how much privacy should you expect in meetings when everyone’s working from home?

A reader writes:

My company is working from home right now, like so many. We have regularly scheduled meetings with our manager to check in. We are continuing these with online meetings (sometimes just audio, sometimes we add video). In the office, I would meet with my manager in an office with a closed door or in a small meeting room.

This week, about 10 minutes into our meeting, when we were still just generally chatting, my manager made a comment about his high-school-aged child which made it sound like the teen was either sitting in the room or at least nearby (maybe just passing through — teen was off camera). I had a moment of discomfort as I had two topics that if we were in the office, I would definitely tell him in private. But yet, they weren’t so private (or interesting) that a teen possibly overhearing would likely care (one thing was about me and one about a coworker).

I did not say anything at the time, but it got me to think about what I should or could say in the future, or what the expectation should be on the manager’s end. Is it similar to how you should tell people, “Hey you’re on speaker phone and I have Fergus with me”? Obviously, right now, having a household of people shouldn’t be a surprise, but if you are having a regular meeting with your employee, should you clear the room? Let them know people are in the room/area? I’ve been trying to think of something to say that’s a little softer than, “I want to talk to you without your family maybe listening in the background.”

Yeah, I think lockdown etiquette is still being worked out. Not that a household member couldn’t have overheard a call when people were working from home pre-plague, but there’s a lot more chance of it now with entire families at home and often unavoidably on top of each other.

And while I’m sure you’re right that most teenagers don’t care about the contents of their parents’ work calls, that doesn’t obligate you to feel comfortable talking about sensitive topics (like giving or receiving difficult feedback, delivering bad news, or discussing a health situation) with someone else’s family member present.

Ideally, everyone who’s not alone when on a call would use headphones, so any nearby household members are only hearing one side of the conversation. But otherwise, yeah, your manager should have either cleared the room or said something like, “I’m not in a private space right now, so let me know if you need me to be in one.”

If that doesn’t happen and you realize other people are overhearing your conversation and you don’t want them to be, it’s okay to say, “Oh! I didn’t realize you weren’t in a private space. For this topic, I’d rather wait until you are — is there another time we could talk?”

And if it keeps coming up, it’s reasonable to say, “I sometimes need to talk with you about topics we’d normally discuss in private, but that’s obviously harder with multiple people at home. Would you be up for using headphones for those calls so we have more of a private zone?”

{ 110 comments… read them below }

  1. IT Guy*

    Hate to say it, but assume whatever you discussed with your manager in the past was also discussed with their spouse and children at the dinner table pre-COVID.

      1. Marika*

        Totally true… But also not. Most people have SOME separation – my spouse doesn’t give me word for word, for instance, and often completely neglects to mention stuff… Like, oh yeah, his team lead, who’s also a friend (yeah, I know… but he doesn’t do my guy’s promotion/review, so it’s not totally conflict of interest), unexpectedly got MARRIED three weeks ago! Hello, we had an invitation to the previously scheduled ceremony in November; we need to at least send a card for the moved up one!! Nope, he wiffed and didn’t mention it until last night. (Card is in the mail now).

        Also, seriously, headphones are a thing. Even if you don’t wear them all the time, keep a pair by the desk so when someone says “I need to talk to you privately” you can plug them in. This isn’t unreasonable, and honestly, separation of home and work matters more now than ever.

        Having said all this, I’ve learned more about FDA approval protocols and data access scripting in the past 15 weeks than I ever needed to know – even with headphones on, I can still hear my husband!

        1. The Contrarian*

          All this is yet One More Reason why all this talk of the post-pandemic end of the office is ridiculous.

        2. SarahTheEntwife*

          Yeah, there’s a big psychological difference for me between, say, my boss relating an awkward conversation with me to her husband (probably without even giving my name) and him actually overhearing that awkward conversation. Even though I’m unlikely to ever meet him, or that he’d remember that the awkward conversation was me unless it was something truly spectacular, it would feel much more of a boundary violation.

        3. JSPA*

          My S.O. as default turns the speaker volume down (for privacy? to be considerate?) and then shouts at the computer (because clearly, if they’re all so quiet, they must be far away). Also repeats other people’s questions back to them. (Which is fine as an active listening strategy, but negates any privacy.)

          when it gets too bad, I walk over (through three closed doors, y’all!) and make a “turn up speaker / turn down mouth” gesture.

          But honestly, this is like dealing with bathrooms, hotel rooms, and people in houses where walls are rice-paper dividers. At some point you learn not to hear with your brain everything that hits your ears.

    1. juliebulie*

      I agree, but it might be worse if the spouse and children hear you with their own ears. (Or, it might turn out that these conversations aren’t as interesting as the manager made them sound. Who knows.)

