How to protect your privacy when working from home

A woman works from home while handling a child amid the coronavirus pandemic  (REUTERS)
A woman works from home while handling a child amid the coronavirus pandemic (REUTERS)

Summary

There are ways to keep colleagues from intruding on your home life, and family members from intruding on your work life

The cybersecurity world pays a lot of attention to protecting privacy. Privacy from hackers. Privacy from governments intruding on the lives of their citizens. Privacy from businesses that have an unprecedented volume of data that can be used to target or profile consumers.

But with so many people working from home, privacy has taken on an added dimension: the privacy of information from the ordinary, everyday intrusion by family or colleagues.

There is, for instance, the loss of privacy when your colleagues overhear you arguing with your children, or see what you read on the bookshelves behind you. Or the loss of privacy when your spouse can see what’s on your computer or how you handled your midafternoon Zoom call.

That’s exactly why so many of us need a work-from-home privacy strategy: a set of guidelines for what needs to stay private from whom, and a plan that makes it easy to stick to those guidelines.

What’s the problem?

It may be obvious to say this, but it bears saying anyway: Your employer and your clients are counting on you to keep their information private. That may not be a big deal when you’re in an office and bring work home some nights or on weekends. But it’s a much bigger issue when all your work and every conversation is available for anybody walking past you or your computer. Your spouse or your 10-year-old son may not feel quite as compelled to keep secrets as you do.

Just as important as your privacy obligations to your employer are your privacy obligations to the people you live with. No matter how many times my husband reassures me about his camera angles, I really hate getting dressed in the same room where he’s taking a Zoom call with six colleagues. Even if they aren’t in the room during your calls, your family members or roommates may not want their bookshelves, art projects or photos visible to your colleagues or clients, so consider a family meeting where you collectively talk through what needs to stay off-screen, out of earshot or off the radar of your work contacts.

It’s no doubt tricky to keep your personal life out of sight when your company’s newfound remote work culture encourages people to share their goings-on. But remember: You can’t build successful relationships on a foundation of discomfort. Setting boundaries with colleagues as well as family members can help establish a comfortable line between work and home, allowing you to be much more effective on both fronts.

Privacy from your employer, clients or colleagues

Once you are clear on what you want to keep private, there are a range of tools and tactics that can help you protect those boundaries. The easiest is to have a designated, enclosed space in your home that is decorated (or not decorated) specifically for video calls. If that isn’t an option, here are some alternatives:

Decor covers: The background blur available in many videoconferencing programs is one option, but I found it leaves you looking like a disembodied head. That’s why I prefer to simply hide or disguise my background. A ceiling track with curtain clips allows you to quickly clip a piece of fabric to use as a curtain or enclose yourself in an instant booth. A pop-up, folding background can hide mess or give you a green screen for a digital background. You can also take a more targeted approach to hiding certain more problematic aspects of your surroundings. Since I often take video calls in our bedroom, where a nude portrait of my great-grandmother graces the wall, my teenager made a paper-doll dress that has transformed the portrait into something more work-friendly.

A physical webcam cover: Yes, I can turn off my camera at the end of the call, but I live in fear of forgetting—and of the various types of spyware that surreptitiously take over webcams. So I like to keep an inexpensive webcam cover that sticks onto my computer screen, with a sliding door to open or shut the camera.

Digital decluttering: Before sharing your screen, turn off notifications and hide all your other windows. If you’re a Mac user, the PliimPro utility will do both with a single click.

Selective social media: Social isolation has made social media more important as a way of staying connected to friends and colleagues—but that doesn’t mean you want everyone to know everything. I rely on Facebook’s “restricted" list: Anyone who goes on that list can see anything I post publicly, but not the posts that I share only with friends. By putting all my colleagues on my restricted list, I can be friendly without overdisclosing.

Privacy from your partner, roommate or children

I am just as conscious of keeping things private from my partner and children—especially when I’m working on something that might interest a curious teen, or create any conflict of interest for my husband.

The do-not-touch shelf: Set up a shelf or cupboard that is off-limits to your spouse, roommate and/or children. Everything—work papers, charging cables, whatever—isn’t to be looked at or touched by anybody in the house. Period.

Separate computers—or, at least, user accounts: In an ideal world you will not have to share your phone, computer or any other device with family members. But if your work gadgets do double-duty as the family computer or gaming platform, you can still create some sense of privacy by creating a separate user account (or email and social-media accounts) for family use. That way the family can use the computer after hours without getting access to any of your work files.

Noise-canceling headphones: My noise-canceling Bluetooth headphones do an amazing job of creating a sense of privacy from the rest of the family. True, they can still hear my side of the conversation, but when I can’t hear them, I feel like I have some privacy for my work.

Walk and talk: When I don’t want my family to hear my side of the call, either, I often leave the house with my phone and headset. A walk around the neighborhood—out of earshot of my neighbors as well as my family—allows me to speak freely and get some exercise, too.

Lock ’em up: Sometimes the best way to get privacy for yourself is by creating pleasant, private space for everyone else. Now that we’re all spending even more time at home together, I’ve invested time and money creating cozy spaces for each of my family members—closed-door rooms where they can retreat for schoolwork, Zoom calls or gaming sessions. When they’re all locked away in their rooms, I enjoy the quiet bliss of a living room I have all to myself.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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