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Designing Collaborative Spaces for Productivity

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Many think that Agile teams all work in “common rooms", but the truth is not so simple. We forget that the classic XP teamroom layout was called “caves and commonsand it explicitly recommended that people have access to some personal space, as well. Teams find out fast enough that some of the facilities and creature comforts left behind in our former traditional spaces were there for good reasons. When working with Agile, working close together and without interruption, it's more important than ever to affirm the needs of human beings for healthy and effective workspaces. To that end, this article shares the collected wisdom of dozens of teams, as collected by several experienced Agile coaches.

The Problem with Meetings

Over time, traditional software teams can become oblivious to the time they dedicate to activities like making meeting invitations, reviewing email, looking for meeting rooms, and waiting for stragglers to finally arrive. These are the necessary evils of teamwork in large organizations. However as teams move toward a fully Agile approach, these inconveniences are raised to the level of major obstacles:

You don’t want to have to wait to find a meeting room that’s available in order to get some modeling done. You don’t want to have to worry about somebody erasing your whiteboards, or throwing your index cards in the garbage. I’ve worked in several companies where there was a severe shortage of space, where we would have to wait for days to find meeting rooms. Progress ground to a halt.
-- Scott Ambler [1]

War Rooms, Team Rooms, Bullpens

The classic solution, and a key strategy to support and foster Agility, is co-location. The “osmotic communication” which buys Agile teams immediate feedback within the team relies on team members working within the same visual and auditory space.

The idea of teams working in an entirely new type of space often comes as a shock to the organization. But while some teams have trouble getting management to replace cubicles with tables and whiteboards, other teams suffer equally when eager (or scheming) managers remove not only cubicle walls but also other facilities long deemed important to team morale and function. This may be done innocently, not realizing what is lost; or with an eye to reclaiming space in a congested building, a sacrifice demanded of the team in exchange for the open space they need.

Look Before You Leap

It's important to look around before eliminating an existing space. We can become so used to our surroundings that we no longer notice what's really going on. Take the time to notice how things work: where are people going when they are not at their desks? Not every absence is for a meeting. People run errands, take walks, confer with other departments, and reappear with drinks, markers, printouts, and new facts. Think of the entire calendar year if your location has changing weather: team members will bring their coats, gym bags, umbrellas and motorcycle helmets in with them.

Determine how much space each person really needs: both at their workstation and elsewhere in their team space. A single person's workspace, for example, probably shouldn't be less than 25 square feet. This calculation is especially important when two are pairing at a single workstation, where it's tempting to "save space", but people still each need their own space and teamwork will suffer if it's not provided, as people inevitably get on each others' nerves. In general, a collaborative team space accomodates no more than half the number people it would if arranged as a conference room.

As teams move to a collaborative style, consider the activities they'll need to handle in their spaces. People will still need to handle sensitive, or personal, phone calls and emails. New collaborative tools like flip charts, whiteboards, bulletin boards and projection screens require extra planning to remain unobstructed and useable. And when many people and computers share a single space, ventilation becomes more important than ever.

Care and Feeding of an Agile Team

It's important that, at the beginning, someone be tasked with watching for and following up on infrastructure problems. This seems simple, but the team is sometimes so engrossed in learning new practices and working in unaccustomed ways that they neglect such details, not realizing that these are in fact contributing to their difficulties.

Common problems can be as simple as putting a programmer at risk for back pain or tendonitis by using a keyboard at the wrong height, easily resolved with an under-table keyboard tray. Some team members strain their eyes against window glare on their monitor – again, easily fixed by moving a workstation or providing filters on windows or screens. People will, at first, sacrifice their lunch hour to make important personal calls. As the team progresses and their work achieves a regular rhythm, these accomodations become inadequate and grate on the nerves.

Team self organization also means that food and drink are likely to appear in the workplace – by way of celebration or to facilitate collaboration at key moments. Over time candy tends to be replace with fruit and other healthy snacks that take up space. A cramped workplace that makes this awkward hampers the flow of teamwork and team building – a little extra table space is a simple device to foster team creativity.

Obstacle removal is a key function of the team coach, ScrumMaster, or PM. Obstacles related to the team space should be prioritized near the top of the team's obstacle list, and should be resolved early on. While it may be tough to quantify the impact of inappropriate working conditions, again and again we've seen significant increases in teamwork, and hence effectiveness, once these obstacles are resolved.

Elements of a Humane Workspace

After so many years of using professionally designed work spaces, teams sometimes “throw out the baby with the bathwater” when they start over from scratch with their own designs. Elements like light, air, traffic flow, noise, refreshments and comfort are not negligible: high productivity teams still consist of people, not robots, and these hard working people can be enabled or discouraged by the spaces in which they work. It's true that motivated teams have been known to work in the weirdest, most disadvantaged locations. However, when a team commits to increasing their delivery of business value using Agile methods, it is appropriate for them to ask management to support the needs of their new collaborative work style appropriately.

Here is some advice on creating spaces that work, from coaches who have seen many and varied team spaces, in both successful and unsuccessful arrangements.

