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I often have various windows open on my laptop. People often come over to me whilst I'm working and occasionally some will start looking at my screen whilst I'm talking to them.

I find it a bit of an invasion of privacy when they start staring at my screen clearly looking at my emails or other documents that have nothing to do with them.

I always avoid looking at someone's screen unless invited to or I've asked to work on something and been given approval.

Are there any recommendations or articles out there on how you deal with this based on people's personal experience?

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    based on the answers to my question - workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/57825/nosey-colleague/… - you'll probably get told to suck it up and ignore them! – Mike Nov 20 '15 at 16:43
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    To be honest, looking at a screen, no matter what is on it, is some kind of habit for me. I find if I need to think about something while talking to someone, my eyes will naturally wander to a screen - even if I'm not actually "looking" at what's on it. Telling me not to look would seem to be an over-reaction to me, and make me question what you're doing. – DoubleDouble Nov 20 '15 at 20:09
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    "If I shut my screen it looks as if I'm hiding something." You are! Stuff they're not supposed to be looking at whether it's your code or HR records. – user42272 Nov 20 '15 at 23:35
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    I tend to want to give someone my full attention, and would not like for them to be distracted by my screen, so when someone comes over to talk to me for any length of time, I just hit Flag+L to lock my screen or Flag+D to minimize everything and turn toward them. – ColleenV parted ways Nov 21 '15 at 1:12
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    @Xocoatzin In recent Windows, just move the mouse right and down infinitely (to the corner). While the coworker sees that as a unconscious move when the user turns to talk, it activates the "View Desktop" hover. – jingyu9575 Nov 22 '15 at 14:43

14 Answers 14

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When people are talking to you, while looking at your screen, that means they're being distracted (and that means they're taking more of your time than neccesary, too)

You can simply lock your machine (default short-cut is Windows-L on most systems), turn your chair to face at them, optionally even stand up and otherwise give them your undivided attention.

If they ask, tell them just that: you don't want either side to be distracted by the screen, so you turned it off. Hard to argue with that. As a bonus, it will also probably help both of you communicate more clearly.

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    This answer is also a good one for HR, management, Finance, and others who often need to prevent most other employees from reading their screens for confidentiality reasons. – Todd Wilcox Nov 20 '15 at 20:03
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    Windows-D will show the desktop, minimizing everything as well. – WernerCD Nov 20 '15 at 22:45
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    @WernerCD difference between Win+D and Win+M is that D will toggle between minimized state of all windows and desktop, and M will not restore windows from minimized state, so you can safely hit it multiple times without being afraid everything will pop up back. – user1306322 Nov 21 '15 at 11:35
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    This doesn't sound realistic. In my experience, conversations that do not sooner or later require use of the screen in question (to look something up in some reference, on some website, or similar) are rare to the point of being almost non-existent. In almost every case, the point of a conversation is to discuss something that can be accessed on the screen, to discuss something that is not yet written down and therefore gets written down or drawn during the conversation on said screen, or to discuss something unrelated to the screen (at which point the screen is used for the TODO notes). – O. R. Mapper Nov 22 '15 at 18:41
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    But if your screen is in use for something work related and people are supposed to be looking at it, then this issue doesn't exist, right? – Erik Nov 22 '15 at 19:20
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Curiosity is a normal human behavior. From my personal experience, the only reason that I was ever concerned with this was when I was trying to hide something or pretend I was doing work when I really wasn't. So in short, don't do that. If you're working, and the person is working for the same company you are, it really shouldn't be any issue. Especially if they are on your team.

Now if they are reading your screen instead of doing a quick glance, you could say "what's wrong?" and look at your screen along with them. They'll probably realize what they are doing and stop. Don't confront them, because it will look like you're trying to hide something.

