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."