A Recipe for an Agile Team Space

Occasionally, I’ve been asked to help design team rooms for a client.  They may have been planning to hire an ergonomic architect/designer in addition to an Agile Coach.  Great, but before they got that far, I had two suggestions for them:

  1. Involve your existing Agile team members in discussions in order to uncover their needs.
  2. Involve someone who has actually been on a number of Agile teams in a variety of spaces.  Of course, I volunteered me!  When I’ve acted as XP coach (mostly 1998-2004), I sat with teams and wrote code.

Some ingredients that I recommend for a tasty Agile team-space:

  • A space to hold the daily stand-up, near where the iteration or kanban board and graphs are prominently displayed.
  • Space to sit side-by-side at a computer, rather than having to look over someone’s shoulder, cramped in their cube.  Desks that have a long, straight edge, or slight outward curve, work best. Rolling chairs are great, but should not be too bulky.  Whether or not your teams will be doing pair-programming, you must avoid restricting collaboration. Cubes are innovation-constraints.
  • Plenty of available whiteboard space for brainstorming (not already used for charts).
  • A space to hold an ad hoc team meeting, without having to reserve a conference room.  Just think: If the team can hold all of its own meetings in its own space, that will free up the conference-room schedule for the execs.  Whenever I see a dozen people get up and run out of a cube farm, only to file into a small conference room, I have to laugh…sadly. Only the manufacturers of cube walls are happy with this arrangement.
  • Sound-blocking walls or dividers to separate the team from other teams or co-workers outside the team.  A team must be able to be noisy when necessary. If you’re breaking up a huge open floor, consider hanging those architecturally interesting glass dividers above a half-wall. This gives teams plenty of light from windows without having to listen to the neighboring team’s release-retrospective party.

All of the above need to be incorporated into the same space, not spread out. A meeting could be held by having everyone turn their chairs. A brainstorming session between two developers should allow others to tune in, or tune out, without leaving their workstations.

You can easily prototype a team-space design:  Within a single walled-off room, start with one team, fold in some folding tables, and toss with a few rolling whiteboards. Then wait and see how the team chooses to arrange their own furniture.

Often, the teams remain happier with the folding tables than with prefab, fixed-position desks.  They like to be able to convert the space to meet any occasion, such as a theater for Thursday evening movie night.

A gourmet team-space at Menlo Innovations, Ann Arbor, MI

Now, garnish with the following:

  • Space to hold a private conversation with a colleague, or to call home, or to feed a baby.  This does not, however, need to be a personalized cube, one per person.  It can be a shared space with a sign-up sheet. It needs to have a door to close and block out the rest of the team.
  • A table or shelving unit for snacks, books, and other sundry items.

Note that I left these last items out of the “complete team space” list.  These last few ingredients could be incorporated into the team-space, or not:  As long as they’re within a short walk, we have provided an opportunity to get up out of our chairs.

Q: “Where do I store my personal items, certificates of achievement, pictures of family?”

Keep these to a minimum, keep them portable (in a purse or backpack), and set them up wherever you’re working each day.

When I see pictures of a spouse or child on a cube wall, I often ask, “How long has it been since you’ve seen them?” If the answer is greater than nine hours, I say “Perhaps it’s time you head home!”

Q: “My books?”

I encourage teams to have a team library (perhaps with the snacks).  Write your name on the book and add it to the library.

Remember: We’re at work to work.  It should be a place we want to go, to have fun collaborating with our colleagues and creating innovative solutions.  Not a place so painful that we need to distract ourselves with photos of Maui, or Foosball.
By the way, I have nothing against quieter, mentally stimulating games or toys, such as Nerf guns.  In fact…

  • Nerf guns. A necessity.
The huge, elegant team spaces at the Pivotal Labs building, San Francisco, CA. I arrived about 30 minutes before taking this picture, and the place was packed with enthusiastic, happy developers. A bell rings at 6:15pm each day to remind people to go home. I was asked to take this from a distance, and towards banks of logged-out workstations, to assure that client IP was protected. Rest assured, each station had at least one huge screen and comfortable seating for two.


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