      I think the real problem would be if the spouse and children started interacting with people on these calls, adding their opinions about things they were overhearing.

    2. rayray*

      I find this kinda interesting, as I really hate talking much about work outside of work. I might mention little stories or anecdotes here or there, but I’ve never spoken so much that my friends/family know my coworkers by name. Home time is my time away from work.

      However, I have always been a little surprised at others who share confidential information about their jobs. A few definitely come close to violating HIPAA or other laws.

      1. Another lab tech*

        Wow. I would be surprised too. Working in healthcare for 20 years (and starting when I was a young adult), I have not encountered HIPAA violations. That is a serious offense!

        1. rayray*

          Basically they just get as close as possible without actually violating it. Just talking about patients that come in, but not actually disclosing any identifying information.

          1. allathian*

            But even that is unprofessional behavior. I would hate it if my medical issues became the object of ridicule in my medical professional’s personal life, even if the people they’re talking to don’t know me and have no means of identifying me.
            I’ve only mentioned my closest coworker by name to my family and maybe some friends. Usually I just talk about coworkers or my boss, etc.

            1. JSPA*

              Well, most of us are probably better off not having superhuman hearing or ESP. Sanity requires that we not dwell too long on whether or not someone, somewhere could be talking about us, in some way that we don’t control.

              Even if your goal is to pass without notice 100% of the time (and is that even a healthy goal?) at some point, someone, somewhere, will talk about some fact about you.

              There’s no reason it would be ridicule; people of course talk about other people’s details for dozens of reasons. Sympathy, confusion, ridicule, relevance, insight, happiness, distaste, attraction, appreciation for a turn of phrase, sadness, anger, or just trying to remember what they were doing when they last had the reflex hammer because it’s not on the shelf where it should be.

              The law covers us from disclosures of medical fact that are linked to us by name or other identifier. Not that nobody talk about any aspect of someone with certain features (who happens to be us) having crossed their lives.

              Sure, people need to be scrupulous, because incidental sharing can be far more identifying than the sharer imagines. But “we had a patient come in last week for IBS and their gas was so bad we had to put an out of order on the bathroom for half an hour” or “we had someone stop taking their meds and the result was, they were having the hardest time remembering when they last had their meds, and we ended up having to look up the date of two concerts to pin it down” is not a disclosure if it’s not linked to me, you, or anyone else in particular. It’s also not (intrinsically) some sort of mockery. It’s a “what my day was like at work / dealing with bodies can be complex and frustrating and rewarding, all at once.”

      2. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

        At my last job, we had a guy on our team that came from a different department and he had access to confidential information that was never taken away when he transferred, including employee salaries. He made a habit of showing others on our team what certain people in the company made annually. Meanwhile I had to fight tooth and nail to get access to an employee page of external nurses that had no private data on it to do my job. I still regret not reporting him to HR.

      3. Alexandra Lynch*

        Boyfriend just got fired. I know that part of it is that they expected him to somehow figure out what his boss wanted without his boss telling him, and magically know that the boss had changed his mind halfway through the job he was running; that they expected him to make tables without data because the guy who was to provide the data was….leisurely…. in his work, but that this was somehow Boyfriend’s fault, and that the broken program he was given to use should nevertheless work without them paying to update it to the current version, and how dare he not produce perfect product under those conditions….

        But part of it was him saying, day after day, “Ah, given that we’re dealing with HIPPA information, maybe we should be on a secure channel?” and his boss and coworkers blowing him off.

        Not thrilled with the job loss (need a data architect in the midwest?) but not unhappy about him getting out of the situation. Could not believe they were discussing sensitive info on a Zoom call.

          1. Soontobephd*

            I work at a clinic with sensitive information and we have a hippa compliant version of zoom.

    3. Bostonian*

      Hearing your spouse recount a summary of events in their own words is totally different from being present for the exact entire conversation in the moment.

      1. Anne of Green Gables*

        Yes, and you can scale for brevity when repeating. Today my husband got “my coworker broke his elbow” rather than the longer version & speculation I heard. (And husband was only told because he reacted to my fairly loud, “Oh noooooo!” )

      2. Sparrow*

        Yep. And on the employee’s end, this feels more like you’re saying something personal directly to a stranger or (possibly worse) an acquaintance, which is much more awkward than it happening when you’re out of the picture. I hadn’t actually thought about this because most people on my team wear headphones by default, but I’m sure there are things I wouldn’t be comfortable discussing with my boss with her family around. That’s especially true because her partner works at our organization, but it would be the case regardless.

