That hip open plan office you work in?

Turns out it may not be so conducive to collaboration after all.

A study by science journal The Royal Society instead found open plan offices had the opposite effect.

“Rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and Instant Messenger,” the study found.

By studying two workplaces before and after a redesign to open plan workspaces, researchers could clearly see changes in behaviour.

“Even though everyone on the floor could see everyone else all the time (or perhaps because they could), virtual interaction replaced face-to-face interaction in the newly boundaryless space.”

Using an array of technology, including sociometric badges, infrared sensors, microphones, and Bluetooth sensors, researchers were able measure time spent in face-to-face interactions.

They found face-to-face interactions decreased by around 70% once workers were placed in open plan offices.

Researchers found participants sent 56% more emails, received 20% more emails and were copied in on 41% more emails.

“On the one hand, sociological theory presents a strong argument that removing spatial boundaries to bring more people into contact should increase collaboration and collective intelligence,” the researchers said.

They found “consistent with the fundamental human desire for privacy and prior evidence that privacy may increase productivity, when office architecture makes everyone more observable or ‘transparent’, it can dampen face-to-face interactions, as employees find other strategies to preserve their privacy; for example, by choosing a different channel through which to communicate.”

“Rather than have a face-to-face interaction in front of a large audience of peers, an employee might look around, see that a particular person is at his or her desk, and send an email.

“Adopting open offices, therefore, appears to have the perverse outcome of reducing rather than increasing productive interaction.”

The study was funded by the Division of Research and Faculty Development at the Harvard Business School.