Interior design

Privacy vs Safety by Design

As interior designers, we want to make the world a better place. Some people may think that we do that through beautification, but when it comes to workplace design we focus more on how to influence behaviors through the design of space. Our goal is to encourage positive behavior and try to prevent the negative.

This goal is becoming significantly more complicated in a post #MeToo era when more and more people are asking questions like: How can we create spaces that are safe for everyone who utilizes them? Is it possible for space planing and design to help to bring an awareness around sexual harassment issues and other misconduct at work? Here we pose several questions that we think about as designers and those dedicated to creating safe spaces for employees might think about too.

How private is too private?

Privacy has both good and bad sides. On the one hand, we want employees to have quiet space to effectively do their work and to practice workplace self care without being too exposed (think about having to make a difficult call to a doctor’s office, as an example). On the other hand, too much privacy can have the opposite effect and cause people to feel unsafe.


Imagine an employee who is the subject of derogatory comments. If those comments are made in to private of a place where no one else can hear them, the subject will likely worry that without witnesses, they may not be believed. Most individuals will try to make sure they are not alone with that person again, but what if the space precludes that?

So you might, for example, provide two exits in common spaces such as copy rooms, storage rooms, lunch rooms — spaces where too much privacy can work against the feeling safety for some.

Private offices are typically the most efficient way to bring in visual and acoustical privacy but consider the level of privacy. An executive might feel productive in their large closed office but how do their direct reports feel in a one-on-one meeting if there’s little to no transparency in the enclosed space? If that employee is asking themselves, “Am I safe here?” how confident, productive, or expressive will they be? Research shows that possibly one of the main reasons some women prefer meeting with an executive in an open area is that the meeting will feel less hierarchical and more transparent.

When designing enclosed spaces, providing visual transparency can help alleviate the potential tension of a closed-door meeting with a superior while still maintaining acoustical privacy.

Shared project rooms benefit from multiple walls of full glass as they eliminate any hidden corners.

Can too much transparency be a bad thing?

The short answer — yes. We’ve all heard the complaints about poorly designed open office plans where there is minimal privacy and people are subjected to experiencing their coworkers eat, sleep, cough, and have phone conversations. Never mind the interruptions. These spaces can take away focus and productivity, and they can feel unsafe.

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Too much transparency can make workers feel exposed and vulnerable. Imagine if someone is being stalked by a co-worker? In a transparent workspace, there may be no place to escape. Would an employee in this situation feel comfortable to complain that a co-worker is “staring at them all day”?

Workplace design needs to be a balance of openness with the right level of privacy. We are seeing fewer walls in spaces and relying on furniture to add more privacy for individuals so they can function when they need visual privacy. People need places to have privacy when their emotions are overrun, or they need to have a highly personal phone call. Visual privacy can often be achieved with the strategic placement and orientation of furniture.

So how do you find the right level of transparency for your organization? We suggest a thoughtful progression from private spaces, to semi-private, to open.

The key is to have enough diversity to meet everyone’s needs. Completely private areas might include bathrooms, private enclaves, and wellness rooms that can be locked. Partial privacy can be provided by offices with a window to the open space or a transom next to the door or by conference and phone rooms with frosted or partially frosted glass to show someone’s in there but not necessarily show their facial expressions or what they are doing.

Relaxed work environments are designed to support user comfort and encourage collaboration and innovation, but employers, business owners also need to provide policies and procedures (training if needed ) that outline appropriate behavior in a more casual atmosphere.

Will a more relaxed atmosphere encourage people not to follow the rules?

Many companies, even in more traditional industries like law and banking, are aiming to have more casual spaces, including pool tables or game consoles that encourage frequent communication and interaction. It’s not uncommon to see community spaces that look more like a bar or a coffee shop. If people are more at ease, they are more likely to collaborate , or so the logic goes.

However, when work feels like a set of casual interactions, and people are spending lots of hours at the office. People likely need more direction on what’s appropriate and what isn’t in those spaces. Here is where the need for policy, practice, and training go hand-in-hand with space design. The procedures for after-hours or before-hours W who is allowed in the space, is it OK for one person to be alone in the space during non-working hours. These are all important policies to think about in accordance with safety.

For all that designers can do with space and all that leadership can do with policy, social norms trump all. For instance, a company may communicate a policy that working in the office before 6:00 AM and after 7:00 PM is prohibited, but there may be unwritten social rule that you actually can work whenever you want because “everyone does it anyway.” The desire to work late may be innocent enough, but this lack of adherence to policy could open the door to a potentially unsafe environment.

We are fully aware that interior design won’t completely prevent harassment, just as policies won’t. But establishing safeguards to stop harassment and assault in the places we work is something we should all be focused on, bringing our unique skills to bear. For us, that’s interior design, and we’re committed to asking ourselves and our clients questions that will help to create a healthy, safe work environment for everyone.