        1. Sammy*

          Even worse is when the boss hires his wife at the same company, and she’s a massive control freak who listens in on every meeting he has. I now have to be very very careful not to discuss certain topics on calls, because the employees in question know the wife and it would be really disrespectful to them. It’s akin to letting another employee come and sit in on a private meeting between a second employee, myself and the boss. And unfortunately, the wife isn’t an entirely sane woman. It’s made my job as a middle manager very difficult.

    4. Another lab tech*

      No. My husband and I very rarely talk about work when we are at home. Most of my friends and family also do not. Work stuff stays at work.

    5. Yorick*

      Well, not really. Maybe I would’ve told my spouse that I’m going to have a coming-to-Jesus talk with my student, and maybe after I might’ve said something like, “they were defensive at first, but then took it well and I think things will be better moving forward.” But he wouldn’t have known any details about what I needed to tell them or how they responded.

    6. Anna*

      Discussed, yes. But daddy telling you he got fired and listening to daddy get fired are two very different things.

  2. Charlotte*

    This is something I’ve been thinking about because my roommate is a journalist and we work/have been working in the same room (only practical setup in our apartment). I don’t discuss anything sensitive in my job, but it is a bit weird knowing she can hear all my conversations. (I also wonder if this is an issue for lawyers who might not have access to private space at home…)

      1. PeteAndRepeat*

        Just out of curiosity, are you located in the US? I would question whether an NDA is sufficient, and whether his clients know that you may be overhearing their conversations with their lawyer. Attorney-client confidentiality belongs to the client, not to the attorney, so the attorney can’t set the terms on when confidentiality may be breached. (Except in extenuating circumstances, like the client is going to harm a third party.)

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          I had the same reaction. Our GC sent out guidelines for working in shared space and complying with privilege. Roommate NDAs were not on the list. Turning off your smart speaker was.

    1. Dino*

      I know that it’s an issue for my roommate and I, who are both interpreters. We’re bound by confidentiality at all times with our Code of Professional Conduct, but we definitely had to set up new ground rules for having guests over and to wearing headphones all throughout the apartment when one person is working.

    2. Elysian*

      I am a lawyer – my husband shares our office space, and I use headphones on all my calls/zoom meetings. Even if He’s not in the room, if I’m not on headphones my whole house can hear calls, so it’s just best for everyone.

    3. Foxgloves*

      My boyfriend is a lawyer and sits directly opposite me to work. He wears headphones for 99% of his calls, and it’s absolutely not a problem.

    4. DarthVelma*

      Not lawyers here, but all of my work is covered by FERPA and my partner’s work is all covered by NDAs. We’re literally sitting less than 2 feet from each other. We wear headphones for almost everything, never use video on Webex/Zoom/whatever meetings so we never accidentally show each others’ screens, and generally just pretend we hear nothing. We were both up front with our employers from the beginning and they trust our professional judgment.

      One thing that helps is that we’ve always had a policy of not talking about work much, and even when we do it’s in the abstract. So even when we hear something, we don’t have context to give it meaning.

  3. Mags*

    Oh man, my neighbor has been going into his back garden to have discreet conversations about high-level negotiations at his company. Which is fine, I just take myself back inside if it sounds private. However I have a new dog and every now and again I will be loudly praising his toileting – ‘what a good poop!’ – and then hear over the fence, ‘….the reps from the China branch want to set up a video call to discuss…’.

    1. Another name*

      I love this!

      I am fortunate to have a private space to work indoors, but my next door neighbor sometimes participates in loud business calls in his back yard. I have had to retrieve my dogs from the yard and shut the dog door when he starts arguing with people and the dogs start barking at him. Clearly they have an opinion!

      1. Glitsy Gus*

        I’m now picturing your dogs trying to get in on his company management. “This discussion has been going on for a week now! Just take the deal Mitch, it’s the best offer we’re going to get! Now, where did I bury that bone, again? Take the deal, Mitch, it’s a good deal!!”

        Of course, Mitch has no idea the neighbor dogs are titans of business, so he doesn’t take their very, very good advice and he blows the deal. Dammit, Mitch!

    2. Sled Dog Mama*

      This has happened to me sort of. I will be on the phone with one of my parents (always my dad) and have to take the puppy out, end up shouting “GOOD POTTY!!!” in my dad’s ear.

    3. Unintended Eavesdropper*

      My next door neighbor is a doctor who has been taking telemedicine calls in the backyard—on speakerphone. I cannot figure out a non-confrontational way to say, “HIPAA is a thing, please stop, I do not want to hear your patients when I’m watering my plants.”

      1. allathian*

        Yikes, sounds like he should be reported. At the very least, he should wear headphones.

      2. SarahTheEntwife*

        I think you can potentially get a lot of leeway out of “you probably don’t realize how much the sound carries”. You can even blame “weird acoustics”. You’re giving him a heads’-up about something that *of course* he wouldn’t be doing if he realized.

