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Building space for building teams

Office Space for Teams (OS4T)

Inspired by a comment to one of my prior posts (You know that story of the Russian cosmonaut?), a comment about noise and getting into love with it, I thought it may be worth sharing some of our experience with building (office) space for building teams.

When we moved large-scale into Lean and Agile Software Development methodologies five years ago, the role and work of “the [cross-functional Scrum] team” got more and more important and we started to consider office space concepts that would better fit the new working model than our traditional 3-4 people offices that we had in some of our development locations (e.g. in the headquarter offices).

Colleagues were in search for collaboration space, needed spots for daily Scrum stand-up meetings and their Scrum boards, needed meetings rooms for the takt-start planning and takt-end review and retrospective meetings (all at the same time, of course). Also, we wanted to be able to move individuals easily and quickly around, if e.g. teams were changed or a UX designer was supposed to join a team, and we didn’t want to always wait for weeks to get an official move approved and implemented by facilities or contractors… “Grab your laptop and make yourself comfortable at your new spot” was the goal…

Team Room Pilot ConceptAs a first try, we had experimented with 3 “team rooms” which had been set up by tearing 2 walls down and making 3 normal offices into a bigger team room. While the pilot teams that moved in liked the space after some adjustments for their team related work, it quickly became clear that a) they had only accepted the room because each one of them still had their original desk in their prior office room and b) the team room was “an island” that was missing support infrastructure around: ad-hoc meeting rooms the team could retreat into to not disturb the others, “phone cells” for phone conversations that were disturbing the others or private in nature. So we figured out that we need more than “team room” islands in the classical office environment, but a space for teams that has been designed for that purpose from the ground up.

That’s how we started the initiative called “Office Space for Teams” (OS4T), a collaboration of Facility Management, our central Lean unit and “the business”, i.e. parts of my R&D unit. The goal was to pilot concepts for office space particularly tailored at teams and their need for communication and collaboration, supporting innovation and creativity.

There’s meanwhile a short video about it on YouTube that you might want to check out (3 minutes) to get an impression yourself:

We quickly figured out that in a “Lean” environment, it would be stupid to not involve the main stakeholder into the whole design exercise: the Scrum teams themselves. So we ended with having a joint team from the three units above, plus external architects, plus representatives from the development teams themselves that gave input and guidance to the actual design the architects and interior designers came up with.

The declared goal was to emphasize “networking over nesting”, i.e. priority 1 was to provide teams with an environment that would foster communication and collaboration supporting innovation and and that would not make the individual’s wish for “nesting” the main goal. “Nesting” meaning: “let me alone, I want my private spot where noone disturbs me and I can ‘nest’ in”.

The area affected was two “H”-shaped wings of our building, seating around 280 colleagues before the remodeling. The restructuring of the old smaller office rooms, meetings rooms, coffee corner into a coherent overall concept, resulted in more than 30% additional workspaces, places where people could sit and work, simply due to the fact that a lot of space was “wasted” in the past with pathways to connect the offices. So the new design made better use of otherwise “dead” space.

Office Space for Teams -- Floor planning

I don’t want to bore you with the full story and all the nitty-gitty details — this goes beyond a blog post I fear and the video above may already give you a good sense of what Office Space for Teams is about — but share a few of the insights and learnings that we have made over the past months while “living” in the new space (I myself as well):

1. Open space for helping opening minds
Not exactly Office Space for TeamsIf you want to foster creativity and innovation — and software development is a highly creative undertaking — provide the team with light, color, diversified and a haptic rich environment.
It helps getting into a creative and open state of mind. Sitting alone in a closed room, grey walls around you, a neon light buzzing at the ceiling and a steel door keeping everyone else out, is for sure not going to help make yourself more creative. Just to paint some extremes…

2. Flexibility is key

One of our goals was to make changing teams and “who sits where” easily changeable. One can think about moving tables — even though one has to acknowledge that there are health and safety regulations in place that forbid to place tables or workstations anywhere, have power lines crawling all over the floor etc.. But one can standardize on the workplace equipment, e.g. provide everyone with a (powerful) laptop and mobile rather than a workstation and a landline phone, have people use containers with rolls rather than fixed cupboards etc.. So that in practice they can move their own stuff within 5 minutes rather than waiting for 4 weeks for a contract mover to carry their boxes and IT to re-wire their workstation… So far, from what we’ve seen, things are flexible enough in our new office space and there wasn’t a strong demand to completely rearrange everything from ground up. We have changed team mixes a few times and people have been moving around quickly and easily. So it seems that one worked out.

3. Not all teams like such a collaboration environment
Open Space for Teams -- Always open?It seems that in particular teams, that rather are groups of people that work more or less independent from each other, consider a less “collaborative” environment more preferable as it is less distracting for them. If you’re in a team that is heavily interacting, e.g. because you are working in exploratory mode on a brand-new product idea, then the situation is very different. Feedback from such teams has been very positive. Which leads to the next finding:

4. Believe it or not, but people are different

No matter how well you design the workspace, people — and teams — are different. What works well for one, can be a pain in the neck for the other. So it seems advisable to provide people with enough “variation” of workplaces: some Design Thinking rooms for whole teams when in creative mode. Some more separated spots where individuals can work if they need concentration and don’t want to be disturbed. One developer wants to work rather isolated for a while, while others prefer to be more part of the group etc.. The only thing limiting what one could provide is normally space constraints. Or the fact that you won’t accomodate everyone’s perfect preference and still keep a team together locally somehow. Or finally the nasty constraint called “budget” — you cannot foresee everything and planning for the extreme case means usually “over-provisioning”. And this isn’t an option in most cases. So there’s always certain trade-offs to accept. And some learnings to be made.

