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Analysis of Privacy Perception Among Open Plan Office Users

Info: 5385 words (22 pages) Dissertation
Published: 11th Dec 2019

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Tagged: Cultural StudiesEmployment


What is an Office?

Offices are workspaces designed for regular use to achieve personal, group or organizational goals through the accomplishment of tasks. Sanders and McCormick, (2002) go on to state that these tasks can be grouped into cognitive, physical, social or procedural tasks. The office provides a location for contact and could also be a repository for tools, information and other resources required to meet business objectives. It is also a business resource, this a point most people fail to understand thus, the failure to properly design and evaluate work spaces.

The work place or office is one of the places the modern man spends the bulk of his waking hours. Sanders and McCormick, (2002) say almost half of ones waking hours are spent in and around the office. This would provide explanation for research efforts into the design and utilization of offices.

According to Myerson and Ross (2003) the office grew out of the factory and then followed the trend of bureaucratization of industry. Thus, offices have been viewed differently by users and companies. Some view it as an address, others as a necessary evil but to others it is considered to be an asset. Bjerrum and Bødker (2003) noted that the design of an office was mostly considered as a cost and done to support quiet work and also show peoples status. While the purpose of the “New office” is to be that of attracting and retaining staff as well as to revolutionalize corporate culture.

Work places or offices have been described variously as; conventional, traditional, and closed or open plan offices. Some, group them as large or small, landscaped etc. (Sanders and McCormick, 2002). The general descriptions of workspaces fall under the categories of open plan and cellular offices and this is based on the architectural and functional features of the work spaces (Duffy, Laing and Crisp, 1992).

Other descriptions and categorization of offices include the hive; which is suited to individual processes. The den; suited to group processes. The cell; designed for concentrated study while the club supports transactional knowledge (Sailer, Budgen, Lonsdale, Turner and Penn, 2009). There are other descriptions of office types for example, Myerson and Ross (2003) from an architectural point of view, showed that views of property and space as related to the office environment have been evolving and as such, they identify four thematic categories of offices namely: narrative which presents the “office as a brand experience.” Nodal where the “office as knowledge connector.” The neighborly theme sees the “office as a social landscape” and lastly nomadic “office as distributed work space” these grouping reflect more of necessity and corporate culture not necessarily a collection of generally practically replicable models.

In another categorization of offices by Myerson and Ross (2006) is based on the fact that the offices evolved to suit knowledge workers, as such, the categories match each of the four “realms” of knowledge work namely: the academy “is likened to the corporate realm which is a more collegiate and collaborative approach to work”, guild “the professional realm in essence a professional cluster of peers sharing a skill or specialization”, agora “the public realm where the corporation is open to the city or the market place” and the lodge “ the domestic or private realm more of the live and work setting”. In the general scheme of things offices are still broadly classified into open plan and private or cellular offices all other forms are variations of the two.

Cellular Offices

Also called closed offices, this type of offices are the traditional or conventional offices which are usually closed and private workspaces (Maher and von Hippel, 2005) i.e. they are designed with floor to ceiling walls, a door and dimensioned for a single user. This type of office is also called a cell-office and can be a shared room office, used by 2-3 persons (Danielsson, 2008). This has been the generally accepted, traditional or popular understanding of the place called an office.

Open Plan Offices

These are found to be a common workspace shared by a group of employees. The original concept of the open plan office has continued to evolve, but it is the absence of floor-to-ceiling walls that is said to be the primary characteristic of open-plan offices. The arrangements of office furniture, partitions, screens, office equipment, or plants mark out individual and functional work areas (Valesny and Farace, 1987).

One of the strengths of the open plan office according to Bjerrum and Bødker (2003) is the openness and flexibility allowing one to move to where things are happening and allowing for “overhearing and over-seeing” (p. 207) thus enhancing peripheral participation.

Other types of the open plan office include the bull pen office, action offices, landscaped offices (Sanders and McCormick, 2002). In the bull pen offices, the work desks are arranged in neat row as far as the eyes can see.

