The Environment Matters

When it comes to being agile, the environment where you work is a major contributing factor. Now, to be clear, when I mention environment, I’m not discussing the company culture, leadership styles, or the type of agile methodology you are using. What I am really referring to is the physical environment where you work. Environment is more than just creating a war room (although that is very important). It has to do with the entire space and layout of the space to foster collaboration, productivity, focus, and sustainability within your agile team.

There is a reason that the big tech companies have spend billions of dollars on developing out their workspaces; because it matters. It matters for recruiting, it matters for retention, it matters for productivity, it matters for agility. I want to focus on how it matters for agility concerns.

Environmental Agility

If you are trying to implement a more agile culture, a key consideration is whether or not the physical space, your environment, is working for or against you. You could be emphasizing collaboration, quick feedback loops, and servant-leadership, and all other key agile principles in your corporate culture, but still not achieve the desired changes. In those cases, maybe your environment is a factor hindering your change. I could emphasize collaboration with leadership and “agile” teams and coach them on best practices. But, if the team goes back to their separate cubicles facing a corner, then how much collaboration is really going to happen? If your development team is sectioned off from their business partners on an agile team, how long will it take to get feedback on key work items?

Changing your environment is not a silver bullet, but it is a contributing factor that needs to be considered rather than ignored.

Creating a Healthy Environment

This list isn’t meant to be all inclusive, but here are a number of things that I found work for fostering a productive, collaborative, and agile-friendly environment.

White Boards Everywhere!

I’ve stated in an earlier post that the richest form of communication/collaboration occurs between two people at a white board; or a team at a white board. If you don’t have a lot of writing space at your current job, you need one. You need as much possible space to write what is in your head. Doing this enhances performance, increases your collective memory, and highlights deficiencies in thought a lot better than other means. Keep in mind, many surfaces can act like a white board. Giant post-it notes, glass, treated painted surfaces (where it is allowed to write) can all act as a white board.

One of my preferences is a rolling white board however. These are great options because of its mobility. Any team space can be a collaborative space when a rolling whiteboard is available.

Windows or Natural Lights

I once worked in a large office building where there was no visible, natural light from my desk. If you want your team to die a little on the inside, hide all outward views from them and just keep the fluorescent lights on.

On the flip side, I’ve worked in a building that had a huge view of trees from anywhere you were sitting. The contrast between these two spaces were plainly evident.

So, if you have a space where there are a lot of windows, use it to your advantage. Even if you are staring at a parking lot, it is still better than staring at a cubicle wall, but don’t take my word for it.

If you don’t have a lot of windows in your physical space, use monitors or screens that project photos of the outdoors or give your people something interesting to look at. Stimulating a person’s visual cortex is good for the soul.

Collaborative Spaces and Private Spaces

Having a collaborative works space is a no-brainer. You need to have some war rooms, you have to have spaces where people can talk uninterrupted.

However, at some point in the development process, team members needs to be heads down doing work. At those times, it is nice to be able to go to a dedicated individual space and crank out excellence. These spaces do not (and probably should not) be totally quartered off from everyone else. In fact, they shouldn’t. You still need to be able to talk to others on your team relatively easy from these spaces. Overall these types of spaces should be able to easily transitioned from a private to collaborative workspace.

In my current space, I can speak with my team mates by simply standing up or raising my head. We have a semi-private barrier between each desk that is no higher than eye height. This barrier allows everyone to avoid that awkward feeling of desk mates staring at you while you are working.

Open(ish) Work Areas

We can debate the virtues and vices of an open work area ad nauseum. That is not what this post is for. All I am going to say is that an open work space is great for jobs that require collaboration. There are ways to mitigate the problems that an open works space presents. But, if you want to make sure that you are leveling up your agile game, then make sure your area is open.

One of the key benefits to having an open space is that you are more likely to benefit from Osmotic Communication. For those taking the PMI-ACP test, Osmotic communication is things that you pick up by being within earshot of someone else in the room (rough definition). Basically, you can pick up information not generated in your workspace by being in close proximity. Within an open office layout, this type of communication is easily obtained. If you are separated out by walls, cubicles, or other visual and audio barriers from your team, you lose out on Osmotic Communication. Later, I’ll show you why this type of communication is valuable.

Variety of sitting spaces

This one may not be as obvious as some of the other suggestions in this post. But, seating areas do make a difference. If you want to foster collaboration, give your team a lot of seating options. This means comfortable couches, tall bar stools surrounding a tall table, or soft chairs with pull out desks. This essentially gives your team, and workforce, multiple options to talk.

Take a look at a local coffee/shop or restaurant that is known for being a place to have a meeting. How many options are there to sit? A local store that I frequent have a variety of options. You can sit in a booth, at a tall chair, a table outside, or at a longer desk space. This tip is important because it works to foster collaboration and discussion.

Grouped Team-Centric Works Spaces

Now, you can have all of the tips above in your area, but if you aren’t sitting with your team, then what is the point? You should be able to comfortably sit with your agile team to develop quality software in tandem with your business users. You are not just an IT team working on stuff for the other side of your company. You are not just a group of developers working on a project. You are an agile team working to change your business for the better. Name another team that sits independent of each other. You can’t right? The same should apply here. Be a team and sit with your team.

Visible Screens

For most of my work, our visualizations are digital in nature. That means that our sprint board, Kanban board, burn-down charts are all online. Thus, to see this work, I need to make use of viewable screens on the wall so that the entire team can see what is going on. If you use manual boards and charts, then make these items viewable and keep them updated! The point is, you need to make use of information radiators where anyone can get an update, see progress, and ask questions. We do that with screens. Get information out in the open.

What to do from here

So, maybe you are reading this and thinking, “that’s all great but I’m a low-level employee that doesn’t get a say in our environment.” I would say, who cares. If you are passionate about making things better, come up with a plan, propose it to your leadership, and convince them to make this happen. Additionally, you can get your team or coworkers on board first and present a united front to the decision-makers to get this done.

Maybe it won’t work, but that’s what you do as an Agilist. You try things. If it doesn’t go through, then at least you tried. Maybe you can review your presentation, make it better and try again at a later time.

In my case, it worked. I was able to convince senior leadership on an expensive overhaul of the office. In my case, it helped to have collected feedback and ideas from everyone else in the space and use that as leverage for my discussion with leadership. When I showed them the vision I had for the space using 3-d renderings in Sketch-up, they caught the vision and advocated for me.

Thanks for reading.

Agile Up!

David Bjarnson

David Bjarnson

David Bjarnson

David is an agile practitioner for 6 years in various capacities working specifically on software development for a number of different companies. David has his CSM, CSPO, CSP-PO, CSP-SM, and PMI-ACP certifications.

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