Trendy technology companies love the open plan office. When we started to design our shared office spaces in NJ we learned from Atlassian to Facebook, Twitter to Zynga, they’ve all recently built beautiful open plan offices. More traditional tech companies such as LinkedIn and eBay favour the clustered cubicle approach. One trendy tech company that stands out amongst the open plan and cubicle loving crowd is Campaign Monitor, check out their office:
While the open plan office is lovely to look at I fear that it may be a recipe for disaster when it comes to collaboration amongst software development teams. And I believe teams working in amongst cubicles face a similar problem.
For instance, have you ever seen a team look for or book a room when an ad hoc conversation would suffice? Ever seen an individual wearing headphones to drown out the background noise and allow them to focus? Yep, me too. This is common in an open plan office and unfortunately this behaviour stifles the collaboration that a team requires to attain optimum performance.
The most effective team I had the pleasure of working with was isolated in their own room, free to chat as a team, hop up and use the whiteboard, play music in the afternoon, and generally bond as a team. They could do all this without disturbing any other team. Thinking back to that team and their environment, and looking at some of the problems I’ve experienced recently with open plan offices, I decided it was time to explore the ideal agile team workspace.
First, let’s step back. To have an ideal agile team workspace you need to have an ideal agile team. That means a cross-functional team of no more than ten people – you know the adage ‘seven plus or minus two’. While I’ve seen larger teams work together effectively I don’t believe the collaboration and camaraderie exists at that size.
Second, budget shouldn’t constrain this approach. While every company will have a different budget for the office fit-out I believe the basics can be in place for little more than an open plan office – and don’t forget, the benefits of having high performing teams will well and truly outweigh the cost of an office fit-out over the long run.
Let’s take a look at what we need to get right to provide a foundation for building high performance teams.
Clearly we want some space. We don’t need people sitting on top of one another unless they are pairing. This space allows team members to quickly swivel their chairs into the centre of the room to have a conversation or ask a quick question – Has anyone seen this bug before? Product Owner, what did you expect to happen in this situation?
Standing desks allow people to stretch their legs and continue to work. I often see people spend an hour or two at a standing desk before returning to their seat.
At one end we’ve got a conference table and a whiteboard. Whether you’re working through something with another team member or having a chat with the customer via the phone this is a great place collaborate. There is also a chair to recline in if someone is working on a laptop and a mini fridge as well. Which, let’s be honest, is a bit of an extravagance, although one can always dream.
In the corner north of the whiteboard there is the wallboard – think JIRA issues, Bamboo build metrics, open Stash pull requests, product analytics, etc.
Finally, there are a few plants dotted around the room to keep the place feeling alive and fresh.
Occasionally a contentious issue, hopefully not too bad. My personal preference is for lots of light, which means you need monitors that are anti-glare. I’ve often found that designers prefer a darker space and if you encounter similar try to accommodate them by placing them further from the windows.
Remote Team Members
Let’s face it, this happens. Whether you’ve got a product owner on-site with a customer for a week or an engineer working from home for the day you still want to be able to include them in team activities like the daily standup. Make it easy by having a decent desk phone and perhaps consider a remote video feed on the monitor for those activities.
Pros and Cons
I believe a room such as that above will solve those two key problems which are a barrier to high performance teams, namely the individuals putting on headphones to drown out the background noise and the inability to have a quick ad hoc conversation.
I asked Dave Elkan, an exemplary engineer from Atlassian, to play devils advocate on the proposal above and he raised the following questions:
- Could a company attain similar results without a complete remodel of the office?
- How do you scale the teams?
- What impact will this have on cross team collaboration and communication?
- What open spaces will you have for people to interact?
Unfortunately I am not sure of the answers to these great questions, although I’d love to give the workspace a shot and see how it fares!
Thanks to the articles below for helping me obtain a better understanding of what has been tried previously.
- Supporting Agile Software Development with Agile Team Space
- Agile for the Invtrovert
- How to create an open office that is more awesome for both introverts and extroverts
- Agile Office Spaces
- The Ideal Agile Workspace
- Team Workspaces
- A Recipe for an Agile Team Space
- Great Agile Workspaces: The Physical Environment