In reality, most firms have a mix of office typologies ranging from cellular units designed for a single user to a small room office shared by a few people then the spaces shared with a large group with or without specifically assigned work places and with varying measures of visual and audio privacy.

Recent Developments in Open Plan Offices

It is safe to argue that, the open plan office has become increasingly popular (de Korte, Kuijt-Evers and Vink, 2007; Ding, 2008; Oldham and Brass, 1979; Pejtersen, Allermann, Kristensen and Poulsen, 2006 etc.) and several reasons could be advanced to explain the widespread adoption and use of the open plan offices and its variations.

There is also a move to wards a reduction in open plan office workspaces especially in the United States of America due to the understanding that smaller workstations are cheaper to maintain (Dykes, 2011) this according to Veitch, Charles, Farley and Newsham (2007) is because there is a failure in understanding the full value of the physical office environment and related issues in open plan offices in particular.

Advantages of open plan offices

Searches through literature (Danielsson, 2008; Oldham and Brass, 1979; Pan and Micheal, 2007; Roper and Juneja, 2008; Valesny and Farace, 1987 etc.) present the following as reasons for the adoption of open plan offices. They include;

  1. Reduction in office space and cost decline: The price of real estate is predicated on the area rented and utilized. With organizations using rental spaces, it is cheaper to use the rented floor or floors as open plan offices. In most cases, the cost of partitioning is saved if an open plan set up is deployed fully or partly.
  2. Flexibility for organizational changes: The open plan office lends itself to easy restructuring of work areas. In most cases, it is easier to fit in one more members of staff (Sanders and McCormick, 2002).
  3. More efficient work flow and communication: Some jobs require continuous team work, face to face interaction and a relatively high level of routine procedures. For such work groups, the open plan office or variations thereof are usually recommended and deployed. The enhancement of some level of peripheral participation is one of the strengths of the open plan office.
  4. Possible enhancement of social facilitation: The enhancement of collaboration i.e. the fostering of a team spirit, where, work teams or task forces are close to one another and can quickly form a huddle to sort out problems without resorting to information technology provisions like the intercom, emails, phones, video conferencing or even the walk up to another office. Oldham and Brass, (1979) specifically examined interpersonal issues that included; intradepartmental and interdepartmental interaction, friendship opportunities, noting that supervisor and co worker feed back could be improved.
  5. Ease of supervision: There is an ease of supervision, in that, a look over the landscape of the office can give an idea as to who is present and what each member of staff is doing.

Limitations of open plan offices.

Regarding the limitations of open-plan office designs, Maher and von Hippel (2005) rightly point out the fact that in open plan office layouts “distractions and overstimulation are intrinsically linked to the design.” These issues have consistently been themain down sides of open plan offices and some of them include:

  1. Increased workplace noise (Pan and Michael, 2007).
  2. Increased disturbances and distractions.
  3. Increased feelings of crowding and loss of privacy.
  4. There is a reduction in autonomy and task identity and a reduction in supervisor and co – worker feedback in certain cases (Oldham and Brass, 1979).

One point of agreement in open plan office research is that there is a generally low level of perceived privacy in open plan offices, as interruptions and distractions of the visual and acoustic kind occur frequently in open plan offices. (Pejtersen et al. 2006; Roper and Juneja, 2008)

Furthermore, researchers have observed that these negative outcomes resulting from the adoption of the open plan office design tends to result in dissatisfaction with work and the workplace thus, reducing functional efficiency, decreasing performance, especially, for non routine tasks and also, reduced feedback from supervisors due to some complexity with the freedom of communication (de Korte et al. 2007; Pejtersen et al. 2006; Sundstrom et al. 1982; Vischer, 2007 ). This understanding has led some organizations to begin returning to the traditional private offices i.e. with floor to ceiling partitions assigned to an individual (Roper and Juneja 2008).

