How to balance privacy and openness in the workplace?

The amount of work automated is increasing each year. This leads us to look for an answer to the question of what makes us unique as humans. Empathy often tops the list. And sure, caring jobs seem to be here to stay for the long term. Another quality, however, is the ability to think deeply. To make creative connections, to think critically, and understand meaning.

Organizations express the need for people with these abilities. They understand that to thrive in the future, this is where the difference is to be made. However, there is still room for improvement when it comes to enabling people to use these abilities in their daily work. Cultures and processes take time and effort to change. And sometimes, mechanistic views of work, which still prevail in many organizations, might slow this process down.

One of the areas where we can observe this change is the topic of transparency. We often meet managers putting transparency, whether in organizational processes or the design of workplaces, among their priorities. They often feel it needs to translate into specific, visible outcomes, like designing glass walls for people’s offices or implementing the open plan.

On the other hand, employees, valued for their deep thinking ability and creativity, might feel this is not creating enabling conditions for applying those valuable skills. That’s because privacy and freedom from judgment are actually vital for this type of work. We can allow ourselves to be the most creative when working in privacy, whether alone or with a group of people we are comfortable with.

So how should we understand transparency in our work? Who should be expected to be transparent and in what areas?

Byung-Chul Han, the author of Burnout Society, claims that transparency doesn’t actually enable trust, but replaces it. He says that transparency is necessary for conditions where people don’t trust each other. In a trusting relationship, people don’t need to know everything, since the very definition of trust, according to Han, is acting without having all the knowledge about the other person.

Increasing distrust, as well as calls for transparency, go together. Numbers show a steady decline of trust in democracy, institutions, and other people in our society. At the same time, according to Google Ngram, the relative frequency of the word “transparency” in printed sources has increased by 760% during the last 100 years. Politicians who change their opinions based on newly learned information are irrationally chastised because all their previous claims are available to everyone online. And people might be afraid to make certain decisions, which they might believe are right, but are afraid others wouldn’t like.

It seems then, that complete transparency is not necessarily the goal we should always pursue. However, we can still find examples of the positive effects of transparency. Gender pay gaps decrease when companies are required to disclose salary data. Some companies, embracing democratic principles, publish everyone’s salary internally. And some, like Buffer, even make them public, which has led to a doubling of hiring applications and increased employee satisfaction.

When we look at the patterns, we can see that transparency works best when it takes into account the balance of power. For example, companies using monitoring software to take screenshots of their employees’ computer screens might use the wording of transparency, but in reality, they exert control. On the other hand, the transparency of those who already wield power, like managers, is more likely to repair the imbalance and thus lead to positive outcomes. But even they need privacy to do their work right.

Preserving privacy and balancing it with transparency always had and will have its purpose. It’s a psychological need, which allows people to regulate how they reveal themselves to the world. Figures like Mark Zuckerberg claim that we are entering the age of full transparency. But it’s in our nature to use different parts of ourselves when communicating with different people. We have a work-self, family-self, friend-self, and public-self and it’s not wrong to keep it that way.

What we can do, though, is to strive for openness instead. In comparison to transparency, openness assumes that people are opening up to others willingly. They do that because they trust each other and at times when they feel comfortable doing so. Openness, then, comes from the inside and is motivated by improving relationships with others. While transparency views people in a more mechanistic manner, as databases of information which should be free to access from the outside.

Therefore, in the pursuit of transparency, let’s remember about:

  1. Defining the reason and purpose of transparency or specific changes. Why is it necessary? Does it make sense on a deeper level?
  2. Distinguishing between transparency and openness. Transparency is a quality we can seek in a computer system, while openness takes into account the humans.
  3. Agreeing on the desired outcomes, whether that’s improved satisfaction, efficiency or identity, and then actually checking if they were achieved.
  4. Fulfilling the need for privacy at the same time, instead of seeing it as an enemy of transparency.

Looking at transparency in this way, what about the call for glass walls and open-plan offices? Transparency has to be rooted, first and foremost, in people’s mindset and culture as openness. When we make the right steps towards this, it stops being about applying a prescribed solution, like glass walls.

When we set out to design the right enabling space for an organization, the key is giving people control over when to open to others. No good can come from only providing people with spaces that make them always transparent. This would go against their psychological need for privacy, as well as undermine focus and creative thinking. At the same time, not enabling transparency at all is not the right solution either. We have to design different places that lie on a scale from individual privacy (focus room), through group privacy (project room), to more open social and showcase spaces, where people can share bits of their personalities, as well as results of their work.

How do we actually meet these human demands for creativity and openness? Take a look at one of our Enabling Spaces-projects to see how we conceive spaces that drive radical innovation and learning.

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Further reading:

Allen, Thomas J., and Gunter Henn. The Organization and Architecture of Innovation: Managing the Flow of Technology. 1st Edition. Amsterdam ; Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2006.

Bennedsen, Morten, Elena Simintzi, Margarita Tsoutsoura, and Daniel Wolfenzon. “Research: Gender Pay Gaps Shrink When Companies Are Required to Disclose Them.” Harvard Business Review, January 23, 2019.

Han, Byung-Chul. The Burnout Society. 1st Edition. Stanford, California: Stanford Briefs, 2015.

“How Privacy Fuels Creativity: Sarah Lewis in IAPP Video | The Lavin Agency Speakers Bureau.” Accessed October 20, 2020.

“Why These 3 Companies Are Sharing How Much Their Employees Make.” Accessed October 20, 2020.

Author: Michal Matlon
Image: Remi Walle at Unsplash