Menu
Beaux-Arts Group - Balancing Privacy & Openness

We vs. Me – The Balance Between Privacy and Openness in the Workplace


Socially isolated, claustrophobic, disengaged – if you’ve ever worked in a cubicle for an extended period of time, you may have felt these negative sentiments.

Distracted by noise, overly exposed, disengaged – if you’ve ever worked in an open office space for an extended period of time, you may have felt this as well.

Raging for more than a century, the war between the cubicle and the open office continues to be one of the most complex challenges faced by today’s modern office. Workplace design isn’t just the history of the rise and fall of furniture trends or the aesthetics of the time, it’s a story about the philosophy of work and its evolving impact on the physical health, human productivity, and the emotional wellbeing of the worker.

The Argument for Privacy

It’s no surprise that, in order to be productive, a person must be in an environment where they are able to concentrate. What may be surprising is that the birth of the cubicle was a direct reaction to save workers from the slavery of open office plans. Cubicles gave workers their own personal headspace where they could focus on tasks at hand with fewer uncontrolled interruptions.

A study by IPSOS found that privacy was important to 95% of employees and had a direct relationship to increased job satisfaction and performance.

“You need to give something back to the employees. Even if you favor an open plan, you need to give more on-demand meeting spaces, private spaces, enclaves, or boardrooms, so that the employee feels as though they can make a phone call to their spouse or have a private conversation. Nobody wants to be in a work environment when they need to make a call, and feels like everyone can hear it, or worse yet, has to go outside to make a call. That’s just not a good experience for any employee.”

  • Bill Everett, Architect and Principal, Beaux-Arts Group

A common criticism of the cubicle is the isolation and anxiety caused by the physical limits of their workstation, though some of these comments may not be fully justified. Unlike an open office plan, workers have fewer uncontrolled distractions and interruptions. They can elect to socialize of their own accord. It’s no surprise that the popularity of this office design created the whole culture of the “Watercooler Chat” and the many nuanced social rules and etiquette involved.

The Need for Openness: A Double-Edged Sword

Just as the cubicle was an act of rebellion against the open office, the open office defies the limitations of physical space by fostering a symbolic sense of community.

The ability to easily collaborate with and offer support to one’s colleagues, share the same workspaces and tools, and be able to communicate face-to-face gives the workplace a casual, innovative quality that often fosters creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. Psychologically, open office spaces break down the walls of traditional hierarchies, by creating an equal, communal workplace where junior-level employees work alongside their senior counterparts.

“The office feeds the employees emotionally, physically, and cognitively. They can leave healthier than they arrived if you create a space that encourages them. So that’s really what our clients are looking for now, or really helping them create a space that can attract and retain quality talent.”

  • Bill Everett, Architect and Principal, Beaux-Arts Group

At the same time, the open office’s biggest criticism is the noise factor. A study by Cornell University found that as level as three hours of low-level noise increased stress levels and lowered their motivation. Over time, this can lead to heart problems, high blood pressure, insomnia, and a weakened immune system.

Another major finding was that noise and distractions more deeply impacted the stress levels of more senior-level employees. So – while it may benefit the junior employee, upper levels of staff may suffer for the consequences of the open office space.

The cost of disengagement

The verdict is that office planners must balance these two opposing forces by giving them both privacy as well as opportunities to interact and find their own ways of collaborating. Gallup once estimated that the cost of disengaged employees could be between $450— $550 billion per year in the US alone – making it abundantly clear that having happy, healthy, and engaged workers are key.

At Beaux-Arts Group, we have more than 30 years of experience helping organizations of all industries and sizes navigate through and solve complex workplace issues, creating custom solutions through our unique architectural approach to physical space, company culture, and employee workflows and processes. We identify what’s most important to your company culture to create a bespoke design solution. For more information, contact the Beaux-Arts Group today.