Evolving nature of office work

Also worthy of note, is the evolution of work patterns. An increasingly large number of persons work mainly at or from home and visit the office sparingly. This has given rise to the several types of offices one of which is the flex-office, which is dimensioned for less than 70% of the total company staff to be in at the same time. Another design is the combi-office; where a member of staff is not assigned to a specific desk but sharing of common facilities provides the spatial definition of such an individuals work space i.e. the task and personnel at hand may determine the sitting arrangement of persons in the office (Danielsson, 2008).

Thesis Overview

The thesis is organized in to 5 chapters; Chapter one provides an introduction the concept of an office, its major types and variations. It then focuses on the open plan office and then highlights the strengths and limitations of the open plan office.

Chapter two provides a literature review of the concept of privacy perception; it reviews the perceived benefits of privacy and then traces the expectation that privacy perception could be influenced by culture. Significant studies related to dissatisfaction with open plan offices are examined for possible links to culture. The discussion then moves to culture, its definition and then the attempts made in the classification of culture. The Hofstede paradigm is then discussed and some studies employing the paradigm are reviewed. The research motivation and hypotheses are presented.

Chapter three discusses the methodology of the study, the survey method, issues noted and the challenge expected. The source and design of the questionnaire was presented and the analysis methods proposed. The statistical analysis tool was briefly introduced.

Chapter four shows the procedure of the survey, documents the responses received, analyzed the data collected from the general information part of the questionnaire and then chronicles the statistical analysis of the second part of the questionnaire designed to elicit privacy perception in open plan office environments.

Chapter five provides a discussion of the results obtained in chapter five and then presents the limitations of the current study while providing directions for further work.


This part of the thesis discusses the links between privacy perceptions and culture. It also includes definitions and explanations of some related terms. Lastly, it includes a presentation of some ideas relevant to the work and results of related studies.

The chapter concludes with the research question, research hypothesis and the motivation for the study.

Privacy Perception

In order to facilitate a better understanding, the term “privacy” is defined firstly then the concept called “perception”. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary (2011), privacy is said to be “the quality or state of being apart from company or observation”. Wikipedia defines perception as “the process of attaining awareness or understanding of sensory information.” It goes on to say “what one perceives is a result of interplays between past experiences, including one’s culture, and the interpretation of the perceived.”

Privacy is a very difficult concept or construct to define not to talk of evaluating, it has commanded interest from the fields of anthropology, architecture, cultural geography, environmental design, ethology, history, law, philosophy, and sociology, as well as branches psychology such as; clinical, counseling, developmental, educational, environmental and social psychology (Newell, 1995; 1998).

Newell (1995) in her extensive review of the concept of privacy divided the perspectives of privacy into, people centered, place centered and the person-environment or the person-place interaction with the primary interest on the place, people or equally on the person and place and or with the interaction itself. Leino-Kilpi et al. (2001 p. 664) in another review of literature on privacy noted that perspectives applied to the analysis of the concepts of privacy to be:

  1. The units experiencing privacy. They go on to note “the unit experiencing privacy can be either an individual or a group, or both.”
  2. Desired – Achieved privacy. This is explained by the understanding that the concept of privacy is either seen as a subjective state or studied as an achieved state (Newell, 1998).
  3. Reactive – Proactive privacy. This is to say the control of communication and also the control of knowledge.

Furthermore, they describe the dimensions of privacy to include: physical, psychological, social and informational thus, suggesting privacy dimensions to be made up of four quadrants of the diagram as shown in figure 2.1 below..

Source: Leino-Kilpi et al. (2001)

It would be seen that in an open plan office all the dimensions of privacy as enumerated Figure 2.1 above are impinged upon; First, physical accessibility to the person is unrestricted. Secondly, the cognitive intrusions abound due to audio and visual distractions. Thirdly, it is more difficult to control social contacts for example, the choice of participants for interaction, the interaction frequency, length and content of the said interaction. Then finally, the ease with which certain private pieces of information about the person is easily accessible is a problem in open plan offices, after all, most open plan offices do not have a single route of access or a door to the work space. So, it is difficult to mark and protect ones territory and as such protect some form of private information from would be trespassers (Anjum, Paul and Ashcroft, 2004).