5. People will need time to “settle down” in the new space
Whether you come from a completely open “cubicle space” environment or from a classical “two or three people in a room” one, you will need time to adjust yourself to the new setting. Also, people need to figure out how to use the space in the best way. We have one meeting room with bean-bag like seating, no table, just a projector at the ceiling and some whiteboard wall. Originally, the feedback from the team was: we can’t use that room. Later, when we wanted to actually change the room into a Design Thinking room, the same team came back and objected and wanted to keep the room as it was: because they had figured out what meetings were best done in that kind of setting (and liked it that way). And for other purposes they simply chose a different room.

6. Beware of the “library effect”
Office Space for Teams -- Team working areaBeing part of conversations is great. But only if it concerns your work. So while teams like the fact that you are easily informed about what’s going on in your team by “listening in” or being able to easily contribute, if the communication “flows over” from some neighboring team that is unrelated then it’s considered “noise”. So better make sure that teams are acoustically separated from each other. Otherwise you will quickly end up in what we call the “library atmosphere”: everybody is so concerned about disturbing someone else with their talk that no one dares to make any noise at all any more. The result is an artificially silent space: No one wants to speak because you feel everybody else in the room can understand every single word.
So the more open a space is, the better your sound design needs to be. Concrete floors and bare ceilings, as stylish this may be as an “industrial look”, are probably not a good idea while carpets, sound absorbing ceilings and “sound breakers” in the room can make a big difference. Some glass walls (or real walls) and sound-proof doors are a great idea as well from time to time. Not everything has to be completely “open”.
As a result, we have put glass walls around the “team living rooms” that were originally openly placed within the teams regular workplaces. The effect is that these spaces now get used for various purposes by the team — informal meetings, face-to-face discussion, reading, relaxing with a coffee after lunch… The glass walls shield sounds, but keep the open and light atmosphere overall.

7. Fun is a serious thing in Germany
Open Space for Teams -- Serious fun in the Pool Billiard roomSo you have to plan for those things very thoroughly as well 😉 We turned some former server rooms into a pool billiard and a kicker room. Who works seriously needs to have some serious fun from time to time…

We have made several surveys with people after we moved in: If asked whether they want to rather stay in the new office space or move back into the old office layout, roughly 2/3 prefer the new one over the old one. This is after 15 months “living” here roughly. This result was showing up after we had done an intensive “care-taking” phase immediately after moving in, collected feedback from the teams and adjusted dozens of specific details here and there based on input we had received. We now consider the concept a success overall, with admittedly the potential for further improvements as mentioned above. There’s always things to improve…


So that’s my personal experiences with our Office Space for Teams project, without the claim of completeness or final truth. I love to work in the new office space. But that, of course, is personal preference and taste.

Harald with black socks!P.S.: Uh, I forgot, we heard some concerns about “private space” in an open office environment. Developers (sometimes even managers) are a creative species. Nature always finds it’s way… 😉

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  • This is a great blog, Bjjoern.  As I first read it, I thought 'Oh, no.  I like to have my personal space where I can concentrate' but it seems as though you have found a way to accomodate that need, as well as the need to be able to collaborate (I admit it, there are times when it's lonely in my cube).

    AND I love the ideas about the various meeting rooms, although I am afraid if I were in a beanbag room there might be unintended consequences (ie: nap).  But perhaps you also provide nap space - because all the studies show that employees are much more productive with a 20-30 minute nap each day?


    • I'm told we used to have some sleep pods around here that you could book for a 20 minute power nap. I never found them, unfortunately. Or maybe fortunately - I would have tried to block-book one:-)

      Don't know if they still exist...

      • A pool table - while not quite as ideal as a sleep pod - would be nice.  Or I've seen pictures of something cool outside of Vishal's office.  I don't know what it does, but I want one 😉

  • I would dearly love a pool table somewhere nearby. Sometimes you just need to take a break and do something completely different for a while. I have to go for short walks, but they are not distracting enough to push thoughts of the problem out of my head. Plus I'm in Britain, so short walks often get you very wet.

    There have been scientific studies that show thinking about something completely different can help with the original problem. No, really. Science says we should all have a pool table in the office. 🙂

  • Just to make the point with all these "take a nap" comments: We're working here! Even though some people might suspect differently... We're working here! Seriously!

  • Being in open offices practically my entire career, I can say that it's easy to stay in tune with what is going on, but in can be a serious pain in the lower back region when you try to concentrate while people around you are in a noisy conf call.

    I do like my desk in the open office.

    I have a whiteboard behind me on which I make an occasional drawing of a cat. We have some posters on the wall of our most recent accomplishments. (which we really have to update, because there's still one from 2008). Some Dilber cartoons on the walls. I installed a couple of desk plants. (since the move last year, we no longer have a lease contract for office plants)

    But it's just not yet what it could be. I'm a strong believer in modern flexible informal work environments. Beanbags, plants, mobile devices, couches, TV's on the wall showing announcements or reporting dashboards,...

    Yours, Bjoern, is already much more like it.

    Now foresee a putting green behind the building, and you have the perfect spot to clear your mind and get new insights 😆

    • Thanks for the feedback and comment. I actually prefer a running trail over a putting green, but the idea behind is similar in general 😉