        I find there’s often a mutual unspoken agreement that Neighbor Voices Do Not Exist in this sort of situation, but there’s a difference between hearing your neighbor’s random conversation and hearing confidential information.

      3. JSPA*

        This might fall under “incidental disclosure,” depending what the circumstances are. Same thing that makes it OK to discuss the info in a semi-private room. Link to follow. I suspect it’d be a judgement call, based on how quiet he’s trying to be, how likely you are to hear enough to put patient ID and patient health information together, and what his other options are, under these (frankly unusual) circumstances.

    4. AMT*

      Your neighbor shouldn’t be listening in on sensitive, important conversations like that!

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        They’re being subjected to it. I consider that I can water my plants whenever I feel like it, it’s up to the neighbour to find a place where they can ensure their patients’ privacy.

  4. Gov Employee*

    We have been told that standard privacy/security rules apply and that non-government employees must be out of earshot. Additionally, all home assistants (Google Home and Alexa) must be unplugged.

    1. Mama Bear*

      This is what I have been going by – if I can’t say it in front of people not on the project, that also applies to my family. I also don’t leave proprietary information laying around if I have to print something out. I think it is reasonable to mention ask if there is anyone who should not be privy before disclosing proprietary or otherwise sensitive information. A teenager especially can make themselves scarce and stay out of the way until their parent says they are off the call.

    2. Another Gov Employee*

      Yeah, I had to lecture some staff on this. We work in healthcare and were going to have staff making client calls from home – I had to point out (what should have been obvious) that HIPAA still applies and they can’t have conversations containing any protected health information within earshot of family members, including children.

      1. Martha Stewart I am not*

        You’re very privileged. What do you do if you’re a young professional couple sharing a one-bedroom apartment?

        1. The New Wanderer*

          Then you do as my colleague and their spouse, who work at competing companies and have a one bedroom apartment, do and figure out a way to keep private, privileged, or proprietary information away from each other. It’s possible.

        2. AcademiaNut*

          You go in the bathroom or a closet for the conversation, or sit in your car, or schedule sensitive conversations for when your partner is out for a walk.

          If there is literally no way to have the conversation without a family member overhearing it, you let your employer know this, and they can make an appropriate decision. That may mean conducting conversations via a secure text service rather than voice conversations, or changing your job duties so you don’t need to have conversations about protected information, or even furloughing you. But making a personal decision that you’re going to ignore HIPAA laws is not something you can do.

        3. SarahTheEntwife*

          I don’t know whether this would pass legal muster for HIPPA, but having the other person listen to something sufficiently loud on headphones seems like it would potentially be a cheap, relatively low-tech solution.

        4. Just me*

          Not being privileged doesn’t changed HIPAA laws or confidentiality requirements. It’s your responsibility to adhere to the requirements whatever the circumstance. I would not be happy if I knew my doctor’s housemate was in the room during a televisit. It’s their job to ensure privacy.

      2. Clisby*

        Not disputing this at all, but just curious – at what age would you think this applies to children? An infant or toddler will have no idea what’s being discussed. A teenager likely would. Where along that continuum should children be kept away from these discussions? 6 and older? Something else?

  5. Heidi*

    For my workplace, I think it would be fine to send out an email beforehand saying that you want to discuss more sensitive/confidential/personal topics and that you would appreciate it if you could do this without being overheard. I might actually include it in the zoom invitation. It would give the other attendees time to arrange for the family to be elsewhere.

    1. rayray*

      That’s a good idea. It would give them the heads up to find a private space. I think generally most people warn their family or roommates if they’re on a call, but people might still just hang out and do their own thing while that is happening.

    2. Willis*

      Yeah, I would prefer this if I were the manager cause it would save me from having to schedule a second meeting. Plus it would get your issue discussed more quickly.

    3. HR Exec Popping In*

      Very good advice. Letting people know ahead of time can avoid uncomfortable situations and the need to reschedule or relocate during the call.

    4. Seeking Second Childhood*

      It would also enable privacy for you with what the manager says on that end– wearing headphones only camouflage is one half of the phone call.

  6. rayray*

    It’s funny to see this, as at this very moment my roommate is on a “check-in” zoom meeting with her office. I’m certainly not paying attention but have heard things here and there.

    I think this is something individuals should work on as best they can, but working from home is an adjustment for many so people might not have offices that are good for working in and may not have a desk in their bedroom, so a kitchen table might be the most convenient spot. I personally have used the kitchen table during video calls because it looks better than my bedroom.

    We try our best to accomodate each other. If we have more sensitive phone calls or anything, we’ll take those in our own rooms but we’re also fine with people doing things at the kitchen table if it’s needed. I actually have a phone call with a recruiter in half an hour so I will definitely take that privately.

