Ethan Bernstein: When we think of modern work environments, transparency has certainly been better for many things. But there can be such a thing as too much. I think it's easiest to think of it from a human behavior standpoint through two perspectives: the perspective of the observer and perspective of the observed. When we talk about transparency, we usually think about it from the observer's perspective. Observers who have more transparent work environments can use that visibility to improve collaboration, improve knowledge sharing, drive out wasteful practices.
And in that sense, it would seem more is always better. But as human beings, when we're observed, we change behavior. So when we change the perspective to the observed's perspective, we tend to use the word “privacy” instead of “transparency,” somehow understanding that from a human perspective, when we're observed, we change our behavior. We might shut down just a little bit, do a little less experimentation, really act in the way that those who are observing us would expect us to observe. And that can come at a cost to productivity. So if that's the case, then zones of privacy can be used as a managerial lever in order to ensure that more transparent work environments don't create less transparent employees.
Alison Beard: So how do you create zones of privacy?
Ethan Bernstein: Through my research in the article, I identify four types of boundaries that help to create productive zones of privacy. The first type of boundary is boundary around teams of individuals -- call those zones of attention -- such that you don't feel like you're always performing on stage and in front of the crowd. The second type of boundary is a boundary between feedback and evaluation -- call that a zone of judgment -- such that every little thing you do doesn't get subject to politicking and impression management because you feel like you're being evaluated. The third kind of boundary, a boundary between improvement rights and decision rights -- call that a zone of slack -- ensures that very transparent work environments don't drown out tinkering activity that can actually be very productive. And the final fourth kind of boundary, a boundary around periods of experimentation -- call that zones of time -- ensures that interventions are neither too frequent nor too infrequent.
Alison Beard: Can you give me some examples of this in practice?
Ethan Bernstein: So let's start with the first, a boundary around teams of individuals, zones of attention. Valve Software, which is very unique in that it allows workers to self- allocate 100% of their time, allows their workers also to literally roll their desks. So you unplug the desk, roll it to a next location, and plug it back in again -- roll their desks to be part of teams that they're working on at that particular moment in time. Indeed, many at Valve will move their desks at least once, maybe multiple times a week. And when they've clustered in a place, they often find that cluster within a closed space not necessarily intentionally, but just because that's the way the office space works. And that does create these zones of attention such that the focus is really on the team and not on the rest of the organization.
Alison Beard: So I think that our viewers will get that idea sort of creating small teams and giving them privacy, and I think probably also the idea of giving private time to individuals to work on new projects. But what does a boundary between feedback and evaluation look like?
Ethan Bernstein: For quite some time, both managers and HR professionals have talked about the need to separate developmental feedback from evaluative performance. And yet, in a transparent age, that becomes much, much more difficult. Because as much as I'd like to say, “oh, that's ok. I won't use that whatever that I've seen or whatever I've tracked for the sake of valuation,” it figures its way into the process anyway. And so organizations that actually want to encourage employees to develop their skills using all this wonderful transparency without feeling like they need to hold back because it might be evaluated are providing these zones of judgment or boundaries around feedback.
Alison Beard: And in the article, you give an example of cameras, which sounds a lot like Big Brother to me.
Ethan Bernstein: And in fact, the truck drivers in this example felt exactly like it was Big Brother. So if we could imagine the one place that's sacred for privacy, perhaps, in the workplace, it would be the cab of the truck on the road. And yet, a large US trucking company decided that for the purposes of both performance and safety, they wanted to put these DriveCam cameras on the windshields of all of their cabs, both looking out and looking in. The truckers initially hated the idea. But initially warmed to it as they understood that it would only be used for feedback. And here's how they did that. If an event was captured that was a willful breaking the law or led to an accident, then it would indeed be sent to management. But otherwise, the video footage only be used by coaches and only shared with that driver for the sake of drivers helping to improve their own safety records and their own performance.
Alison Beard: So let's move onto decision rights and improvement rights. How do you create zones of slack there?
Ethan Bernstein: Managers are very used to the idea of decision rights, that clearly delineated decision rights in an organization will be helpful for making sure the decision making is fast, easy, and far less frustrating than it might be otherwise. But imagine that, in a far, far more transparent world, the kind of world that we're leading into, and all of a sudden, the person who doesn't have the decision right feels as if they're being watched by someone who does, and therefore is far less likely to tinker with things such that they might come up with the idea that improves the process they're working on. So companies that are understanding this are increasingly delineating improvement rights and associating them with zones of privacy, zones of slack, such that individuals can tinker without feeling like they're under the guise of someone who might feel as if their toes are being stepped on a little bit because they have the decision rights in that particular process.
Alison Beard: Terrific. Well, It's really interesting research. Thank you so much for sharing your insights. It's great having you in.
Ethan Bernstein: Thank you, Alison. It was a pleasure being transparent with you today.