Collaboration vs. Privacy in the Workplace

The open-space office, in which even cubicles have been taken away from workers, is growing in popularity. The idea is to foster easier collaboration and engagement by doing away with barriers between co-workers. You can probably tell by my tone that I’m not a fan of the open-space layout because I love the feeling of having a small corner of the office that I can control and make my own. I’m not alone in my concerns about the open-floor plan, according to “Coworking 2.0: Collaboration Meets Privacy in the Workplace,” a piece recently published on RE Jounals.com, a commercial real estate news Website.

Some of the common employee complaints include the inability to concentrate (I especially sympathize with this as I turn up my iPod to avoid listening to loudly chatting customer service reps sitting nearby), the easy transmission of germs, and deflated morale. This last one about morale really hits home for me because I take joy in personalizing my cubicle and filling it with creature comforts. I have postcards tacked in front of me with prints of unicorn paintings that remind me of my mother, whom I lost; large photos of big cats; drawings I’ve done while on boring phone calls; and even the recent New Yorker magazine cover featuring a design memorializing the recent attacks in France. It may sound silly, but when you spend at least nine to 10 hours in a place away from home on a schedule that’s out of your control and doing work that also is out of your control, having the ability to look at things that make you happy is important.

The balance between private and public worlds in the workplace goes beyond open space vs. cubicles. With more companies adding internal social networks and improved platforms for collaboration, an employee also may start to feel an encroachment of her private work process. I remember when I first started working at my current job at a health trade publication, I was unhappy to hear my boss suggest that rather than having me simply write and edit my assigned articles, he wanted to have access to the pieces as they were in progress, so he could drop in on the page I was working on at any time and interrupt my work with notes and questions—before it was ever done. I nixed that idea, explaining that nothing would ever get done that way—assignments would stay in a perpetual work-in-progress state, and deadlines inevitably would be missed. What I didn’t verbalize was my psychological need to have a private space in which to complete at least a first draft of my work before it was subjected to questioning and alteration. I needed space in which to work.

With collaborative technology offering the benefit of having everyone work off the same document on a server or another platform, how do you strike a balance between the power of sharing and the need for private time to think and work out assignments? I’m probably not the only one who doesn’t want to be bothered before an assignment is finished with interruptions from others—even when those same interruptions may prove helpful after the first version of the assignment is complete.

The same challenge applies to the open-space vs. cubicle debate. It’s great to just look across the table or tap the shoulder of the co-worker sitting next to you to ask a quick question, but it’s hard to get work done when you also have people in conversation side-by-side with you, and you’re too often drawn into pleasant, but distracting, conversations. One way to balance the benefits of open space with the benefits of private spaces is to make the open-floor plan optional. You could offer the employee a cubicle in the corner (preferably near a window), or you could offer her a seat at a communal table in the center of the room (earplugs included). Similarly, you could make the sharing of documents on the server optional, so that an employee could decide herself when she was ready—if ever—to get feedback from peers before turning the assignment in to the boss.

Easy collaboration is a powerful tool to leverage, but so is the creativity and problem-solving ability of the independently functioning brain. Create a workplace that can adapt to both the needs of independent work time and the urge to share with others.

How does your company balance the needs of employees to have a private space in which to think and work with the benefits of collaboration?

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