Workzone / Intrusions on privacy can come with cost

Experiment finds employees half as productive when disquieted

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Employees who travel for business with a company laptop often plan on getting some work done on an airplane, in a hotel lobby or at a coffee shop. But if they find themselves in a position where someone could easily steal peeks at their computer screen, workers are less likely to get something done.

An experiment on workplace productivity and privacy found that employees are 50 percent less productive when they feel the visual privacy on their screens is at risk, a problem estimated to cost U.S. business organizations more than $1 million a year in lost productivity.

"Any place where a person finds themselves working in close proximity to others can be a visual privacy problem," said Larry Ponemon, chairman and founder of the Ponemon Institute, a research center in Traverse City, Mich., focused on security and privacy issues. The institute conducted the study commissioned by St. Paul, Minn.-based 3M, which manufactures a privacy screen that masks it from anyone who is not sitting directly in front of the computer monitor.

In the experiment that took place in February, the institute recruited 274 office workers from five different businesses with the goal of understanding how working in close quarters affects productivity.

The researchers asked each worker to wait outside a closed door for 10 minutes and work on their laptops. Meanwhile, an actor (sent by the researchers) sat next to the workers and tried to look at the computer screens.

A small number of people continued working the entire 10 minutes. But on average, those with a privacy filter on their computers that blocked side vision worked 4.6 minutes. Those with no privacy filter worked an average of 2.3 minutes.

"People who had a filter worked twice as long," Mr. Ponemon said. "We basically thought that was a very important finding. We used that information to try to find out what are the implications to the average organization.

"A company wants their employees to be productive when they travel. If you are on an airplane sitting next to someone with prying eyes, you are less likely to work on company business and more likely to do fun things like watch a movie on Netflix."

Visual privacy is important because of the sheer number of employees who have access to company information on their computers. Mr. Ponemon said 2 in 3 workers expose sensitive company data on their laptops outside of the workplace.

"We are finding that the bad guys are using the camera feature on smartphones to take photographs of computer screens," he said. "The problem appears to be growing. It's not about people inadvertently seeing information they are not supposed to see. It's about the bad guys gaining access to IT infrastructure and sensitive information."


Tim Grant: or 412-263-1591.


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