  7. ThatGirl*

    This is something my husband and I have had to navigate a bit – while none of my meetings are particularly interesting to him, I do try to be in a different room so he doesn’t have to hear everything. He, on the other hand, is a mental health counselor at a college. Even though I don’t know any of these students and will almost certainly never meet them, privacy and confidentiality is a big part of the process. So he does his client meetings in our bedroom, door closed, with a fan running outside, and I keep music on downstairs and/or wear headphones. (He’s just started going back to the office 2 days a week, which is a whole other thing, but at least that’s set up for privacy even when he’s still just doing web sessions.)

    the one slightly awkward thing that came up once was when he was in the living room having an end of day Zoom wrap-up with his coworkers and his boss started talking about student clients by name and I tried very hard to pretend I didn’t hear anything and walked away quietly to the bedroom.

    1. MayLou*

      I just finished a WhatsApp counselling session (I’m the client) and came over to read this post. I have my living room window open and I’m sure my neighbours would be able to hear me if they’re in their garden and possibly from their house. It’s hard when people live close together to guarantee privacy and obviously I’m choosing not to worry about my own confidentiality rather than someone else’s. It’s great that you and your partner are making the effort to protect confidentiality and I am sure the clients would be glad of it.

      1. ThatGirl*

        Sure, I think as the client it’s up to you if you don’t mind if people might accidentally overhear a little bit — but it’s another thing for the counselor to do that, especially if the client isn’t aware.

        (My husband also does his own therapy sessions one evening a week and we do more or less the same thing, but a lot of times I just plain leave the house to go for a long walk or run an errand.)

      2. Alex*

        I also see a therapist online and have been closing my windows in my living room (slash kitchen slash dining room slash office) because my neighbors, including my landlord, could easily overhear if they are outside. And while I’m sure my problems aren’t *that* interesting, I’m sure neither of us would be comfortable with that level of personal info exchange.

    2. Rachel in NYC*

      One of my friends who is a therapist uses headphones because her only choices are bedroom or living room and either place someone will be able to hear without the headphones.

    3. Rachel in Minneapolis*

      My husband is a therapist and he’s been doing online counseling since March. He has a private office in our home so it’s usually very private on our end. He did tell me this hilarious story of where he did a whole session with a client who was sitting up in her bed (clothed, so no big deal). He said they got into very personal topics and then at the very end of the session, her boyfriend came out from under the covers right next to her to make a comment. My husband didn’t even know her boyfriend was there or listening.

  8. Case of the Mondays*

    I think a lot of this has to do with individual worker preferences too. My husband doesn’t care what I hear about his work. I on the other hand get very uncomfortable on a call or Zoom if he is present or in earshot, regardless of confidentiality issues.

    I don’t mean to generalize but I find the younger crowd is more “work has to fit around my home” while the older crowd is more “I’m moving my home around my work.” Could just be anecdotal. I know I was on a call with an older colleague that said something about his wife being glad when we get off the phone so she can get in the kitchen and use the microwave. A younger coworker just paused for a second while his roommate ground coffee beans in the kitchen that he was in. I’m more in the middle of the age spectrum and I would have “allowed” my spouse to use the microwave but I would have asked my roommate to wait until after my call to grind the beans.

    1. Case of the Mondays*

      To add to that, if I was the roommate, I wouldn’t even consider grinding coffee beans while my roommate was on a work call in the same room. To me that is super rude. To my colleague it was more “shrug, it’s his kitchen too.”

    2. rayray*

      I get what you’re saying, and it may be true to some extent but the circumstances may be different for older vs younger. Older workers are more likely to have their own home vs younger who may be roommates. A spouse probably feels more obligation to work around their spouse than a roommate does to work around their roommate. Not to say that all roommates are super inconsiderate or anything, but it is a very different dynamic than between spouses.

      1. Steve’s Roommate*

        Thank you rayray. That is a MUCH better explanation.

        Honestly, the first one really felt like the subtext was “these younger people just aren’t as respectful/don’t take work as seriously” when really it’s that we can not afford a private space of our own, and the people we share this space with are not obligated to be considerate (it would be nice, but, if Steve is going to leave his dishes in the sink for 3 days he could give a whack about my zoom meeting)

      2. A Simple Narwhal*

        ^This. If your coworker/employee has an inconsiderate roommate, please don’t take it out on your employee – a roommate is not a spouse, and they may have very little sway over their roommate’s behavior. It seems unfair to punish someone for a less than ideal living situation in these times.