In the light of these perspectives, one of the definitions of privacy suggested is that “privacy is a voluntary and temporary condition of separation from the public domain” (Newell, 1998, p. 357).

Oldham, Kulick and Stepina (1991) highlighted the fact that individuals reacted negatively to environments characterized by few enclosures, closeness and high density because such environments exposed individuals to too many unwanted or uncontrolled intrusions.

It is also agreed that, the perception of the work environment leads to satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the work and the work environment. Fischer, Tarquinio and Vischer (2004, p.132 ) posit that the there are three major categories of mediating influences on workplace satisfaction and these are, “individual differences like culture, age, professional or status, organizational context and environmental features.”

All these issues could be further grouped into two; internal and external factors as relates to the individual. These two descriptions could be mapped to the two ingredients required for a need for privacy to exist i.e. a person or persons and a place. Sanders and McCormick (2002, p. 485) also point out that apart from the physical features of the built environment, “people are influenced by nonphysical features like social, cultural, technological, economic and political factors characteristic of the environment.”

External Factors

These are the place factors, usually described as the environmental or design issues which can lead to noise distractions, visual distractions, interruptions, crowding and accessibility issues (Ding, S. 2008). Due to the absence of internal walls, the low height of walls or partitions in open plan offices influences privacy; the more enclosures, the lower the people per given space and the higher the partitions, the higher the privacy perceived (Danielsson 2008; Oldham, G. R et al. 1991; Sundstrom, Herbert and Brown, 1982 etc.).

Organizational context is also considered to be an external factor. This involves the type of industry involved by the organization. For example doctors consulting rooms should provide more audio privacy compared to an architectural firms offices or design studios.

Internal Factors

This grouping is based on the person factors or what goes on within the person, the suggestion that individual differences related to but not restricted to personality traits, gender, individual experience etc. affect ones perception of, and hence the evaluation of the work environment (external or place factors). Some studies have found that variations exist across gender in perception of privacy in the open plan office (Yildirim, Akalin-Baskaya and Celebi, 2007). Also, in a different cross cultural study of privacy, Newell (1998) found that privacy was more a condition of the person thus, the duration of the experience and the change on the person as a result of the experience leads to its suspected therapeutic effect. In general perceptions and attitudes to privacy, she found that gender also played a part especially within cultures.

Maher and von Hippel (2005) and others before them showed that individual differences in the ability to handle overstimulation by the application stimulus screening and inhibitory abilities influenced the perceptions of the work environment. These inhibitory skills are cognitive in nature and such inhibitory skills are found to vary between individuals and even especially across cultures. For example, Hall (1966) points out that the Japanese are said to be content with paper walls as acoustic screens while the Dutch and Germans require thick walls and double doors to serve as acoustic screens.

Benefits of Privacy in the work Environment

Newell (1998, p. 359) relates the need for privacy to help in “maintaining healthy internal physiological and cognitive functioning subjectively described as ‘wellbeing’”. The study concluded that achieving the perceived privacy had some therapeutic effects.

On the area of performance, especially for knowledge workers like engineers, accountants, software designers, decision makers etc., auditory and visual distraction have been found to be a cause of stress and even performance impairment (Roper and Juneja, 2008). Furthermore, Oommen, Knowles and Zhao (2008) point to the likelihood of aggression and increased instances of eye, nose and throat irritations while working in open plan environments. This in turn affects productivity.


Culture is said to be the way of life of a group of people. This, among other things covers their beliefs, values, norms and rituals. Specifically, Hofstede (2009 p. 1) points out that “culture is the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from the others and it manifests itself in the form of symbols, heroes, rituals and values.” Earlier, an American anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his books, talked about language and especially modes of communication as a point of differentiating cultures (Hall E.T 1966; 1976). He even considered language to be the core of culture while, Geert Hofstede considers language as a part of the rituals of a particular culture (Hofstede, 2010). This goes to point out some of the existing disagreements about what culture is and even how it comes about.

