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Human-centered design is the secret sauce for open-plan success

Michael J. Berens

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

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Human-centered design is the secret sauce for open-plan success

Open-plan workspaces have been given quite a thrashing in recent years. The more ubiquitous they become, the more employees and critics complain about how awful they are to work in. Pull back the curtain on the controversy, though, and what you find is that some open-plan spaces do function better than others.

What makes the difference? Designers will not be surprised to learn that, according to recent research, the major factor is the quality of the interior design.

Drawing on what is now an extensive body of research, most workspaces now are designed to promote certain kinds of employee behaviors found to be linked to important business goals, such as more rapid innovation and increased productivity.

Yet, some studies have shown that even with this evidence-based approach these environments do not always produce the intended results. In some cases, post-occupancy evaluations have found performance actually declined after employees were moved from more traditional to so-called high-performance open-plan spaces.

As reported in the most recent issue of the journal Buildings, a team of Australian researchers, led by Christhina Candido of the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney, reviewed a database of research studies on employee dissatisfaction in open-plan environments and noticed they tended to treat them all as the same without giving attention to the individual physical configuration and conditions of each space. They wondered whether differences in the interior design features of the space would affect the level of employee dissatisfaction differently.

To dig deeper, the researchers conducted post-occupancy surveys of employees in 61 offices in Australia, resulting in a dataset of 8,827 responses. The survey questionnaire was designed to gather employee perceptions of their work environment as it pertained to productivity, health and comfort. In addition to the survey data, which included in-depth analysis of 18 high-performance work environments, the researchers also conducted site visits of each office and collected floor plans and fit-out specific information.

What the researchers found was that across all three areas of inquiry interior design elements ranked among the top factors affecting whether employees were satisfied or not with their working conditions. Work area aesthetics, comfort of furnishings, and the degree of freedom to adapt and personalize one’s usual work area were key drivers of worker satisfaction in both regular and high-performance open-plan environments.

Spatial comfort was another key consideration. Employees in work environments that provided various zones for different types of activities — collaboration, individual work, socialization — had overall higher levels of satisfaction.

This finding correlates with the results of investigations presented in a recent Steelcase report, “New Work. New Rules.” The authors contend that most offices are still designed for linear work and don’t enable the workflow, activities and behaviors required for today’s “hyper-collaborative” work environment. The best workplaces, they find, support the activities of the team while nurturing the needs of individuals.

As with the Australian study, the Steelcase researchers found that employees feel a lack of control over their environment and want more freedom to adapt their work area to fit various types of activities they engage in throughout their day.

Similarly, a review of research on both individual and group perceptions of their office design experience, conducted by Christina Bodin Danielsson of the School of Architecture at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, concludes that personal control is a key factor for high employee satisfaction and can be addressed through a number of design solutions. Danielsson argues that office design needs to be more holistic, taking into account the combined contextual effect of the physical characteristics of the environment and the functional feature of office work.

What all three studies share is a decided emphasis on the critical component of human-centered design. For open-plan and high-performance spaces to succeed, these studies indicate, they must support the kinds and varieties of activities that today’s workers are engaged in.

Moreover, they must respond to employee’s basic needs for comfort, control and wellness. When employees feel good about their work environment, then they deliver the results businesses are expecting. That places proper interior design at the top of the priority list as a “must-have” not just a “nice-to-have.”

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About the Author

Michael J. Berens

Michael J. Berens is a freelance researcher and writer with more than 30 years of experience in association communication and management. He can be reached at

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Workstead’s Stefanie Brechbuehler and Robert Highsmith Embrace Southern Modernism in Charleston

A vintage Adrian Pearsall sofa joins the studio’s own leather chairs and an antique cot converted into a coffee table in the upstairs “withdrawing room.” Photography by Matthew Williams.

It was simple: “We wanted to be challenged,” explains designer Stefanie Brechbuehler of her move, with husband Robert Highsmith, to Charleston, South Carolina. In 2009, the couple and Rhode Island School of Design classmate Ryan Mahoney founded Workstead, a multi-hyphenate design studio in Brooklyn, New York, and catapulted to the forefront of the borough’s designer-maker scene. But in 2015 a major hotel project in the South reoriented their compass and they soon opened a Workstead outpost in Charleston, with Mahoney heading the main studio up North.

The change of scenery brought a shake-up in sensibility, the adoption of what they’ve dubbed “Southern modernism,” which reinterprets traditional regional typologies like caning, beveled glass, and breakfront cabinets, “to make them feel new again,” Highsmith explains. Their testing ground was the renovation of an 1853 row-house for a dream client: a New York–based family who gave the couple carte blanche to design the project as if it were their own. Now named Workstead House, it’s a crash pad for the family when they’re in town, an event space for the studio when they’re not.

In the drawing room of Workstead House in Charleston, the studio’s husband-and-wife co-founders Robert Highsmith and Stefanie Brechbuehler survey velvet-covered Lawson-Fenning seating and a tessellated horn table from the 1980s. Photography by Matthew Williams.

With father-son contractors Jim and Chris Sloggatt, the designers began the painstaking restoration, stripping the cast iron fireplaces of paint, refinishing the heart pine floors, but keeping the charring on the staircase from an old kitchen fire. (“We love those types of imprints,” Highsmith notes.) Inspiration came from touring historic properties like Drayton Hall, an 18th-century plantation house, which also sparked throw-back nomenclature: It’s “drawing room” for the public space downstairs, “withdrawing room” for the more private one above. “I geek out on that stuff,” Brechbuehler says with a laugh.

Furnishings are a mix of old and new, combining antiques and vintage finds with contemporary pieces, including Workstead products, such as the Signal sconcewith its gratifyingly analogue pull chain. The move South also enticed the designers to explore more with color, resulting in warm putty or dark green on walls and jewel-tone velvet and mohair upholstery. “We took a more romantic approach than usual,” Brechbuehler admits. The region does have that effect.

In the entry, a leather-wrapped credenza and mirror, both by Tyler Hays, and a Michael Amato pendant manufactured by Urban Electric Co. (the Charleston-based company that also produces many of Workstead’s fixtures) join a manzanita branch in a vintage shell casing. Photography by Matthew Williams.
Their Signal sconce in brass sports a pull chain. Photography courtesy of Workstead.
Workstead’s Lodge pendant features oxidized oak posts. Photography courtesy of Workstead.
Built in 1853, the Italianate row house was used as a storehouse by blockade runners during the Civil War and later owned by George A. Trenholm, said to have inspired the character Rhett Butler in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Photography by Matthew Williams.
In the master bath, formerly a porch, vanity mirrors are mounted on windows painted Farrow & Ball’s Studio Green. Photography by Matthew Williams.
The designers’ Spool side table comes in cherry, white oak, and walnut. Photography courtesy of Workstead.
In the drawing room, a 19th-century oil painting by Franklin Tuttle looms over a deco sideboard topped with a silver tea set and stirrup cups. Photography by Matthew Williams.
Cherry, marble, and caning coalesce in the circular kitchen island; a carved indentation in the center makes a built-in fruit bowl. Photography by Matthew Williams.
Orbit, Workstead’s spun-brass sconce with an incandescent frosted bulb, riffs on antique candle reflectors. Photography courtesy of Workstead.

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