        Not only are you more likely to have roommates when you’re younger, you’re more likely to have bad roommates. You may feel it’s unthinkable that they “let” their roommate act this way and sure, maybe if they had just said “hey can that wait” the roommate would have felt terrible, immediately stopped, and apologized for unknowingly interrupting the call. But maybe your colleague isn’t on good terms with their roommate, and they know that asking them to stop is going to result in the roommate retaliating in the future, or they’ll throw a fit, or they’ve threatened to move out and your colleague can’t afford rent without the roommate and has nowhere else to go, or any number of other possibilities that will cause a lot of trouble for them that they feel isn’t worth the quick interruption.

        Everyone is trying their best in these difficult times and as long as your colleague has demonstrated good judgement in the past (ie you don’t think they just haven’t thought to ask them to stop or to mute their line if something is loud in the background) trust that they’re doing what they can.

        Not everyone can wall off space to work in private, and if we can put up with cats jumping in front of the camera or small children interrupting calls, people with inconsiderate roommates should be offered the same amount of grace.

        1. Case of the Mondays*

          Thanks for that insight. It totally makes sense that you have more sway with your spouse than a roommate and you may be stuck living with someone you don’t get along with.

          I got married young so I never had the experience of rooming with a random I found online. Everyone I lived with before getting married was someone I was already friends with and trusted to be a good person.

          What I thought was an age thing (based on other experiences beyond just those two anecdotes) very likely is the strength of the relationship with the person they live with and the size of the space as well.

        2. Martha Stewart I am not*

          please don’t take it out on your employee – a roommate is not a spouse, and they may have very little sway over their roommate’s behavior

          ^This is why I am happy not to get married. I’m not signing up to be responsible for someone else’s behavior, and I’m sure not giving someone else sway over mine!

      3. Yorick*

        I agree, but it seems a little like the younger generations are more into establishing a work-life balance, and while this isn’t really what people mean when they say work-life balance, I think it kind of fits with that mindset.

  9. Andy*

    Many people don’t have realistic choice of kicking the family out of room permanently. Most can handle privacy when they need it for limited time, but generally there are going to be people.

    Pretty often it is simple question of there being only so many rooms, this room being the one where one can comfortably work or do homework and thus needs to be shared. Or like, the kid if he is alone gets distracted from homework too easily hence share. Or like, the other room has already one noisy meeting going on.

    Not everyone has a room per person and plenty of small kids won’t stay closed in that one room all the time.

    It is not the same, but when we are in the office, there are people hearing everything we say too including people from unrelated teams.

    1. Case of the Mondays*

      Funny, this is exactly what my husband said the other day about noisy offices. He is a super loud talker and we were both on Zoom in separate rooms and I was worried my Zoom could hear his Zoom. His response was “don’t you have background news when you are in the office to deal with too?” It just seems more distracting to me over Zoom than in the office, particularly if the tech thinks I’m speaking when I’m not.

    2. Thornfir*

      Yes, this has been a challenge for some of our employees, many of whom have roommates in close quarters and no good private place to set up. (It’s a high COL area, so people with roommates are now often stuck in situations that were designed for “this is a place to be on the evenings and weekends,” not “this is a place to be when you’re both home all day.” Fortunately our situation is such that “well, don’t read the API key out loud in a meeting and you’ll be fine” is about all we need, but I don’t know what they’d do if they worked with sensitive legal or health care information.

  10. Amber Rose*

    I bought myself one of those kinda silly looking headsets with the mic and only one ear and I wear it constantly and I honestly love it. It’s small and lightweight and Bluetooth so I don’t have any cords. I think everyone should use something like that, at least partly because it’s getting awfully noisy hearing everyone’s meeting conversations all the time.

  11. Ann O'Nemity*

    I realized my boss’s daughter was off-camera listening to our conversation when she chimed in with her opinions. Boss acted like it was a-okay. Now I just assume that none of our one-to-one conversations are private.

    1. Uranus Wars*

      that is absolutely ridiculous, though. Private space is one challenge – family actively listening and chiming in (to me) is no go.

      1. KoiFeeder*

        Admittedly, I did something similar recently, but the conversation had turned to burger joints and I had just walked into the room to get something, so I didn’t realize it was a work convo.

        I also got in trouble!

        1. Thornfir*

          Oooooooooh not good. If it was like, a six year old, it’d be… very non-ideal but sort of understandable given that a) lots of people are juggling childcare and work right now, and b) a six-year-old might not understand how inappropriate it was.

          A 20something, yikes.

    2. Alex*

      Please tell me she’s 3 years old and her opinion was “We should have some cookies.”

  12. Temperance*

    My husband and I share our home office, but we each take all of our calls through headsets, and leave the room if they’re going to be long. We don’t have enough adequate work space, but we also don’t chime in to each other’s calls.