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    Not sure I agree. I use my desktop for work and my personal laptop for both work and personal use. I occasionally have Gmail open on my laptop which has mainly personal emails. There is nothing wrong with answering an occasional personal email at work. Just as there is nothing wrong with taking work home and working on it there. I don't think I agree with you that it's not an issue if someone is reading through my personal emails. Another case is when I check my bank statements online. I think it's perfectly reasonably to keep your bank statements private. – Snowcrash Nov 20 '15 at 17:03
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    I don't agree with this at all. I'm an elementary computer teacher also in charge of helping implement our overall tech plan. Often this involves email chains between the principal and myself which frankly discuss what level the other teachers are in tech, and certain weaknesses that might have to be addressed. These emails often require naming specific names (say, a teacher who keeps getting viruses) and are understood to be private correspondence between the two of us (and occasionally the network guys if we need their help on an issue.) Would not want anyone looking over my shoulder. – Andrew Whatever Nov 20 '15 at 18:07
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    To clarify this is the part I don't agree with: "If you're working, and the person is working for the same company you are, it really shouldn't be any issue." In addition to my example above, I can think of many others. Middle management communicating with upper management about specific employees, for instance. – Andrew Whatever Nov 20 '15 at 18:40
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    Ah, the good old 'if you've got nothing to hide...' routine. Well, aside from the very good points already made about HR-sensitive stuff, I'd add that even if I were just working on a perfectly innocuous email or spreadsheet or something, I still wouldn't really want someone gawping at it. It's not an invalid question to ask for good ways to discourage that. Privacy can just be nice for its own sake, not for any nefarious use. – underscore_d Nov 20 '15 at 22:36
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    it is clearly not anyone's business what is on my screen just because they work for the same company. For example, we get e-mails to our work accounts from the company that does our payroll, and it announces in large print how much our latest check was for. Do you really think it is my coworkers' business to know how much money I make? This is in my work e-mail, so no one can claim I was reading something I shouldn't, but it is obviously none of my co-workers' business. At the same time, we need to realize that anything eye-catching on the screen is likely to...catch eyes. – iconoclast Nov 21 '15 at 2:26
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I'm not sure what your working habits are like, but I am pretty much ALWAYS multitasking with like 10+ windows open at once. When someone approaches and I am working on a window that I want to keep private, I just switch to another window as naturally as possible, and then spend about 5-10 seconds SERIOUSLY CONTEMPLATING what is on the new window (or pretending to) so they get the feeling it was part of what I was actually working on (whether it was or not), then finally stop and turn to acknowledge them.

This has the added bonus of making them feel like they interrupted me when I was so busy I couldn't instantly drop what I was doing to address their presence.

Which is often the case anyway.

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    I like this answer, because you can't change other people you can change what you do yourself. I'm on the other end, when I walk up to a colleague I have to force myself to not look at his screen because naturally my eyes are drawn to it. Best is to have nothing interesting on screen to look at. Especially not something animated. Also if you don't want to lock your computer you can do "windows key"-D and minimize all your windows. That way you show your colleague he's got your full attention. – Pieter B Nov 21 '15 at 17:40
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Synthesizing a few good answers:

Separate Home and Work

A serious chunk of things one would rather keep private are home-life issues. Avoid as many as possible on your work machine. It goes without saying that games and porn are REALLY obvious - just don't do it at work. Ever. But even doctor's appointments, soccer game arrangements or other things can be done on a personal device that is much easier to turn off or hide since it doesn't have a fixed screen. Or if you must do something private on a work computer, undock if possible and work somewhere more private than your desk.

Workspace Layout

Many people manage to rearrange their space so that the screens face them and and not their coworkers. It's not always possible, but it's effective. Then someone must be REALLY nosy to get into looking at the screen.

Similarly, standing up to talk to them stretches the legs and moves away from the blinking screen.

Screen saver timeout

Set your timeouts on the fast side, so that in the first minute or so, your screen flips to something neutral.

Technology

There are quite a few anti-peeping screen options.

Also a rearview mirror mounted on your screen can help you detect oncoming people quickly enough for you to set your screen to something neutral.

When they are clearly watching

If the screen has clearly captured their attention, you are within your rights to lock it or turn it off. They came to speak to YOU, they are clearly wasting both your time by reading private info. That's rather rude, you can be rude back and eliminate the distraction - even go so far as to say "here, let me turn off that distraction..." It seems polite enough and gets the point across.

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To stop the behavior

This reminds me of the Miss Manners answer to when you catch guests looking in your bathroom medicine cabinet: "May I help you find something?" This puts the face on things that they are in legitimate need of something and you, of course, will play the consummate host/hostess by catering to their every (legitimate) need.

But the clearly-communicated subtext is "what the heck are you doing in my private things"? This is received loud and clear, but you're providing a face-saving social fiction to act out, allowing them to say "um, yeah, I need some headache medicine" if they really feel embarrassed, or they can just lamely say "no thanks, I'm okay" while still feeling less accused or attacked, because the question they're answering so lamely is a red herring for the real issue. (And, in the case of bathroom cabinets, you never know, perhaps your guest is in real need but was embarrassed to ask.)

Similarly, if someone is looking at your screen more than casually or coincidentally, you could take a similar tack by saying "Is something wrong with my email?" or "May I help you find something on my computer?", being sure to have a neutral and helpful/curious attitude and tone rather than a sarcastic or snide one.

