Picture this for a moment: I’m with my family on vacation in Disney World (if you follow me on social media, you’ll know it’s my favourite place in the world!). We come into a busy ice cream shop for a little mid-afternoon treat. I approach a customer who is working on her laptop at a table against a glass wall, and I ask if the two empty chairs beside her are taken. She says no, and that I am welcome to use them.
So, my family and I seat ourselves nearby. We’re completely in vacation-mode, enjoying a fantastic day.
That women then begins to take a work call on video from the ice cream shop. I know this because not only can I hear her quite clearly, but her laptop screen is in full view behind her for all passersby to see.
Now, in all likelihood, this situation shouldn’t sound off alarm bells. After all, it is quite commonplace today for people to work remotely from coffee shops, restaurants, and sure, even ice cream shops in the middle of a tourist-filled theme park. One of the biggest lessons the work world learned coming out of the pandemic, is that employees need not be confined to an office desk to be productive, right?
But there IS an important watch-out here for employers.
When working remotely in any public space, it is incumbent upon the employee to use discretion in what is visible on their screens and what they are communicating verbally. The reality is – a virtual meeting in a public space, means every bystander around them is in essence, a part of that meeting.
These same principles apply for business conversations in any public places – be it virtual, in-person, over the phone, and whether it’s in shops, restaurants, elevators, taxies/Ubers, parks, or on city streets, etc.
“Public spaces are ≠ an office or boardroom.”
– Julie Labrie
Breaches of confidentiality in this manner have even taken place at the highest of levels, that we wouldn’t readily expect. Consider news coverage of overheard restaurant conversations by media from political figures and lawyers.
In the case of this woman in the ice cream shop beside me, while her conversations wouldn’t be considered newsworthy, the corporate risk present would definitely be noteworthy. I could see her employer’s logo, a multinational confectionary company, on her laptop, and she seemed to be on-boarding a new team member. She spent a lot of her time sharing specific details about her job, about their approach to branding, about their international business practices, etc. This is all information that as a recruiter, I would deem confidential.
In that setting, her sharing such information vocally in an ice cream shop, amounts to her potentially sharing this information with the world, competitors included.
A critically important watch-out for employers today: Have employees at every level of your organization sign a confidentiality agreement.
- Policy communication: Have clear guidelines in an employee handbook about your company’s policies on working and communicating in public spaces (provide clarity on how to decipher what is deemed public information versus sensitive, competitive, or confidential information). These principles should be applied to corporate and personal social media content sharing as well.
- A private workspace: Ensure that your staff have a proper, private space to work from to conduct business, be it in their home or corporate office. This can include providing furniture, technology, office supplies, etc. that may be required.
- Build a culture of trust: One of the most effective ways to ensure employees comply with your company’s confidentiality policies, is to cultivate a culture of trust within your organization, where individuals feel inspired and empowered to rise to the occasion. This effort must be rooted in values of integrity and responsibility, where employees care enough about the company to use their best discretion in any unique situation they may face.
Working remotely in public spaces is a norm that is here to stay in our social culture. We’re not advocating changing that. As a business owner, even while I am on vacation, I’m never fully “offline” from work. I’ve been known to rush back to my hotel room to take an important call or give a media interview when the need calls for it.
What employers must do today is ensure employees are cognizant of their actions, and make sure they value why discretion is so important. Then, they can edit what they say or do in public spaces when they are working on-the-go.