The Workplace Privacy Premium
It’s been a crazy week at work. You’re in the office, trying to make an important call. On one side, a co-worker is on the phone, on the other an interesting conversation is happening that you’ve accidentally become a silent participant in. We’ve all been there. Nobody means to stifle your focus at work and make life more difficult for you — it just happens sometimes.
This was the crux of the issue for TalkBox, a Colorado-based company that creates office privacy booths. Attempting to balance individual focus and open collaboration in the workplace is something the company has worked on at great length, especially in the backdrop of an increasing demand for workplace privacy in open office environments. Braden O’Brien, Sales and Support Manager for TalkBox, tells us more.
With open office spaces becoming the standard for many organizations these days, what are some of the most common issues you’ve identified with this trend?
O'Brien: I think the intentions behind having open office spaces are really great, especially in the realm of collaboration. There have been very strong improvements made to the office environment and it defeats that negative connotation that cubicles have.
One of the biggest issues we’ve seen is privacy. Making a call to your doctor, family member or something like that. You can try to hide out in a bathroom, stairwell, outside or you can be on that basis with your co-workers where they pretty much know everything that’s going on in your life — obviously neither of which is ideal.
Another issue we’ve seen is when someone has a deadline and they’re working on a project where they just need to keep their head down and get to work. Sometimes they need space and visual privacy as well and that’s something where people have seen their productivity drop a bit because there are just so many people around.
Can you speak to that synergistic relationship between open collaboration and privacy in the office space? Why do you think so many organizations have had difficulty creating a balance between the two?
O'Brien: The open office movement that we’ve seen is a rebellion against cubicles and corner offices and, as sometimes has happened with rebellions in history, it keeps swinging back-and-forth to extremes until they find a happy medium. I think that’s basically what we’re witnessing here.
You see some examples of extremely open offices where everything is at one German beer hall style table with a bench and then you see some offices filled with cubicles. Being able to find the balance between the two is challenging because for some people that means throw on headphones, but if you have headphones on then you’re kind of muting out your co-workers and you might miss out on those opportunities for collaboration. Some people are so used to being distracted that it becomes the norm and if that becomes the norm then productivity is going to go down and perception of the workplace is going to be more negative.
The last part that has really been a huge difficulty is that there are a lot of different functions that any given business does. Some of those are specialized like a finance person who spends a lot of time crunching numbers and working with spreadsheets, sometimes that just requires focus. Other aspects of that job might require having conversations with others. It’s really hard finding a space that can suit all those needs, so I think that’s why so many organizations have struggled in that aspect.
How does TalkBox fix issues in offices that might be intrusive to workplace privacy?
O'Brien: It’s funny, I have TalkBox inception going on right now. I’m speaking to you from a TalkBox in our open office setting.
There are definitely times where it’s almost impossible to think or make a call you need to make because of the noise levels in the office. We’ve experienced both ends of that issue and TalkBox started as a wooden booth-style prototype that grew legs from there. We tried out some different prototypes and continued to tweak it by using the product ourselves to figure out what kind of useful additions we could add, like a desk and whiteboard.
We see it as a two-way benefit. The noise being made inside of the TalkBox is kept to yourself — I don’t have to worry about anything I say getting out to my co-workers around me. For their benefit, I’m respecting their focus and productivity by not making noise and distracting them from their own work.
What are some the challenges organizations have faced when implementing TalkBox? What kind of critical feedback have you received and taken into consideration?
O'Brien: One issue people have is lead time. A lot of the sources of these booths are from Europe and you obviously run into a lot of issues whether it’s budget or lead time. These are quality products and this is a pressing need that needs to be addressed especially when coordinated with moving offices and things like that.
Another thing we’ve seen missing is a space for new mothers. Whether it’s for nursing or pumping, it comes along with the issue of privacy and having a place to do that in the office. We just recently released our Mother’s Nook option for TalkBox, which provides a magnetic locking door as well as a small fridge to accommodate mothers while keeping the functionality of a normal TalkBox.
There seems to be a recent resurgence in the demand for private communications in the office space. Why do you think that is and why is it happening at this particular point in time?
O'Brien: A big reason for it is that we’ve reached this point where offices are so commonly open — over 70 percent of offices are. Because of that, from an employee’s point-of-view, privacy and the ability to have private conversations are almost benefits of being in a certain office or being at a certain job. With that benefit being so sought after, especially in a fairly competitive labour market, employers are recognizing they can provide it to add quality to the lives of their employees.
So many jobs are capable of being worked remotely, but there’s so much that you don’t gain when you’re not in the office and interacting face-to-face with a lot of your peers. That ability to work remotely offers a lot of benefits, including privacy. By making sure that your employees feel as if they can be right at home and have that private space if they need it, you’re inspiring them to have less motivation to work from home and more motivation to be physically present in the office.
What kinds of issues do you see FMs most commonly face and do you have any specific advice for them?
O'Brien: FMs are our most frequent customers and I worked with them at a previous job. One of the biggest things we’ve seen, besides the obvious budget issues, is incorporating different office elements and being able to stay on brand. Every company has its own colours and values, all these different things, and alignment can be challenging when there’s a lot of different aspects you can bring in with furniture, arrangements, anything like that. It’s important, it permeates throughout the entire company and has tangible effects. Being able to stay on brand and have those custom-made solutions is definitely something I’ve seen a lot of with FMs.
What do you think office spaces will look like in the next 5-10 years? Where do you think the pendulum between open office and privacy will eventually swing?
O'Brien: My personal belief is that we’ll end up with more of a hybrid model where there are options to have private time and work quietly, but at the same time the default will be to collaborate with your peers. The default will be an open space, but there will be specific spaces available to do what you need to do.
The way we’ll continue to see that evolution over the next 5-10 years is through a function-specific model so that depending on what you’re working on or what your personal preferences are, you’ll have those options in front of you. The more employers realize that this is something tangible and important that affects their bottom line — the more we’ll see that movement accelerate.