Again, the key here is to put a facade of legitimacy on their actions, while still accomplishing the confrontation you desire, leaving them an out to say, "Oh no, that's okay, I don't need anything" or "no, there's nothing wrong" and desist from their actions.

To prevent someone from actually seeing what's on your screen

If you have something up that you truly don't want seen, trying to hide it in reaction to someone's unexpected arrival or inspection (once they're actually present and looking at you) will almost certainly prompt him/her to look harder and try to assess what's wrong with the content—why you don't want it seen.

In that case, and when the above technique is too risky (because it actually calls attention to what they're looking at), just turn toward them and give them your full attention physically, even standing up in order to (seemingly) have a fully-engaged conversation, without locking your screen. This is just about your only hope for preventing someone from reading what's on your screen when it has something you'd rather keep private and you don't want to direct attention to the fact that you'd prefer they don't look right now. I have used this technique successfully myself, but you have to be absolutely cool or you'll give it away.

As a last-ditch resort for something you truly cannot tolerate someone seeing, you could lock your screen if you provide a suitable pretext for doing so. Note that you must not seem to directly answer why you locked your screen, since you're acting as if your screen locking was not in response to the person's arrival—a key component in pulling this off successfully. The person must make the connection, "oh, that's why he locked the screen", or better yet, he should not even notice the action because it doesn't seem unusual in context.

For example, you could stand up and say, you know, I'm sorry to be rude, but can I talk to you in 5 minutes? I really have to make a pit stop", then head into the bathroom. Obviously, as you stood up, you locked the screen quickly (Windows: Win + L; Mac: move cursor to hotspot corner).

  • Ever since Men In Black 3 came out, I respond to snoops with, "You lose somethin' over here, Hondo?" After about the third time you drop this on someone, they stop doing it. It provides enough levity to make the situation less awkward, and still convey the message. It also helps that I do a pretty good Tommy Lee Jones voice. – Wesley Long Nov 23 '15 at 3:32
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I don't think you need an excuse to shut your screen. There are many legitimate private matters.

On old trick is called boss mode where you have a screen saver that looks like a regular screen. Learn the keys to put it in screen saver mode quickly.

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    I think this is just masking the issue and deliberately making out that you have something to hide. – Snowcrash Nov 20 '15 at 17:05
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    @SnowCrash Mask the issue? - you are deliberately hiding something. In another comment you state there is legitimate stuff to hide. – paparazzo Nov 20 '15 at 17:15
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    Instead of a screensaver (do they still exist?), just lock the machine. Windows-key+L on most machines. – Erik Nov 20 '15 at 17:28
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If it really bothers you, privacy devices are available. Arguably the best may be an LCD monitor without the normsl front polarizer; unless viewed with polarized glasses in the right orientation, most folks will se only s blank white screen. Do you care enough to throw money at the problem?

  • It requires only a glasses frame (and some adhesive) if you go the DIY way. You can use the cutoff polaryzer film to make the glasses. – Mindwin Nov 20 '15 at 19:22
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    While this solves the privacy issue, it makes your screen completely useless for sharing information. Now, if someone comes over to your desk to talk about a project and you want to show them something on the screen, you've got to have extra pairs of glasses for everyone involved. Even if you are willing to do that, you'd probably quickly develop a reputation as the office wacko. – ptfreak Nov 20 '15 at 22:18
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    lifehacker.com/5862795/… ... I'd love to try it out. If you need a monitor to share, use a dual setup-- one with protection and one without. You can drag stuff between monitors as you desire. – phyrfox Nov 21 '15 at 3:39
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If you're looking for a clever trick, I'd suggest keeping a text file or something in which you track what you're currently doing. Then it's perfectly natural that when someone comes to talk to you at your desk, you maximise this window and type a few words to remind yourself what was interrupted (or note the time you switched to this new conversation, if you need to timesheet which customer you're working for). Keep anything sensitive out of this file, and just leave it on screen while you talk.

I basically discovered this tactic by accident. Actually the window mine is in, isn't maximised, but it is quite big and it does hide most of my screen when I bring it to the foreground.

If you always do this (or, if you feel confident enough not to need a little trick, if you always lock your screen when you turn away from it, even for a minute), then someone still might get the impression you're hiding something. But at least they won't get the impression you're hiding something specific from them on that occasion, they'll merely think you're over-cautious in general. Which basically is the truth of your actual beliefs compared with those who are happy for their colleagues to shoulder-surf. Someone who thinks you're too private might even decide to spy on you, which is definitely their bad but nevertheless a problem for you. If one of your colleagues basically will not give up until they've seen a screenful of your private email, then they're going to catch sight of it eventually and the only way to stop them is to avoid putting it on a screen when your back's to the room. Most people are more decent (or more afraid of getting caught).

