The Importance of Privacy in Open-Plan Offices

The Importance of Privacy in Open-Plan Offices

Frank Lloyd Wright first came up with the concept of the open-plan office in 1906, in the Larkin Building in Buffalo, New York, United States. The innovative nature of this approach, at the beginning of the 20th century, contrasted with the norm of closed offices and probably stunned those who first used it. Fast-forwarding to the 1950s, the concept of an open-plan office –Bürolandschaft or Office landscape– originated in Germany, with the objective of eliminating spatial hierarchy through shared spaces. The architects strategically designed the office layout to improve communication and teamwork, removing solid barriers and replacing rows of desks with work areas that were organized based on functions and workflows, with a mentality aligned with the precepts of the time, especially related to the European post-war reconstruction effort.

For years, the prevailing belief was that open-plan offices were the ideal formula for an effective work environment. This philosophy spread widely with the influence of Silicon Valley startups such as Google, whose offices sought a laid-back approach, incorporating leisure areas, shared kitchens and a vibrant color palette. In addition to visually representing the companies' values and ideals, these office designs sought to cultivate a work environment conducive to collaboration between teams, encouraging innovation and, ultimately, increasing productivity.

The Importance of Privacy in Open-Plan Offices - Image 5 of 8
Photograph of the Division of Classification and Cataloging, 1937. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, the National Archives and Records Administration

However, with the advances and conveniences brought about by technology and all the changes in work culture after years of living with the pandemic, we've now begun to ask ourselves: are offices with completely open floor plans still the best option? Research led by HBS professor Ethan Bernstein set out to understand what really happens when employees move from cubicle spaces to an open floor plan, and followed two companies that were making this move. The result was that, while hoping to see an increase in collaboration, what these companies actually experienced was a 70% drop in in-person interactions and an increase in email and messaging by 50%. The author describes a phenomenon known as the "fourth wall," an idea developed by 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot, which referred to an imaginary wall that artists created to separate themselves from their audience and prevent distractions. Similarly, people in open office environments establish a kind of "figurative fourth wall" that their colleagues respect. When someone is deeply focused on their work, interruptions are avoided and colleagues quickly adapt to this norm of respecting the fourth wall, especially in open workspace settings. This means that, although they share the same space, many interactions are minimized and almost insurmountable bubbles are created.

Another common complaint of open-plan office occupants is the difficulty in concentrating in spaces that are very large or that have many distractions. For some, it is important to count on a quiet and distraction-free space to be able to carry out daily tasks. In addition, meetings often require their own specific areas, in order to not disturb other colleagues, have more private discussions, and allow for concentration.

The study observed that the ideal configuration for an office is one that creates a diversity of environments, where each person can choose where to work, depending on the day or the task they are performing.

In these settings, the incorporation of glass partitions is an ingenious solution, as it allows the creation of refuges for concentrated work, as well as separate rooms, while maintaining visual permeability and taking advantage of natural lighting throughout a space. But glass can also disrupt activities in an office, and common solutions –such as blinds– can block much of the natural lighting in an environment.

To solve this problem, some offices have opted for the Sonte Smart Film. Designed to address privacy concerns for glass partitions, it is especially useful for rooms that host important meetings or to transform a room by playing with the translucency of its glass walls. It allows, through a switch, a dedicated remote control or an application, to change glass partitions from transparent to opaque, with dimming options. The installation is versatile, compatible with single or double glazing in a variety of glass surfaces including doors, windows and large spaces. The film provides protection against harmful UV rays, contributing to a safer and more comfortable environment.

The Smart Film uses digital shading technology to control its transparency. When turned off, the liquid crystals in the film –which are located between two PET films– are randomly dispersed, making it opaque and not allowing light to pass through it. When it is charged with an electric current, on the other hand, the crystals are rearranged and cause the film to become transparent. It is designed to be easy to use and cost-effective, as it is self-adhesive and can be cut to fit any existing window or glass partition, eliminating the need for specialist installation. Once applied, simply connect the Wi-Fi transformer and supply power to activate the film, which offers a practical and cost-effective solution for businesses and individuals who want to manage privacy, lighting and visual aesthetics in glass spaces. Its hassle-free installation, intuitive control options, and compatibility with a variety of glass surfaces make it a valuable addition to modern architectural and interior design.

The evolution of work environments, from Frank Lloyd Wright's open-plan offices to the modernity of post-pandemic shared spaces, has brought to the forefront the need to balance collaboration and concentration. In this context, creating adaptable environments and providing visual comfort seem to be two essential aspects to meet the demands of the contemporary work environment. Through digital shading technology, this Smart Film redefines the way we see and interact with our spaces, ensuring the flexibility of an ever-evolving world.

About this author
Cite: Souza, Eduardo. "The Importance of Privacy in Open-Plan Offices" [A Importância da Privacidade em Escritórios de Planta Aberta] 08 Nov 2023. ArchDaily. (Trans. Porto, Daniela) Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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