  13. Imprudence*

    DH and I are sharing a work room at home. We work for, let us say, separate departments of the same large institution, separate and sometimes in competition. His wok is more customer facing, mine is all support.
    WE both wear headphones to work — and for meetings where we are talking less than 10% of the time that is fine. If we have more talking to do we arrange things so one of us is elsewhere.
    But, and this is what I came here to say, as the start of all this we agreed that anything we overheard from the other would go no further, accepting that there might be some cross over and neither of us would exploit it.

  14. Rexasaurus Tea*

    We’ve gotten into the habit of comparing schedules in the morning and negotiating who gets the closed-door office for which meetings at which times while the other one works in the dining room. If needed, one of us will go to a room farther away for extra confidentiality, but I know that’s not necessarily a thing that works for everyone’s living situation. Mostly we try to maintain the polite fiction that the office is soundproof. I generally can’t hear the other end of the conversation if the door is closed, but my husband is a loud talker sometimes.

  15. Jay*

    When I was doing 100% telehealth, my husband moved his stuff out of our shared study and into what had been our guest room. It’s not as if we’re going to have guests any time soon, anyway. It’s unavoidable to sometimes have phone calls with patients when other people are in the room, especially when I’m on call, but if at all possible I try to step out of the room and find some privacy. I’ve spent a fair amount of my life with the phone to my ear pacing around the sidewalks in front of restaurants and the hallways of my daughter’s school during meet-the-teacher night. For actual visits on video or by phone, I wouldn’t ever have anyone else in the room. We’re lucky to have enough rooms for the three of us to each have private space, although my daughter (20, newly minted college junior) seems to prefer the living room couch, particularly when she has to take a test.

    Once I was pacing around the hallway outside the school auditorium discussing medication orders when a man I didn’t know walked past me – or least started to. When he heard me say “Haldol” and “Dilaudid” he stopped and stared at me. I turned my back, walked away, and lowered my voice. When I finished the call and turned around, he was still there. He said in a stern, scolding voice: “I hope you are authorized to prescribe those substances.” Um, dude? I am the medical director of a hospice. I am SO authorized.

    1. Gray Lady*

      And if you weren’t? Some random guy in the hall of a school questioning it is going to cause someone trafficking in illegal substances and talking about it in public, to change that behavior?

  16. Hi there*

    I’ve been wondering about this, too. I don’t have headphones for my work set-up. My impression is that they are hard to get these days. Also, my employer has said that it will not pay for equipment to facilitate our working from home, which I am a little grumpy about. I bought a TopoMini on my own dime (thanks AAM commenters for the recommendation!) but don’t want to shell out for high-quality headphones.

    1. Atalanta0jess*

      They are really not hard to get anymore, thankfully. In case you’re interested!

    2. Mockingdragon*

      I get mine at Five Below. They don’t last forever but they’re functioning headphones with mic and when they break after ~6-12 months, they were only five bucks :)

    3. Martha Stewart I am not*

      Don’t shell out for headphones on your own dime. Your employer has made it clear that headphones are not required for your job.

      1. allathian*

        Maybe not required and the employer sounds iffy. That said, if OP wants headphones because that would make working more convenient for her or for others living in the same space, I’d say go for it.

  17. AnnB*

    For a lot of people living with a partner “clearing the room” is not possible. I live in a 400 square foot apartment on the 20th floor of a massive apartment building (ie asking my partner to mask up and go outside when I have a call is pretty unreasonable, not to mention a disruption to their own workday). While I always wear headphones, my partner and my neighbors can always hear what I’m saying (even if my partner hangs out in the bedroom while I’m on a call). I think it’s best to assume no privacy and frankly unreasonable to expect people to magically produce a private workplace during the this time. We have a bathroom, a bedroom barely big enough for a bed, and a room that functions as a kitchen, dining room, work out space, living room, and office for two– there aren’t a lot of great options.

    1. What Day Is It?*

      This is 100% a situation that is being glossed over. Many people do not have the ability to find a place within their home that is private or soundproof. It’s not realistic to expect you or your partner to take a shower or sit in the hallway whenever either of you need to take a professional call/meeting.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        And honestly? I hear all the calls and conferences of the surrounding 8 or 10 co-workers when we’re in cubicle city. Plus all the lobby calls, because my 6ft wall backs up to a seating area. (I finally put up a sign after hearing one extremely private conversation….)

        1. allathian*

          Yeah, but at least you’re working for the same employer. Sure, there are things that not everyone in a company knows about or should know about, but if this confidence is breached it’s usually less serious than if a complete outsider gains access to that same info. Usually that is, although I’d make an exception for HR and the c-suite, but they usually have offices for a reason.
          The NDA I signed when I started at my current job includes a section that prohibits me from divulging confidential information that I learn inadvertently at work, not necessarily just while doing my job.

