Productivity and GTD

How Does Privacy Impact Employee Productivity?

AUTHOR: Kayla Matthews
Privacy and productivity

Ask yourself this question: How well do you work when someone watches your every move over your shoulder? If you’re like most people, the answer is probably, “Not too well.”

Anyone who’s ever mentored a new hire knows everything from typing speed to attention span lags when someone else watches how they work. However, employers must monitor employee behavior regularly to keep them from slacking, right? Wrong. Business owners and managers need only look at the difficulties faced by many working in open office floor plans to see how a lack of privacy negatively impacts productivity.

Why Privacy Matters in Getting Things Done

When Fortune 500 companies began switching to open office designs, researchers at Harvard University set out to investigate whether such plans truly boosted productivity and collaboration the way they claimed. They discovered that rather than bolstering knowledge sharing, open offices saw 70 percent less face-to-face interaction time.

Did fewer conversations make those that did occur more substantive? Surely most of the prior in-person communication consisted of idle water cooler chit-chat, right? Nope. Quality also fell.

Why? One explanation surmises that constant exposure to the prying eyes of others makes humans withdraw into their inner world to protect themselves psychologically. Like a deer in headlights, incessant monitoring makes workers freeze up rather than work harder.

Another explanation for the drop in productivity among workers in open plans revolves around the principle that constant distractions hamper people from concentrating. Being able to see what anyone else is doing simply by glancing over a monitor provides endless entertainment, but creates the psychological impact of shouting “squirrel” in a dog park.

Finally, open plans create constant background noise that sometimes rises to extreme levels, especially in buildings with high ceilings and hard flooring. Noise pollution impacts human hearing just like air pollution damages lungs. Workers may not feel sick or suffer hearing loss, but the continual din of clacking heels and undercurrents of multiple conversations results in a persistent feeling of being a bit off or unwell.

Legal Considerations and on-the-Clock Privacy

Nearly all workers nowadays know their employers monitor phone calls, email exchanges and written communication. They also understand that their internet usage will likewise undergo regular monitoring, and frequent visits to inappropriate sites while on the clock can lead to disciplinary measures including termination. However, in an age of digital assistants, employers tread new legal waters when it comes to protecting themselves from lawsuits.

Can an employer, for example, require remote workers utilizing their own equipment to provide a copy of their browsing history? Can private conversations in employees’ own homes lead to disciplinary action if Alexa misunderstands the conversation as dictation for an email to the boss?

While no easy answers exist, courts tend to side with employers unless egregious privacy violations occur. Employers with remote workers may even perform surprise inspections of an employee’s home office if they receive permission to do so in writing.

As signing such an agreement may be a condition of hire, workers enjoy little legal wiggle room should they decline. Regardless of work locations, employees shouldn’t spend work time browsing social media — unless doing so is part of their job description.

How Can Employers Balance Privacy Needs With Supervisory Duties?

Employers can improve employee privacy and enhance productivity by returning to earlier designs centered on cubicles to give workers their own personal space. The use of cubicles also reduces noise pollution by absorbing the echoes that would otherwise ping-pong off walls, floors and ceilings unimpeded.

Alternately, employers can create a variety of workspaces, with some areas designed for quiet work and others for collaboration. Lively bull sessions can take place behind closed doors so remaining staff members aren’t distracted by the rapid-fire conversation.

Finally, employers can ask their workers about their preferences. Some professionals, like computer programmers and accountants, need a quiet environment to do their best work. Competitive salespeople, conversely, may prefer an environment that more closely resembles the hustle of Wall Street and the rush they get from friendly contests with other workers.

Trusting Professionals to Do Their Jobs

Supervisors who tend toward micromanaging need to remember that they hired their employees for a reason — they thought each individual had what it takes to succeed. Invading employee privacy creates constant workplace tension that inhibits concentration.

Trusting workers to perform their professional duties in an environment that suits their needs alleviates stress and leads to greater productivity and morale overall.

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