A fellow agile coach related a tale to me recently about a team’s dysfunctional workspace.
"The team was collocated, all sitting within twenty feet of each other. This looked like a great first sign, so I went and sat with the team to see how they operated,” the coach said.
“It was early morning, so I didn't really notice that they were almost deathly silent, figuring the mutual caffeine intake had not reached a high enough level yet. Then it was time for the stand-up. Everyone on the team stood up and walked away.
“I followed them out into the main hallway, where each one stepped into single-person rooms equipped with a standard phone. They all picked up phones, dialed into a conference bridge, and proceeded to do their stand-up over the phone, in individual rooms, while all standing within a hundred feet of each other.
“When I dug into this, it turned out that management had rules about how loud you could be at your desk because the huge, open floor plan ‘made sound carry.’"
What an Agile Workspace Is Not
Let's tackle and dismantle a dangerous agile myth. This is not an agile workspace:
This is a factory floor designed to allow maximum productivity on a set of specific rote tasks. It is not an environment conducive to creativity, collaborative communication, or even teamwork. Each station has its job that they then hand off to another station. This configuration works well in a manufacturing setting.
And yet, this kind of workspace is all too common when you walk into an "agile floor plan" office:
Now, there can be some benefits to this floor plan. The wide, open setting means high visibility. It can ease communication if you know someone is sitting at their desk and you can just walk over. Osmotic communication, or picking up things from being near others, can improve.
However, the biggest benefit is that it's cheap. No walls, stand-alone tables, and jamming people into a space like eggs in a carton make for a cost-savings nirvana. Running out of room in your building? Simple: Just convert to an "agile" workspace and double your density.
And you’ll probably see overall productivity drop like a lead balloon.
So, what does a good agile workspace look like? Let's start by reviewing the Agile Manifesto principles, specifically:
- Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
- Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
- The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
- Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
The first and third principles listed here tell us that we want the ability for the team to work together daily, and face-to-face communication is the most effective means of doing this. I think a lot of facilities planners see just these two principles and drive toward the warehouse-style open seating. The second and fourth principles here, however, give us some acceptance criteria for how to best get that daily, face-to-face interaction.
First off, we need to give the teams the environment and support that they need. This means you don't seek the lowest financial solution; you seek the solution that will best support the team's ability to deliver. Next is one of the oft-overlooked agile principles: sustainable development. If the team space is not conducive to working closely together, you can see anything from a sea of noise-canceling headphones to a high percentage of people working from home, all the way to burnout and resignations. All this leads to a lack of sustainability or a lack of team cohesion.
The Ideal Agile Workspace
Let's look to the past for some inspiration.
Now that we know what objectives to aim for, how should we be laying out our buildings?
This is my vision of the ideal agile team space. The central room is open seating with space for two agile teams (or a max of twenty people). The work tables should be modular and movable to allow the teams to configure as they desire within the constraints of the room. On either side of the main room are "huddle" spaces. These rooms serve a multifunctional role as pair programming space, conference call space, focused working space, and chill space. At the back of the team space is a shared conference room. The key to this room is lots of wall space for planning and task boards (remember, windows are perfectly valid surfaces to put post-it notes on).
Why don’t we make the ideal agile space fit for one team? Several factors make it better to have a space able to fit two teams.
- Teams are dynamic: They may grow and shrink over time. You need space to fit a really large team or even three small teams.
- ScrumMasters coverage: One ScrumMaster to two teams is a common ratio in agile teams. This model keeps the ScrumMaster in connection with both teams.
- Product owner coverage: One product owner to two teams is a common ratio, too. Even with a Large-Scale Scrum product owner, you are cutting down the team rooms that product owners would go to from as many as eight to a possible four.
- Defeating the echo chamber: If you leave teams isolated, they can end up living in their own echo chambers. Community spaces are also helpful to fight this.
Taking our classic "warehouse" open seating office, we can instead turn it into a series of team spaces, like so:
If we assume each space is fifty feet across (thirty feet for the main area and ten for huddle spaces on each side), we can fit sixteen teams in two hundred linear feet. On either end of a block of eight spaces we can imagine restrooms, break rooms, and community spaces where we might find the ubiquitous foosball, ping-pong, or billiards tables.
Agile Spaces in the Real World
Here are a couple of examples of good agile spaces in use today.
Menlo Innovations, featured in the book Joy, Inc., is a classic agile company. While they have fewer walls than what I'd consider ideal, they are also well along the scale of team evolution. Even without the walls, you can see they have nondedicated spaces off to the side, and there are meeting spaces available for "huddle" work.
Also check out Microsoft's DevOps transformation story. Microsoft's Team Foundation Server is one of the top agile workflow software solutions on the market. The TFS teams work in full end-to-end agile practices to suport their DevOps initiatives, and they follow the practices of healthy team spaces with dedicated team rooms.
The whole debate about open floor plans reminds me of a lesson I learned in my early career in customer service: Saving money today by going for the cheap or expedient solution quite often leads to more expenses down the road. When you look at the cost for an agile floor plan versus an open floor plan, just ask yourself how much lost productivity and employee turnover will cost. Not unlike agile's own technical debt, investing in a good workspace may cost more now, but it will save you a ton later.