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How to Improve Privacy in an Open Office Environment

Posted on May 26, 2016, by Michael Eckert

In open offices, lack of privacy is one of the most common workplace complaints. A 2013 study found that nearly half of open office workers surveyed found the lack of sound privacy to be a significant problem, and more than 30% complained about the lack of visual privacy.

So what can be done to improve privacy – and employee satisfaction – in open offices?

Feature photo - H2O - San Francisco, California, USA. 

What Does Privacy Entail?

There are four main types of privacy that should be considered in the workplace:

  • Acoustic – noise levels that impact concentration.
  • Visual – interruptions that attract the eye and distract from your work, such as people moving around, or feeling like you’re constantly being watched by colleagues.
  • Spatial – not having enough space in which to work, having too many colleagues around at all times, or not having space defined as ‘yours’.
  • Personal – not having a space for private conversations with colleagues.


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How Can You Improve Privacy in Your Open Office?

With no walls to divide offices, block sound and establish personal space, it requires careful planning to incorporate privacy into your workplace.


With no walls to absorb or block sound, open offices are noisier than closed ones. Making a couple of changes to the design of your office can dramatically improve the noise levels:

  • Invest in soft furnishings. These absorb sound better than hard surfaces like wooden desks, and create a more comfortable work environment.
  • Re-think your choice of flooring. Wooden floors may look great, but they’ll make your office noise problem a whole lot worse. Carpet tiles with open cell cushion backing absorb four times more noise than hard flooring, and 50% more than hard-backed carpet tiles.
  • Zone your office so that breakout spaces and social spaces are set apart from your employees’ normal, head-down work space. This will allow people to ‘opt in’ to a louder environment and maintain lower noise levels in your main workspace.


Research shows that in recent years the average amount of office space per worker is shrinking: from 225 square feet in 2010, to 176 in 2012, and is predicted to fall to 151 square feet per worker in 2017. This is linked to rising real estate costs; accommodating more people into a smaller area is one way for employers to save money.

To deal with shrinking office footprints, many companies are championing “hot desking” or moving towards shared work stations. However, to improve privacy, even in light of shrinking space per employee, you should endeavour to provide everyone with their own desk to work at, rather than shared, communal workspaces that can vary from one day to the next.


In an open office it’s very easy to feel like your colleagues are watching your every move. Are you going to the bathroom too often? Is 5:10 pm too early to leave the office? Can you check your personal emails or answer your cell phone?

In a space where everyone can see everyone else, visual privacy is perhaps the hardest to create. However, you can improve it by providing screen privacy protectors – filters to go over computer screens – for relatively low cost. This will allow your employees to do their work without feeling like they’re being monitored by their colleagues.


It’s worth remembering that your employees have lives outside of work, too. Your employees might need to arrange doctor appointments, check on sick children, or have conversations with their manager or HR that are of a personal nature – so naturally they won’t want the whole office to hear.

When designing your office, it’s vital that you include closed spaces for these instances, even if your main workspace is fully open-plan. For example, a collection of small meeting rooms around the outside of your main workspace will provide employees with a space for personal conversations, as well as creating spaces for meetings to take place without interrupting the whole office – improving acoustic privacy as well as personal privacy.

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Michael Eckert

Written by Michael Eckert