Mishkin Bertieg has blogged about 8 important areas to consider when creating a healthy and effective work space. While some of these may seem obvious, we've seen them compromised again and again.

Light, Air, Nature: An appropriate amount of natural light, air circulation and live plants are excellent ways to make a space suitable for human occupation.

Layout: People need to be able to face each other and work beside each other. They also need a semi-private space to have discussions or make phone calls. The walls of the space need to have large areas that can be used for whiteboards.

Ergonomics: Good chairs, tables at an appropriate height, and the flexibility to allow individual ergonomic needs to be accommodated.

Privacy: Everyone needs to be able to get away for short amounts of time. Some organizations provide separate mini conference rooms or “hotelling” spaces. Others allow staff to keep a private cubicle away from the team room.

Personalization: The space a person occupies needs to be flexible and personalized. People need space for pictures, toys, plants, and other incidentals to help them make a space their own.

Visibility to Outsiders: Other people in the organization need to be able to walk by to see and hear what is going on with the Agile Work team. Open doors, windows or a “bullpen” formation of cubicles all allow this.

Convenience: Washrooms, coffee, printers and other common services must be easily accessible. The team should not be set off and isolated far away from everything else.

Noise: The team will be noisy. Make sure that other people outside the team room are far enough away or isolated in some way from the noise. It can be hard to balance this with convenience and visibility.

-- Mishkin Berteig [2] on

Support for Agile Modeling

Agile teams use a variety of methods to increase collaboration. A common one is the move away from formal intermediate documentation. This approach is worth planning for explicitly: when replacing heavy documents with models on whiteboards and other information radiators, teams suddenly discover the needs for lots of wall space, for example, or for different electronic aids.

Scott Ambler has written in depth about specific factors teams should consider if they are moving toward Agile Modeling. Here are some key points from his more detailed article:

Significant whiteboard space: whiteboards floor to ceiling wherever empty wall exists, even on support pillars if they’re more than a foot (30 cm) or so in width. Developers should have their own private whiteboard space.

Digital camera: to take snapshots of your modeling artifacts. Common uses: to display them on internal web pages describing your project, to capturing images of paper-based models ... or simply to capture a permanent copy of a diagram so it may be placed under version control.

Modeling supplies: the practice Use The Simplest Tools suggests that you work with the simplest tool that will get the job done, therefore you need ... ready access to whiteboard marker, Post-It Notes (have different colors and different sizes), index cards (you may also want different colors and sizes as well), writing paper, flip-charts, tape, stick pins, string, and whatever other modeling supplies that your team requires.

A bookshelf or storage cabinet: to store your modeling supplies and reference books.

Large table: some techniques, such as Class Responsibility Collaborator (CRC) modeling, require a large table to work on.

Computer: having a computer in your modeling area can often prove advantageous, particularly ... to access previous models that have been placed under version control... Make sure you get a good one because you don’t want a group of people waiting on a machine.

Wall space to attach paper: ... somewhere where you can attach paper artifacts.

Projector: if you are going to have a computer in your working area you should also consider having a projector so you can display images on the wall. This promotes communication because everyone can see the information.

Toys: something to play with in your hands can help you to get “unstuck” when you’re working.

-- excerpted from Scott Ambler's Organizing an Agile Modeling Room [1].


A Real Example:
An Agile Teamroom Wishlist

Over time, organizations with many teams may want to formulate a list for the "ideal" team room, to help facilities staff in creating more team spaces. Resist the temptation to tightly define this: constraints and team needs will be different each time, and you must leave room for creativity.  Any formula you create should focus on the goals, the needs to be met, not the means.

Here is list compiled by Joseph Little with a team of coaches for a particular organization, based on lessons learned after a dozen teams had struggled to create suitable spaces with varying degrees of success. This is specific to the needs of a given business: with its own hardware, teleworking, and space constraints. What's really important when reading this list is the human considerations, not the specific details.

Note the phrasing: it's intended as a basis for discussion, not a ransom note. And it is critically important to allow teams to participate in the design of their own spaces, which will naturally lead to new ideas and uniquely customized spaces. This last pointer is all too often skipped over in the name of "efficiency", so it's worth restating. Involve team members in the design of their own space, to eliminate obvious stumbling blocks that will hamper their work in early iterations. The gains in morale and productivity outweigh the cost of their involvement.

