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?”

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