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InfoQ Article: Creating a Collaborative Workspace


Motivated Agile teams have been known to work in the most dire of circumstances - moving to unfurnished office floors or secretly taking over inadequate conference rooms, just to be all together in one place while they work. Yet, if we think that all Agile teams should work in barren “common rooms," this vision is far from adequate. In fact, the classic XP teamroom layout was called “caves and commonsand it explicitly recommended that people have access to some personal space, as well. When working so closely together, all day long (hopefully) with mininal interruption, it's more important than ever to affirm the needs of human beings for healthy and effective workspaces. To that end, this InfoQ article by Agile queue editor Deborah Hartmann gathers together the collected experience of several Agile coaches: Scott Ambler, Joseph Little and Mishkin Berteig..

As teams move toward a fully Agile approach, the inconveniences that traditional teams once put up with are raised to the level of major obstacles to productivity. And these obstacles may seem more pronounced to more mainstream adopters, who may be less internally motivated (than early adopters) to risk this new approach.

The “osmotic communication” which buys Agile teams immediate feedback relies on team members working within the same visual and auditory space. The classic solution, and a key strategy to support and foster Agility, is co-location: the teamroom, sometimes called the "bullpen" or "war room". And 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 InfoQ article Designing Collaborative Spaces for Productivity emphasises the importance of  looking around before eliminating an existing space, anticipating how much space each person really needs, understanding the needs of the new practices a team plans to use, and making room for individual and team creativity. It includes:
  • 8 important areas to consider when creating a healthy and effective work space, from Mishkin Berteig
  • Factors teams should consider if they intend to practice Agile Modeling, from Scott Ambler
  • A real example of a teamroom wishlist, from Joseph Little.

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Community comments

  • Love it.

    by Chris Matts,

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    One thing my current company have is a computer in every meeting room with projector and network connection. It means that if we decide halfway through a meeting that we need a computer, someone can discreetly boot it up whilst the conversation continues rather than stop so someone can go from the room and get a laptop, fiddle under the table with wires etc etc. It seemed decadent to begin with but definitely a cost saver in the long run.

    Docking stations for monitors but wi-fi for networks.

    The key thing is to avoid the furniture/networks police whenever you want to move something/someone. That way the team can tune the area.

    For Agile 2007 I have tried to contact Herman Miller and get them to send a designer into the Open Space. The idea being for them to design "Agile friendly" furniture... desks with wheels for example. Unfortunately they haven't got back to me and I've run out of time.

    Love to see an open space on the topic.


  • Re: Love it.

    by Deborah (Hartmann) Preuss,

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    Hi Chris.

    > Docking stations for monitors but wi-fi for networks.

    I totally agree - wired network connections are a big hassle for a team that doesn't know how it wants to work yet. Wifi is a huge benefit - teams can think about the work and get on with it, wherever.

    > design "Agile friendly" furniture

    Steelcase has done this, from what I can see. But it's SO incredibly pricey! A thin steel rail and some light weight whiteboard panels to hang on it, just an 8-foot length, ranged around $800 last time I checked! But the flexibility of taking a panel to your desk, the conference room, then returning and putting it in your workspace... nice. They have small modular tables - for example, a small oval one about 1x3 feet, that rolls under a desk when not used. You pull it out when you need to have a 2-person conversation and need somewhere to put a piece of paper. The steelcase stuff is perfect for Agile - if you have unlimitede budget. I can't imagine Herman Miller would be *less* expensive :-)

    I've had the same idea as you... but is there a "do the simplest thing" designer we could team with to get some more pragmatically-priced furniture made?

  • Scanning copyboard

    by Susan Davis,

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    One alternative to a digital camera for those magnetic whiteboards is a digital copyboard such as the Plus M-11W. We have two of them; they're essentially a whiteboard on a conveyor belt that feeds through a linear array scanner. You can use regular whiteboard markers to draw on them, and they can send their output to a colour inkjet printer or to a USB key.

    On our "to do someday" list would be running a USB cable over to our Wiki server and rigging the copyboards to post their contents to the Wiki at the press of a button.

    The down side: they're more expensive than regular magnetic whiteboards. You can wall mount them, but we have ours on floor stands with casters, which we can roll over to a boardroom or to the agile modeling area.

  • Re: Scanning copyboard

    by Richard Stobart,

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    A great piece of software is whiteboard photo. It is a little pricey but well worth it. It takes a normal 3D photo of a whiteboard and cleans it and transforms it into a much more readable 2D image.

  • Re: Scanning copyboard

    by Deborah (Hartmann) Preuss,

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    My new tiny Casio camera has a "whiteboard" setting. They do seem to come out pretty white (I've not shot many yet) - and it will crop the photo to include only the whiteboard, right in the camera (optional). Kewl!

