Prison break: How confidential information can escape from open-plan offices

open-plan offices

Open-plan offices will likely undergo redesigns in the wake of COVID-19.

The design of the open-plan office originates from an 18th century prison design, according to Alex Haslam an organisational psychologist and professor at the University of Queensland. In an interview with ABC radio earlier this year and in articles about his own research, Haslam has likened the principles of the open-plan office with the panopticon prison design where cells are arranged around a central well from which wardens can at all times observe their prisoners.

Open-plan offices allow managers to observe their teams at all times much like wardens but the reverse is also true – employees can likewise see and hear what their managers are up to and may be exposed to information that is not necessarily meant for their consumption.

Unnecessary risk for employers

Unlike a prison, modern open-plan offices are intended to encourage team work, collaboration, and transparency. They also allow for flexible office reshuffling when numbers fluctuate and in that sense, are a great solution for employers who want to foster a team environment with the flexibility to make changes quickly and without a construction crew as business needs alter.

But open-plan offices are also filled with distractions that can affect productivity or alienate employees who feel they have no control over their environment. Most significantly, open-plan office spaces risk the disclosure of confidential information, not just to employees who shouldn’t be privy to certain things but also to visitors in the office. Open-plan offices can expose employers to unnecessary risk.

Consider for example, a sales employee who overhears their boss discussing some statistics on the phone with another manager. That employee then repeats those numbers to a friend, failing to understand the significance of those numbers and forgetting that their friend has resigned and is leaving to join a competitor. The lack of privacy for the manager has lead to a breach of the business’s confidential information and the employee may have breached their employment contract as well as their obligations to act in their employer’s best interests. As a result, the employer is exposed and the employee may face disciplinary action.

Open-plan environments are particularly problematic for managers whose roles are commercially or legally sensitive. HR managers are a good example of this – they deal with confidential information all day every day, including the personal details of individual employees (including sensitive health information) and company recruitment strategies, through to the reasons behind dismissing employees. The work HR managers do is not just commercially and legally confidential, it’s also very emotionally sensitive. An employee gossiping about what they have overheard or glimpsed on a HR manager’s computer could seriously derail workplace harmony and could potentially breach privacy laws, including those dealing with health information.

As previously mentioned, employers should also be mindful of their exposure to risk when outsiders visit the office. It’s not uncommon for potential clients to be given a tour after a meeting, or for existing clients to treat the space as their own when they visit. The consequences of these visitors wandering into the HR, finance or legal team’s section could be very serious and if they do, how are those teams expected to react? Are they expected to stop work, hang up the phone, lock their screens and tuck away their papers each time they are approached?

Protecting confidential information is vital to business success and healthy competition, and employers should do everything they can to protect their confidential information. In doing so, employers need to think carefully about their office design and consider which employees need privacy because of the type of work they are required do.

Many employees may benefit from a collaborative environment but a funky office design is not more important than a business’s confidential information.

Athena Koelmeyer is the managing director of Workplace Law and a leading lawyer in the area of workplace relations. At Workplace Law, Athena provides strategic advice, representation and training to employers on all aspects of workplace relations.


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