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Privacy please!

Catherine Gall

- Global

- Jan 26 2015

Catherine Gall

Researcher in the WorkSpace Futures team, Steelcase Europe

Are there benefits to providing a certain level of privacy in the workplace? Ensuring Quality of life to create an optimal work environment lies in the answer to this question. Catherine Gall, director of research at Steelcase discusses the need to refine the current workplace.

The international study, The Privacy Crisis, conducted jointly between Ipsos Loyalty and Steelcase, shows that there is a lack of privacy in offices around the world. What are the drawbacks of the static open space work environment?

Catherine Gall: When the open space layout became popular in the late 80s, the idea was to create more communication by taking the walls down. However, today our research shows that this concept may have gone too far. By overlooking the need for privacy we are creating environments where people are overly exposed – they don't have the time or space to rejuvenate. Without an adequate amount of privacy, individuals feel the pressure to engage with too many people, thus lowering the quality of relationships. The fact of the matter is individuals can’t be “on” or engaged at work all day. We need to have moments to breathe and get away from the buzz. If not, when people start to lose control of their time, their work, their objectives, the result is burnout.

The study mentions employees’ need for stimulation control and information control. Can you explain the difference?

C.G.: Stimulation control refers to the physical space. Ideally, companies can allow employees to work in different types of environments and settings in addition to their primary workspaces. Taking a phone call that requires some degree of concentration will be more productive if it can take place in a quiet environment, in a room with a door that protects the conversation and also reduces the disturbance of people who can overhear the conversation.

Information control can be explained quite simply as well. Individuals tend to dislike when their desk is located near a thoroughfare where people passing by can easily view their computer screen. Workers in these areas develop strategies to hide themselves or their work from others. The energy they use to do this however is energy not used to create value for their companies.

Does this need for control differ between countries?

C.G.: In certain regions, such as in Scandinavia, where the density of people is lower, individuals have ample space and are able to move about and choose environments according to the type of lighting or amount of stimulation and so on. As this is part of their well-being foundation, this is something they need all the time in order to perform well. On the other hand, individuals who grew up in China or Japan, in parts of Africa or in the Middle East, don't have this. They grew up in multi-generational homes and have a different concept of personal space. As they are able to mentally isolate themselves from distractions, they don’t have the same expectations as their western counterparts.

Given these vast cultural differences, is there a single answer to the privacy dilemma?

C.G.: There is no universal setting that works across all cultures and in all offices. That said, providing the ability to choose – to have more control over stimulation or information – is key. And this applies to all levels of a company. We tend to think that those higher up in the hierarchy need more privacy or certain jobs, such as lawyers or human resource directors are positions where people need more privacy. But the truth is mobile technology and the need to work in collaboration has created a work environment where everyone, whether we are a big boss or a junior employee, needs some privacy at some point in the day or week. Instead of being something that is dedicated to a person, a status, a job position, privacy is a universal need.

How can companies begin the process of improving privacy?

C.G.: Companies need to think differently about the design and the use of their work environment, to study people’s behavior, to understand who comes to work every day and for how many hours. The truth is people are away from their workstations half of the time – whether they are traveling, in other meeting spaces or visiting clients. The actual physical time employees spend at their desk is much lower than we tend to think. If companies track this sort of data, which is easy to do today, they can allocate space smarter, and create a social environment and at the same time create quiet spaces where people can regroup ideas and concentrate.

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  • Sat
    16 May


    I think that Catherine Gall presents simple straight forward information on this topic. The question is how do we adapt this information to our actual environments? The need for companies to "think differently" is a great finishing point. Thanks!


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