Culture is thus, studied as a means of understanding or shedding light into the behavior or reactions of individuals or people groups. Edward Hall in his book; the hidden dimension writes that “people from different cultures inhabit different sensory worlds, so that experience, as it is perceived through one set of culturally patterned sensory screens is quite different from experience perceived through another.” (1966, p. 2). This highlights and explains the link between culture and perception generally and in spatial terms especially.

Classifying Cultures

There have been several descriptions and models of culture (Matsumoto and Yoo, 2006; Hall, 1966; 1970), for example, Hall (1966) alludes to contact and non-contact groups or cultures in relation to spatial meanings and preferences within people groups . This is related to the social dimension of privacy (Leino-Kilpi et al. 2001), but he especially specifies high and low context cultures according to their ways of communicating.

For the high context (HC) culture or communication for that matter, much of the information is implicit while, in the low context (LC) culture, nearly everything is explicit. He also wrote about the concept of time among cultures (Hall, 1976). Where there are polychronic (P-time) and monochronic (M-Time) cultures; the M-time society or culture would prefer to do only one thing at a time when serious i.e. for such persons, time is linear and segmented with each activity scheduled while, the individuals in a P-time culture can juggle several activities, they emphasize the involvement of people and the completion of tasks rather than schedules.

Edward T. Hall coined the term “Proxemics” which he describes as “interrelated observations and theories of man’s use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture” Hall (1966 p. 1). In explaining his observations in proxemic behavior (Hall, 1963 p. 1003) he notes that “what is close to an American may be distant to an Arab.”

Many other researchers and individuals apart from Edward Hall had worked on other frameworks and dimensions of culture. Matsumoto and Yoo, (2006) lists some of these frameworks which are interestingly identified by the names of the researchers that discovered them and this list which is not exhaustive, includes;

Hofstedes (1980) with subsequent revisions and dimensions added; Schwartz (2004) who presented seven universal value orientations, Smith, Dugan and Trompenaars (1996) had two universal value orientations; House, Hanges, Javidan, Dorfman and Gupta (2003) came up with nine value orientations related to leadership; Inglehart (1997) had two attitude-belief-value orientations, Bond et al. (2004) is said to have reported two social axioms. All cited in Matsumoto and Yoo, (2006 p. 239).

The listing above does not mention each of the dimensions. The dimensions of each framework listed are found in Table 2.1 below.

Table 2.1 Six Theoretical Frameworks for Universal Dimensions of Cultural Variability



Hofstede’s (2001) dimensions of work-related values

Individualism vs. collectivism

Power distance

Uncertainty avoidance

Masculinity vs. femininity

Long- vs. short-term orientation

Schwartz’s (2004) dimensions of values



Intellectual autonomy

Affective autonomy




Smith, Dugan, and Trompenaars’s (1996) dimensions of values

Egalitarian commitment vs. conservatism

Utilitarian involvement vs. loyal involvement

House, Hanges, Javidan, Dorfman, and Gupta’s (2003) dimensions of leadership values

Performance orientation

Assertiveness orientation

Future orientation

Human orientation

Institutional collectivism

Family collectivism

Gender egalitarianism

Power distance

Uncertainty avoidance

Inglehart’s (1997) dimensions of attitudes, values, and beliefs

Traditional vs. secular-rational orientation

Survival vs. self-expression values

Bond et al.’s (2004) dimensions of social axioms (beliefs)

Dynamic externality

Societal cynicism

Source: (Matsumoto, D and Yoo, S. H, 2006 p. 240)

National versus Organizational culture

As a society has a culture, so do organizations and such organizations employ staff who come from a particular culture(s). The organizations then require these individuals to work in offices. Apart from the culture description related to national boundaries, there is a culture that seems to characterize workplaces or organizations and this is called organizational or corporate culture.