Here is Joe's list:

Our Agile Team Room Wishlist
Note that there are other ways of accomplishing the underlying goals; we can pursue other alternatives if we cannot have these ideal conditions.
  1. Room size: In one successful case, we had 9 monitors/docking stations (for laptops) set up in a room with a “maximum occupancy” of 20 people. The room is rather large and gives space for people to “live” together for an extended period. This seems about right and comfortable for a team that is almost 100% dedicated (ie, in the room most of the day).
  2. Team Privacy: privacy from, say, hall traffic. Constant outside noise distracts and stresses the team; this also suggests that team conversations are carrying outside the team room, not a good idea.
  3. Individual Privacy: Ensure there is a place to make personal phone calls or do sensitive work (ex: filing a health claim or writing a performance review).
  4. Light, Ventilation: the needs for these are much greater when the Team is in the room all the time. 
    • Fans: Teams want these for when the A/C goes out, which has happened again recently.
  5. Creative Space: This is hard one to describe, but important. At a minimum, the space should not be dull and depressing. Ideally the colors and other aspects should support creativity.
  6. Docking Stations: The docking stations add value, but also take up room. They need to work with all, not just some, of the team's laptops, and must have network connectivity. Think through exactly what the new team will need in advance.
  7. For teams using pair programming: we recommend large (23 inch) flatscreen monitors, connected to the docking stations.
  8. White Boards: The room should be covered with whiteboards. Magnetic whiteboards are expensive, but quite key. Obviously whiteboards require markers and erasers. 
    • Need at least 300 tiny multi-colored magnets.
  9. Flip Charts and stand: preferably with large “post-it note” paper, and space in the room for it.
  10. Polycom speaker phone:  maybe two (if a large room).
  11. Land lines: several phones to allow people to make and receive phone calls, with speaker phone capability.
    • Placement of phones should be balanced: at least two of the phones should be placed on the center table, others at the “edges” of the people space.
  12. Cards: Start with 400 cards in multiple colors. (25% should be 4x6”, the rest 3x5”)
  13. Outlets: We need network access (via the docking stations), outlets for land lines, and. electrical outlets.
    • Remember that people will move around, we need more outlets than people.
    • There are cheap ways to protect the team from tripping on cords running to a central table.
  14. Tables: A mixture of small and large tables (or small tables that can easily be put together). Usually arranged as one big table (for 6-8 people) in the middle, and several small tables around. One small round table, for small adhoc meetings of 2-3 people.
  15. Large Wall Clock: so all can see when the stand-up will start or when meetings will reconvene.
  16. Wireless Internet: so visitors from other departments can connect.
  17. Printer: A good laser printer should be in the room, or very close, including paper up to 11x17.
  18. Small Conference Rooms: either: (a) a quiet space within the Team room for conferences (eg, provide more space or one adjacent with low walls) – this works if it is a very large room compared to team size, or (b) two small conference rooms very nearby that are dedicated to the team.
  19. Place to hang coats and leave outer footwear (in winter).
  20. Space for storage of personal stuff.: could be under-desk filing cabinets or a large horizontal filing cabinet.
    • More of this is necessary with contractors or other “mobile” team members who have nowhere else to put their things.
  21. Desktop PC: that can be used for miscellaneous purposes (developer testing, integration of code, etc).
  22. Calendars: a few big calendars (monthly views) that can be written on.
  23. Digital Camera: saves lots on documentation time. Can be shared with another near-by team. Must be easy to download pictures to the laptop.
  24. Small Fridge – A small refrigerator in the room (or nearby) where cold water and soda is stored.
Prepared by Joe Little of Kittyhawk Consulting [3], with ideas contributed by many (you know who you are).

Plan to Learn

Hopefully managers, team members and other leaders will collaborate to create the best team space they can, given their resources and perceived constraints. Of course, a month in the new space is sure to reveal surprises and errors in judgement. Don't forget to apply the "Retrospective Prime Directive" when looking back on what you've created: everyone did the best they could at the time. Continue to consider your workspace when each retrospective asks: "what should we change?" When you discover a better way, act on it quickly, and don't forget to celebrate your successful changes when the retrospective asks "what worked well?". 

Remember that you don't need to imagine everything up front - you can tweak it with each iteration. But big, immovable and expensive items are definitely worth considering up-front to allow lead time - too often we see teams ready to go long before their workspace is.

Be aware that what you learn might just include: "we can't do this here". Be realistic, and be prepared to defend what your team really needs to reach high productivity. If you can't get it, you may need to design a hybrid, semi-Agile process - but be sure to make it known that the full gains of Agility probably won't be achieved.

It's just not worth it to have a high-performance team hampered by a poor workstation setup.
-- Mishkin Berteig [2]

I’ve seen lack of basic resources such as decent chairs, tables, food, drink, and top-notch workstations dramatically hamper software development efforts. If your project team is being nickel-and-dimed to death then I have to question if your project is important to your organization – if it isn’t, cancel it now and invest your efforts on something more productive.
-- Scott Ambler [4]


[1] Scott Ambler, Organizing an Agile Modeling Room,
[2] Mishkin Berteig, 8 Team Room Tips,
[3] Joe Little is a freelance project management consultant,
[4] Scott Ambler, When Does Agile Modeling Work?

About the Author

Deborah Hartmann is an Agile practitioner, trainer and coach based in Toronto and working internationally. Deborah is passionate about making work both valuable to the business and enjoyable for the team. She's coached both large and small businesses in Agile adoption, has been Lead Editor for InfoQ's Agile Community since April 2006, and has facilitated OpenSpace conferences for the XP and BarCamp communities in Canada and the US.

Image credit: "Pair-on Chair" image used with permission from Cenqua Pty Ltd.

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