For that matter, politicians like to put about the idea that if you don't go out of your way to pay them to snoop on your phone calls and emails then you must be hiding something shameful. If some like-minded colleague, who is not authorised to monitor your computer use, explicitly challenges you on this, there comes a point where you just have to say "yes, of course I'm hiding something. I often view confidential information on my machine: email with HR; company and client documents that are access-controlled; discussions with my boss and people who report to me; my payslips and bank statements. Live with it." But I wouldn't do that just because someone is idly looking at my screen -- this is only for if they claim they have the right to do so or that you're wrong to obstruct them.

  • Plenty of apps exist to do this - hamster does very well. projecthamster.wordpress.com/about – Criggie Nov 24 '15 at 3:38
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    @Criggie: yes, that would fall under the heading of "or something". Seems like massive overkill though if your employer doesn't require you to track time, such that what you really want is a reminder of what you were in the middle of for when you resume. For example when I'm interrupted I might write something like "refactor renuberate_all". And if your employer is time tracking, then "or something" might be their chosen timesheet software or it might be your choice. What you use isn't important for this question, provided it fills the screen! – Steve Jessop Nov 24 '15 at 10:25
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Laptop Hood

Add a hood to your laptop. Keeps out the nosy neighbors, for the most part.

Even better, it eliminates glare and greatly enhances your screen-viewing. The screen will appear brighter, and colors will be more vivid and true. Graphics professionals use various such light shields to avoid washing out colors by ambient lighting.

Companies sell fancy hoods for laptops and monitors, such as DulCo.

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You can make your own with a box. See this Ikea hack. But beware the need for ventilation to cool your machine.

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  • ...but then they'll think I'm really trying to hide something. And someone'll set up a tiny web-cam at an angle – Adel Nov 23 '15 at 17:24
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While I agree with Lawrence that there are many jobs where in many cases it's fine to see the screen of a colleague, that isn't always the case.

At some point almost anyone will do something of confidential nature, such as writing an email to the higher ups about bad office policies, complaining about inappropriate comments by a colleague, applying for another job internally, warning about the impending doom of a project, etc.

If up to that point it was always fine to see the screen and suddenly it's not, the very fact of hiding the screen at a bad timing may already give away exactly what you're doing, or even worse, make people think they know that you're doing something they consider to be "bad" when you're not.

Therefore, I think wanting to hide the screen can be entirely legitimate. Just lock it (Windows+L) and whenever someone makes a remark tell them simply that you occasionally have confidential information on the screen and therefore made it a habit to lock the screen whenever someone's at your desk.

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    Tangential, but we set a GPO to lock screens after n minutes because so many people wander off while leaving visible data that could fall under the DPA et al. – underscore_d Nov 20 '15 at 22:42
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I think there is a bit of a flaw here, in the presumption that you have privacy at work. You don't. Unless you work for yourself, you should not expect the same level of privacy on your work computer than you take for granted at home. Your work computer and your office space belong to your company. So, the idea that you need to hide your work from other people at work is a bit of a flawed sort of logic. My suggestion, if you aren't working on anything that is actually private, like salary data, is to assume that someone is always looking at your work. Just don't visit certain websites or type things that you wouldn't want people at work to know about.

If the work you do requires that your screen remains private, because the information is confidential, that's different. You should have a privacy screen or work in an office with a door. Talk to your management about that.

In either case, you're at work. Assume you're being watched.

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Run this C program when someone comes by and starts talking to you:

DefWindowProc(GetShellWindow(), WM_SYSCOMMAND, SC_MONITORPOWER, 2) != 0;

It will make your monitor sleep immediately.

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As a developer I often work on confidential information. There is one sure fire answer.

"Close the lid".

When someone walks up to you to ask a question or have a friendly chat, close the lid on your laptop. If you have a desktop then "lock" it. CTRL + SHIFT + L, or Command + L, or Win + L are normal shortcuts.

There are two really good side effects:

  1. You and your talking partner can now talk 100% distraction free. This is the primary benefit.

  2. Closing the lid is a clear sign that you are not doing the work you were supposed to be doing. This will help the walker upper understand that you are taking your time out to speak with them. They will appreciate it more, and you will appreciate the shorter, more focused conversation.

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If you want to take this with humour, you can create some shortcut in your system that opens a browser with some image saying something like "I know you are looking at my screen" or something like that.

Some non-expected neutral-to-funny message that points out you're somehow concerned about this attitude, but without judging anyone. Adding a smiley or something absurd can help enforce the "I'm not mad at you" point :)

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