Barney (1986) notes that like culture itself, organizational culture has many competing definitions and then goes on to suggest that a generally acceptable definition of organizational culture to be “as a complex set of values, beliefs, assumptions, and symbols that define the way in which a firm conducts its business.” (p. 657). He goes on to point the pervasive nature of organizational culture in that, it helps to define the relationship of the firm to parties it comes in contact with through its business. This simply shows that culture within the work place especially geared towards profitability or the conferment of advantages could be termed organizational or corporate culture. Generally it will be assumed that the national culture will also play a part.

Guidroz, Kotrba, and Denison (2009) from results of a study of multinational companies, claim that their study seems to point to organizational culture superseding national culture in diversity management practices. The issue in question in this thesis is not exactly a management matter but the individual perception of privacy in the open plan office environments and would suggest that both national and organizational cultures playing a part because according to (Brand, 2009) the design of the workspace or workplace communicates the corporate culture of the organization meaning, the adoption of the open plan environment can be tied to the organizations corporate culture.

Hofstedes’ Cultural Dimensions

This is a hugely popular cross-cultural model (Gerhart and Fang, 2005; Hofstede et al, 2010; Sivakumar, Nakata, 2001) currently in use, with its roots in industrial psychology (Meeuwesen, van den Brink-Muinen and Hofstede, 2009) is called the Hofstedes model of culture named after Geert Hofstede a Dutch emeritus Professor of organizational anthropology and international management in the Netherlands.

Hofstedes work highlighted the fact that culture is manifested through symbols, heroes, rituals and values. But, Hofstede argues that values form the core of culture as represented by the Hofstede culture “Onion” in Figure 2.2. Figure 2.2 shows the onion structure graphically illustrating the manifestation of culture at different levels and even the interactions therein.

As seen from Figure 2.2 above symbols, heroes and rituals are by themselves visible to all observers. It is the cultural meanings of the practices that are open to interpretation by the observer while, values are unseen or embedded within the person but they still subtly determine choices and much more (Hofstede et al., 2010). Hofstedes research studied value survey responses of similar respondents from different countries as to their approach, as related to four basic problems prevalent in most societies (Meeuwesen et. al, 2009) these included;

  1. Handling social inequalities in the society.
  2. The approach to dealing with uncertainty in general.
  3. The structure of the relationship between an individual and the group.
  4. The emotional role division between the male and females in a society.

The initial data for Hofstedes culture study came about through an analysis of International Business Machine Company (IBM) staff surveys at a time, the company was called Hermes. He utilized the responses from routine staff surveys about values and related matters to provide ratings for countries on each of what he then called the four dimensions of culture.

This was achieved by examining correlations between mean scores of questionnaire items at the level of countries. Other approaches, like analysis at the individual level did not provide much useful information (Hofstede, 2009). Later, certain studies showed the need for another dimension and this lead to the inclusion of a fifth dimension called, long term orientation.

Each dimension of culture score for a country is calculated using a scale of roughly 0 to 100 for each dimension. A dimension of culture is an aspect of culture that can be measured relative to other cultures (Hofstede, 2009 p. 6) and the higher the score of a dimension, the more that dimension is exhibited in the society or nation in question while for lower scores the opposite pole of the dimension is more pronounced. Thus, the scores are therefore bipolar (Jones, 2007)

In a 2010 book, Greet Hofstede, his son Gert Jan Hofstede and a research collaborator Micheal Minkov reviewed earlier works, alongside their recent studies and added a sixth dimension called indulgence versus restraint (IVR) to the previously known Hofstedes five dimensions of culture. The sixth dimension was largely as a result of the work of Micheal Minkov (Hofstede et al., 2010).

The six dimensions of Hofstedes cultural model now include power distance (PDI), individualism (IDV), masculinity (MAS), uncertainty avoidance index (UAI), long term orientation (LTO), and the recently added indulgence (IVR).

Power distance (PDI).

This indicates the degree of inequality that exists and is accepted among the persons with and without power i.e. the leadership versus the followership respectively as normal and legitimate in any given society. If the power distance scores are high, it indicates a pyramidal or hierarchical system where the power is resident at the top while, lower scores indicate greater equality suggesting power is shared and spread within the group.

Individualism (IDV).

This is related to the se

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