  • Makes me think...

    by Amr Elssamadisy,

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    I've never worked in a workspace as elaborate as that described in Joseph Little's list - although it sounds great!

    This is a very useful article about an a topic that is not discussed enough. Is there any experimental evidence out there that we can use to sell our clients?

    I saw a BBC documentary a few weeks ago that showed both Google and Microsoft have moved toward such workspaces. (They have $$$$ )

    Finally, if I could only choose one idea from this list it would be:

    Any formula you create should focus on the goals, the needs to be met, not the means.

    So what, if I may ask, are the Goals of the collaborative workspace?

  • Re: Makes me think...

    by Deborah (Hartmann) Preuss,

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    > what... are the Goals of the collaborative workspace?

    At the highest level, the workspace serves team's goal, so: frequent delivery of working software. Of course, this requires a healthy team and effective process. Also, sometimes there are corollory goals like: create a visible case study for other teams considering Agile.

    Keeping the team's overarching goals in mind (and I do think it's important to flesh these out early, perhaps using Managment Tests), Mishkin's list above offers a good way to measure the appropriateness of particular aspects of the space. Here I offer some paraphases:

    • Light, Nature (make an aesthetically pleasing space)
    • Layout (promote collaboration)
    • Ergonomics (promote physical team health)
    • Privacy (allow psychological "space")
    • Personalization (encourage identity and "ownership")
    • Visibility to Outsiders (model new behaviours and accountability)
    • Convenience, Air and Noise (meet basic practical needs)

    I think a list of reminders is helpful because we all too often focus solely on the "collaboration" aspect, and sometimes not even that - we'll take any space without dividers, even if there is no sensible way to put up information radiators.

    I'd tend to take a "sliders" or "dials" approach to this list: for our own team, which of these aspects are we most concerned about? On which other items are we willing to compromise in order to "dial up" the important ones? This gives some structure to a discussion with facilities management, and offers them a way to collaborate with us because they understand our objectives, rather than saying "no" to our specific requests.

  • I wish I had know about this article in July

    by David Tannen,

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    In Jan 2007 the team I was working with as the Scrum Master decided to move into a team room. The room is a conference room and we do have some windows to the rest of the 'cube farm'. The conference room is designed for a meeting w/ up to 14 people. The room started out with six people in it. And it was feeling pretty full.

    When we had eight people in the room, with dual monitors, laptops or desktop computers, phones, etc, the room became unmanageable.

    In fact, the team spirit broke down. We had two people basically check out of the team. One checked back in later. The team really did not gel.

    Also remember most prisoners in the USA get between 40 and 80 sq ft of living space.

  • What about companies who create an Agile Space for regular employees not working on an Agile project?

    by Jamie Saucier,

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    Our large company adopted the Agile work environment from top to bottom, to save "space." We were told that it would allow for ample "natural light" and the ability to see and "collaborate" with our coworkers. However, our team is not involved in Agile project work. Our employees are handling complex claims with lots of sensitive and personal information to protect. We each work on our own workload, at our own desks. For us, Agile seating has been hell.

    Agile seating is a one-size-fits-all arrangement that doesn't take into consideration the work style of the employees, or the work environment that they need to be successful. Hearing loss? Too bad for you! Can't concentrate in a single room packed with 100+ people or more? You are told you simply must adapt.

    1. The devastating effect on those with hearing loss (hearing devices amplify *all* sounds, not just the voices you are trying to listen to) or sensory issues has been completely ignored. The constant noise of working with dozens and dozens of people in the same area makes it impossible to concentrate on your work. Employees having conference calls at their desk right next to you, the office gossip talking non-stop, and the office "loud-talker" are devastating for concentration in an employee wearing an amplification device like a hearing aid. To make my workplace bearable, I wear headphones *all day* to tune out the non-stop, never-ending noise.

    Paradoxically, when employees work in an Agile space and want to speak to one another, many employees will want to talk to you in a voice barely louder than a whisper to avoid being conspicuous in a room full of (potentially) dozens, or even hundreds of people. You will struggle to hear your colleagues in "huddle" meetings (right in the aisle of the Agile space) in which people will whisper, ironically, to avoid disturbing the team next to you.

    For an employee with hearing loss, an Agile space is a frustrating, embarrassing, and exhausting experience.

    2. The Agile space is supposed to attract all the young people who want to feel like they are working at Google. It has had the opposite effect. When we had cubicles, the young people would excitedly talk to each other in each others cubes. Once the walls came down, they felt "exposed" and felt that they would get into trouble for showing any social behavior at work. These young people stay at their desks and work by themselves. They are miserable.

    3. One more question: does the role your employees are performing even require collaboration?? Or, are employees working on their own work, at their own desks, most of the time. If so, what is the benefit of changing to this open environment?

    Jaime H. Saucier

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