  18. Probably Taking This Too Seriously*

    My teenagers are so disinterested in my life! I don’t think they’ve asked a single question about anything they potentially could have overheard since March. But they walk around in headphones….

  19. Laura H.*

    As a bystander to my mother’s side of her WFH calls, even with her in headphones, I can still get a basic gist of what she’s saying and responding to. While it goes in one ear and out the other most of the time, it’s impossible not to hear a work call. Listening and retaining is something that I have a little more control over. Unless otherwise stated (and provided you can) I’d honestly assume best intentions and go on with your work.

    I understand the want for privacy, but it’s not feasible for a lot of people to be able to give that with absolute certainty.

    Hang in there.

  20. pcake*

    My husband has an entire workstation set up in the bedroom, and when his job as Zoom or phone meetings, he closes the door, and I can’t hear a thing. I’ve worked in the living room for over two decades but rarely have any meetings.

  21. LawLady*

    For my annual review last week, my boss’s preteen daughter was in the room! I’m sure she does not care, and seemed to be doing homework, but still strange.
    That said, I get it. This is a weird time and just how it has to be. I know that if my husband and I had actually taken WFH jobs, we’d have gotten a larger apartment so we could each have offices. As it is, we have to share.

    1. The Contrarian*

      And this is yet another reason why we’re going back to the office post-pandemic: not everyone is lucky enough to have a great house or domestic situation that facilitates working from home.

  22. Sarah*

    I’m a little surprised people care if their boss’s family overhears a recurring meeting. Plenty of people really don’t have the ability to prevent that (for certain things, we can put one of us in the bedroom and the other in the living room and mostly we won’t overhear anything, but only one of those rooms even has a desk. If you are a manager, you are likely having weekly meetings with multiple people). But mostly the relatives of your boss have such minimal ability to affect your life. If you don’t know each other, I doubt they even remember what you say even if they hear it. They are probably busy feeling annoyed that they can’t focus or worrying about the virus or something anyway. If anything, the fact that someone might overhear suggests maybe they are in a room where they can do things like oay attention and take notes rather than be worrying about how to be the least uncomfortable sitting on the edge of the tub. I think you can ask if it is not a regular thing, although you should keep in mind that it could be an imposition or even impossible depending on the circumstances, but for something that happens on a regular basis, it’s probably easier to just accept the fact that no one really has privacy right now. The high school student is probably busy trying to figure out what he will be doing over the summer and how this affects his college plans.

  23. JerryTerryLarryGary*

    It’s interesting that so many people say not to be bothered by it. I agree that accepting it is key and asking for a private word for certain things is probably best, but even if the third party won’t care it doesn’t make it not a privacy violation.
    The situation seems akin to a mother telling all her friends every detail of her grown kid’s life. As the kid, you don’t know the friends and probably won’t see them, but having unseen people who know that you’re struggling to have kids or that you broke your leg feels like a violation.

  24. Housesharer*

    I have this problem a lot. We are 2 couples living in a 2-bed flat share in London.

    3 of us work mostly from home; 4th does shift work so often sleeps during working hours. This leaves us with one bedroom, plus the living room for 3 working adults.

    To make it worse, my husband works in a medical field and often has calls either with or about patients. These need to be properly confidential.

    We ended up designating our room (with a desk) as a confidential call room. However, even with the door closed, it is still possible to hear the local end of the call. That can leak some pretty confidential stuff if you are not careful (“So Mr X, how has your daughter been coping with the increased dose of medication Y?”).

    During a confidential call, we now all wear head/ear phones (and play music through them if necessary) to really block any sound. It works, but the hot desking feel and the lack of dedicated individual workspace is really draining.

  25. Quill*

    My dad and I spent the last 2 months solving each other’s excel problems.

    He’d rather write code for a project than set up equations in excel, and half the time my excel woes are “program is doing things I do not want it to do, why?”

  26. JessicaTate*

    I’ve been really shocked at the number of people who don’t use headphones for meetings. I work from home normally, and that’s just my standard operating procedure. When my partner started working here too, it wasn’t immediate, but he figured it out pretty quickly. It doesn’t protect my side of the conversations – but it protects the people I’m meeting with from being heard by my household.

    And a tip for those whose barrier is a that your current headphones (say, iPhone) don’t work with your laptop (say, PC): Most video-conference platforms have the option of phoning in for audio and even connecting it with video.

  27. Not Rebee*

    I put headphones on whenever I’m not in a room by myself (which, with my apartment, is basically any time I’m not the only one home) out of consideration for the other person, but what I find bothers me more is that I can be heard on work calls when the topics are more sensitive. Even if I am not talking the most (I’m receiving feedback, for example) it’s still awkward to me that even the one-sided conversation can be heard. There’s no way around it, though, short of kicking people out of the house any time I have a call.

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