Best Way to Set Up Your Agile Office – Is an Open Office Right?

[We wrote about co-located and Agile office space before here.]

Computerworld recently spoke to IT managers at a range of companies, from giants like Google to small consultancies, to get a sense of which office layouts are better for which types of high-tech workers and which are not.

Here’s a recap of what they found about IT’s likes and dislikes and why office layout is not a decision to make lightly.

“Every IT worker I have managed has jumped at the chance to move from a cubicle to an office when given the opportunity. And yet these workers still want their offices to be located close together, so they can easily bounce ideas off people who understand what they’re talking about. When they have a problem, they can quickly explain it to someone to get an answer, she says. But they also like to be able to withdraw.” – Manager (who wished to not be named)

“There’s a big difference between the needs of a network administrator and a help-desk staffer… That’s because some IT jobs require large blocks of uninterrupted time for concentration, while others involve reacting to situations as they arise. If a network administrator is interrupted midtask, it could take him 45 minutes to figure out where he was in his project, and if you’re constantly working in 45-minute [increments], you’re never going to get there.” – Shaun Walter, Sr. Unix Sys Admin of Ally Financial

Ally Financial strikes a good balance between open and private. It offers IT workers a large open area filled with aisles of cubes divided by low partitions, with a variety of conference rooms — ranging from ones large enough to fit about 30 people to small ones that accommodate just three or four — scattered around the edges.

“When workers at Google need quiet time to focus they can retreat to their individual workstations, which typically have at least a partition or low walls to separate people from their neighbors, or to offices shared with a handful of teammates. Employees generally get to choose which configuration they prefer — of the engineers who work at Google, approximately 60% are at workstations and 40% are in offices.” – David Radcliffe, VP of real estate and workplace services at Google

Google makes collaboration a priority, so everything about its office design attempts to facilitate that. For example, its buildings feature strategically located cafeterias and “micro kitchens” that are designed to facilitate “casual collisions” among employees.

“One of the common misconceptions about open floor plans is that what you see is what you get… A visitor — or a new hire — who walks into a busy office of IT workers talking around small tables or working in teams at whiteboards might assume there’s no privacy. But even for a project that requires a lot of collaboration and teamwork, workers need a place to retreat.” – Adam Monago, VP of client services at ThoughtWorks

ThoughtWorks embraces Agile methods for software development and organizes its workers accordingly. The company’s offices are divided into core project team areas that all have a main work area with shared tables and comfortable seating, ringed by quiet workstations or pods around the perimeter, as well as small meeting rooms that offer privacy.

Open office
A team that works together!

“With Systems@Work at State Farm Insurance, we tried to build a variety of spaces where people can move around and be fluid and have the tools they need: laptop, cell phone — things that would not tie them to a specific area… The company chose to roll out the program in the IT department first and will eventually bring some of its elements to nontechnical departments, making tweaks as appropriate.” – Rick Probus, State Farm Business Analyst

State Farm engineers also employ the Agile methodology, and the company has adopted some Agile office layout principles. In early 2009, State Farm began implementing a program for its 5,600 systems employees called Systems@Work, designed to make the most efficient use of space and foster collaboration.

So what was Computer World’s findings?

Some experts agreed with the following:

“The best setting is a cube with high walls located in the same area as other people who are working on the same project, regardless of job function.” – Derek Hille, president of Office Space Planners Inc.

Huh? That doesn’t sound Agile at all!

You know what we here at Agile Scout like? We like what William Pietri put together: An eXtreme Programmer room. Make sure you check out the link!

So what are your thoughts?

What makes the best office setup for Agile teams and collaboration? Does Agile open office make sense?

Let us know in the comments!

[HT: Computer World]

21 Replies to “Best Way to Set Up Your Agile Office – Is an Open Office Right?”

  1. It’s kind of funny that when people are first thinking about how to set up a collaborative work space for a team they tend to assume it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Either you have a private office/cubicle or you have to spend all your time sitting around a central table or in a “pod” with three or five other people.

    It makes me think of the book, Peopleware, and especially (if memory serves) Chapter 13. For collaborative work spaces, the authors recommend three types of space: The open or bullpen sort of space (where we would do pair programming, for instance); semiprivate spaces for brainstorming or sitting/reading; and private spaces (which may be shared, hotel-style) for making personal phone calls, one-on-one discussions, and so forth.

  2. Hey you forgot the most important part of the space William Petri put together – a cool Danish Modern styled table!

    Nice article… I’vae had lots of thoughts on how I would organize space if I controlled it. I oscillate between offices where pairs can work that open into an open area for collaboration to open spaces with just a few rooms set aside for private conversations.

    Since I have never have the ability to organize folks’ space in the best manner, I usually have more of a passing thought on it though.


  3. I believe the only way to go is open space. If you want collaboration have everybody in the same level the same space. In fact we are modeling our online collaboration software on this very principle! Everything is visible to everybody in the team at all time..

    1. Mostly agreed.

      You want people working on the same thing to be in an open space together when they’re working on that same thing.

      If you mix people with different projects in the same space, it gets frustrating sometimes.

      If you separate people who are trying to work together, that gets frustrating.

      I like a space with both commons and caves. Your house is arranged in a public-to-private flow. Your front door probably doesn’t open into the bathroom, but the living room. Your bedrooms are probably out of the way. There is a “company bathroom” on the main floor near other public spaces but likely a “family bathroom” further in.

      Families are communal and there are public spaces, but there are also private places to go when you need them.

      When space is strictly limited, then I’d be happy to have a big open space and go outside for privacy rather than be separated by high-walled cubes and have to go outside to collaborate.

  4. For years we (Amcom Technology, had dedicated offices for developers, not by the design – the building we were in was just set up like that.

    However we had an opportunity to do some renovation and we knocked down all the walls and opened it up and it made a huge difference. People are able to engage in conversation, get in on an interesting convo that might be occurring, throw in a tidbit that a discussion might be overlooking, and feel more plugged in overall.

    To maximize openness we did a bullpen layout. Which works ok, but I’m thinking star-like clusters of 4 or 5 people might work better, but the drawback is that it uses up a lot of space, something we don’t have a whole lot of.

  5. Pingback: Why Indie Software Developers Need to Embrace Agile | Scrum5

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