implications for Design. International Journal of Design, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 1–10.

Westin. 1967. Privacy and Freedom. Atheneum: New York.

Sarah Zerella, Kathryn von Treuer, and Simon Albrecht. 2017. ‘The Influence of Office Layout Features on Employee Perception of Organizational Culture.’  Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 54, pp. 1-10.


Sally Augustin is a practicing environmental design psychologist and editor of Research Design Connections, based in Chicago. She provides regular scientific commentary for the Academy’s Innovation Zone on new academic research in work and workplace.
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