Agile methods like XP, Scrum and DSDM have been advocating co-located teams in open plan offices now for 20 years. The idea being that since face-to-face communications are the fastest and most efficient, teams should be established to work this way whenever possible. Also, software projects, where agile methods started from, build intangible, often new and novel solutions to problems; as such there are lots of opportunities for miscommunication about how these new systems should look and work. Having people working together makes it easier to surface these misunderstandings, collectively troubleshoot problems and collaborate on new solutions.
However co-location is not always possible and open plan offices can suffer from “noise pollution” and frequent interruptions. The following infographic was created by a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) provider so probably has some selection bias, but importantly draws its findings from over a dozen respectable sources including articles from Bloomberg, The Guardian, the Wall Street Journal and Fortune.
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Some key statistics from these reports include:
- Interruptions on average every 3 minutes
- 75% of interruptions not relevant to work
- Feelings of reduced productivity
- Increased stress and illness
Obviously these findings are concerning and they speak to real issues nearly all office workers have experienced. Open space environments can be toxic and many companies choose these environments for cost saving rather than productivity boosting reasons.
So what can be done? Understanding the where’s and when’s of co-location can help us make smarter workspace decisions.
The book “Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams” by Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister references several productivity studies that rate personal offices as the best for productivity. They found that having a door you can close and even screened phone calls seems the best for insulating people from productivity robbing interruptions and allowing extended periods of focused work.
While this may be true for individual performance, agile teams are collaborative efforts. First the teams must bond, sort out roles and learn how to work effectively together. Co-location speeds progression through the Tuckman stages of Forming, Storming, Norming and finally Performing. The trick then becomes how to optimize collaboration and effective communication while minimizing and shielding the team from unnecessary interruptions.
Fortunately in the 20 years since co-location was popularized for agile teams some effective strategies have been developed to gain the benefits while protecting the team:
Caves and Common – Provide some “caves” which are quiet areas like telephone rooms or small offices where people can go to make personal calls or work on tasks in private without interruptions. You don’t need many, for a team of 8 people just one or two small rooms within couple of minutes’ walk should suffice.
Dedicated Teams or a Space per Project – Hearing what other people are working on, or may be stuck on, can be very beneficial for avoiding duplicated work, solving problems and sharing tacit (unwritten) information. However overhearing details about another project or unrelated work is just distracting. So co-locate teams but provide separation between groups to avoid unwanted irrelevant noise pollution.
Recognize and Protect Flow – “Flow” is the deep, productive state you enter when you are immersed in work and the time seems to fly by. This is when most work gets done and so it should be protected. Unfortunately a co-worker asking what you are doing for lunch or a well-meaning manager asking “How are things going?” is all it takes to interrupt this flow.
When I first experienced co-workers who sat 10 feet away sending me instant messages I questioned their interpersonal communication skills. Why could they not just come and speak to me, I wondered? However it turns out that if you are immersed in a task you can ignore a chat window until you have completed that work item and then respond when it suits you. If someone walks up to your desk, it is more of a social taboo to ignore them while you complete the unit test or email you are working on. So now I use instant messaging more with my team, it lets people respond on their own timetable and is less disruptive to flow than a face-to-face interaction.
Avoid Toxic M&Ms – Jason Fried’s TED talk: Why Work Does Not Happen at Work describes how people often get their best work done away from the office and all its interruptions. In his talk he identifies the main culprits for interrupting flow as “Meetings” and “Managers” these M&M’s account for the majority of the problems with modern office spaces. Meetings are natural flow killers that interrupt large groups of people for inefficient communications that could, in many cases, have been better conveyed as an email. Worse, tools like Microsoft Outlook allow companies to find timeslots to interrupt the most people at once.
Managers just dropping by, asking how things are going and checking status might think they are being friendly, approachable and communicative, but in reality they are usually just interrupting people trying to do their work. Companies using agile tools or Kanban boards should be able to see who is working on what, how long it has been in that state and who might need some help without interrupting everyone. Some organizations only allow meetings in the mornings, keeping afternoons free for uninterrupted work.
While the benefits of co-location for agile projects still hold true, noise pollution and interruptions are real problems for the majority of office workers today. Open plan offices are even more prone to these issues. We should recognize the importance of flow and try to protect it. Use tools like instant messaging instead of management-by-walking-around, avoid all but critical meetings and separate unrelated groups.