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Agile work-spaces

One of the key success factors in Agile projects is the work environment. Does your team space make it difficult or easy to collaborate and apply agile practices?

As Agile practitioners we are aware of how we should improve the code we work on, the team we spend everyday with and even the company we work for, but how often do we think about where we’re actually sat? We might add a team board and some Big Visible Charts, but what other things could we improve?

Based on these questions, and sessions Rachel Davies had run previously, we ran a workshop at Agile Cambridge exploring the idea further.

Hell is a choice, not a place

We started the workshop by inviting the participants to split into small groups and share their own experiences of “hellish” workplaces. Everyone has horror stories of previous employers, or clients, and enjoy telling them. As people talked they tried to  model these workplaces from a whole variety of things; Lego, Play Doh, felt-tip pens, paper, stickers, etc…

While there was a lot of focus on the more physical problems with their work-spaces it was nice to see people also bringing out less tangible issues such as smell and light.

Once this construction phase had finished, each group presented what they’d talked about and modelled. We captured a whole host of things people found hinder their team when working, some of which are:

  • Separation from the rest of the team, or the company
  • Temperature
  • Noise: it can be too quiet as well as too loud
  • No coffee, or rubbish coffee
  • Sterile environments: no pictures or charts on the walls
  • Packed rooms
  • Dead plants

Keep the place clean

Many of the issues raised are what Frederick Herzberg called Hygiene Factors, as part of his Two-Factor Theory. Their presence may not be noticed but their absence is, and this can cause a drain on a team’s motivation. These factors are often a reflection of the company culture, highlighting whose needs are recognised and therefore who are seen as most important to the company.

The other factors, in Herzberg’s theory, are called Motivators; things that provide motivation by their presence but don’t necessarily demotivate if they’re missing. These are normally more intrinsic factors, such as giving people a challenge, responsibility or opportunities to advance.

Obviously you need to think about the legal and safety implications of any changes, but many can be cheap and simple to put in place. The team could group together and buy a decent coffee machine, they could bring their own plants or posters in, or the office could be rearranged so they could all sit together.

Talk to the team members and see what annoys them, it may something you’d never have considered.

What is ideal?

To contrast their hellish experiences, we asked the participants to talk about, and model, their idea of a heavenly work-space. To show us the place that they’d love to work.

Taking control of their physical environment is the first step toward taking control of how they work overall.

– Kent Beck

Two main themes came out of this phase: teams want space, lots of space; teams also want to be able to configure their space to suit how they work.

That space should come up isn’t that surprising. We often find ourselves in an area where the size has been determined by people outside the world of  IT. They aren’t aware of the need to sit side-by-side while programming, or all stand around a whiteboard and talk.

The number of times space came up, and the variety talked about, was a surprise. We had social spaces, shared spaces, quiet areas, meeting rooms, collaborative working areas and personal spaces to name a few. One thing stood out: creativity needs room to breathe, you can’t do it with everyone crammed into a small room.

Configurable areas were another hot topic, many teams spoke about them in one way or another. The idea that a team could create a unique environment, one that represents them and gives them an identity, came over as a strong motivator.

What’s most important?

We wrapped the workshop up with the teams thinking about what was most important to them. Given that money is tight, how would they pitch this to the executive in charge? How would they ask for it?

Most of the things the teams talked about had already been covered during the workshop. However, the feeling I got from the room was that many of the people present just wanted to be treated as humans, rather than resources, and professionals who could be trusted to do the job.

When changing your workspace, please remember one thing:

To different minds, the same world is a hell, and a heaven.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson