Balancing Individual Focused Work with Collaborative Team Work: Open-Office Bullpens are Harmful!

Agile teams require effective cross-functional, self-organized teams.  Effective collaboration and team work are also important.   To facilitate teamwork and face-to-face communication and collaboration, management thinks open-plan office is the way to go.  Businesses of all types have moved towards sitting workers in groups in open-plan rooms.  Of course, open-plan offices were becoming common well before the Agile Manifesto of 2001.

But in the head-long rush to open-space kumbayah, many agile teams are thrust into one or more open-plan office bullpens.      Open space communication has costs as well as benefits. These need to be considered carefully.  Do not assume that the more unfettered communications among team members, the better the teamwork.  It is time to question the faith in all things open-plan as evidence is mounting that this is a bad idea.

Open_Plan_Office

Open-Plan Office bullpen: Image Credit: Veronica Therese, Wikimedia Commons

Two influential no-nonsense business newspapers, The Wall Street Journal and The Economist, have done just that.    Schumpeter’s article in the 7 Sept 2013 edition of The Economist reports the following key points:

  • According to one survey around 70% of all offices in America have gone open-plan.
  • Open-plan offices make it more difficult to concentrate, because the hubbub of human and electronic noise is distracting.
  • Workers really value the ability to focus on their jobs with as few distractions as possible.
  • Ironically, open-plan office prevents workers from collaborating, because they cannot talk without disturbing others or inviting an audience.
  • Too much reliance on teamwork can create a culture of “learned helplessness” in which decisions have to wait until yet another round of consultations.
  • Excessive collaboration can lead to the very opposite of creativity: groupthink, conformity and mediocrity.
  • People who work in open-plan offices are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress and airborne infections such as flu.

The article concludes by stating that managers should treat collaboration and creativity as techniques rather than dogmas.  The article suggests that it is time for separate, individual offices.

Sue Shellenbarger reports in her well-researched article in The Wall Street Journal of 10 September 2013 that open-plan offices bring an unintended downside: pesky, productivity-sapping interruptions. The most common disruptions come from co-workers. Face-to-face interruptions from co-workers account for one-third more intrusions (which are difficult to avoid) than email or phone calls (which can be deferred or ignored).  Frequent interruptions lead to higher rates of exhaustion, stress-induced ailments and a doubling of error rates.  The WSJ article reports several key findings:

  • An interrupt of even 2 seconds is long enough for people to lose the thread of a difficult or complex task
  • Average time spent on a task before being interrupted: 12 min 40 secs
  • Average time elapsed before returning to work on the same task: 25 min 26 secs
  • Average time required, after resuming a difficult task, to get back into the same level of intense concentration: 15 min
  • Percentage of tasks that are interrupted when people work in open-plan offices: 63%
  • Percentage of tasks interrupted when people work in private offices: 49%

The WSJ article summarizes a range of compensating behaviors to handle interrupts as recommended by many experts:

  • Use “do-not-disturb” signals like wearing hats or armbands, stretching barricade tape around their cubicles, and wearing yellow slashes across shoulders.
  • Interrupt others only when a problem is of very high priority. For less-important matters, send a meeting request.
  • Break the habit of jumping up to talk to a colleague any time a question comes up. Instead, keep a separate “talk-to” list of topics for each colleague, then wait until you have several items and schedule a meeting.
  • Ask an interrupter to wait while you record your last thought on a sticky note and post the note on the page or screen to mark where you stopped working. The visual cue can cut the time needed to restart a task by as much as 80%.
  • Tell your interrupter that you will meet him a few minutes later in his own office or cube. That lets you complete the task you are working on, and take control over the length of the meeting. Not only can you do it on your schedule, but you can leave when you want to.
  • Minimize unscheduled meetings.
  • Download a free “Interrupters’ Log Worksheet” from MindTools.com to help analyze the sources of interruptions and either eliminate or minimize them.

In my experience, agile team members are involved in two very different types of activities:

  • Intense, focused personal work:  Design, code development, unit testing, defect debugging and fixing, writing (automated) unit tests and acceptance tests, refactoring, etc.
  • Collaborative team work: story writing, planning, design review, code review, test review, technical discussions among team members, Daily Scrums, Sprit reviews, Sprint retrospectives, Release retrospectives, etc.

Depending on organizations, projects and team dynamics, in my experience typically 75% work is intense-focused personal work, and 25% work needs interactions, communication and collaboration among team members.   Companies with agile projects need to rethink their office space layouts and policies governing office space use.  As the work is more on the side of intense focused individual work (approx. 75% as I suspect) supplemented by collaborative team work (approx. 25%), it behooves to consider:

  • Private individual offices with closed doors: each office may be small (8’ x 8’), with a window (as much as possible) where intense, focused individual work is carried out without interruptions from others.
  • Team rooms for team-level interactions and collaboration: Story writing, Release and sprint planning, Planning Poker and estimation, Daily Scrums, Sprit review, Sprint retrospectives, Release retrospectives, etc.  Team rooms must have projector, whiteboard, flipchart, and network connections.
  • Break-out collaboration rooms: They are for smaller subgroups, typically 2 to 4 members, for intense technical discussions, design reviews, code reviews, test case reviews, pair-wise programming, etc.  Some of these activities can be carried out in individual offices so long as a fairly small number of people are involved.  For developers to do collaborative work, some of these break-out rooms may need to be fitted with a large pair of monitors and network connection.

TeamRoom

Team Room at VersionOne

This sort of office plan and company policy will go a long way in providing the right balance between intense focused individual work and team-level collaboration.  When individuals move to a team room or a break-out room with their laptop PCs, they should be able to do all work that can be done in their individual offices.    This new office space plan will not be a panacea or nirvana, though.   By itself, it will not eliminate or minimize the dangers of multiplexing or multitasking.  I have explained in my blog In Praise of Master-of-One-Jack-of-Two how to deal with the evil of multiplexing and multitasking.  Inside an individual office, unlike an office bullpen, you may not be distracted by colleagues, but you could still be tempted by your web surfing habit, and you may immediately respond to endless streams of e-mails, instant messages, chats, phone calls, RSS feeds and tweets.   Those “intrinsic” interruptions can be dealt only with self-discipline, which will be a topic of my future blog.

So why many agile teams are crammed into common office bullpens, you may ask.  Part of the reason is the dogmatic adherence to unfettered communication and “teamwork” that is supposed to come naturally with open-plan office space kumbayah.  The other part is undoubtedly driven by cost considerations.  It is less expensive to cram a large number of people in bullpens instead of giving them individual offices. However, this is true only for the office space cost.  But if you factor in the costs incurred by lost productivity in noisy bullpens, lower morale, higher stress and fatigue, more errors and rework, lower quality, higher attrition rate among talented employees, and more difficulties in recruiting new talent, I am not sure how much cost advantage of bullpens would still be there.

In my over 30 years of professional career, I have worked in companies with private individual offices (supplemented with team rooms and break-out rooms), bullpen-only environments (with few conference rooms), and bullpens supplemented with team rooms and break-out rooms.   I can unequivocally say that the private individual offices supplemented with team rooms and break-out rooms offer the best balance between intense individual focused work and collaborative team work.

What about serendipitous, impromptu, ad hoc communication that often are claimed to increase inter-personal interactions and shared context required for high-performance teams?  There is some merit in this claim.  It would be an extreme position to insist that all face-to-face or real-time or in-person communication must be via scheduled meetings.  There is a place and need for proverbial water-cooler discussions, brown bag luncheon meetings and presentations, unplanned discussions during coffee breaks and in food lounges at offices.  I advise my clients that each team member may post 3 to 4 time slots in a week (say 30 minutes each) for open-door discussions, where others may interrupt them without permission or pre-scheduled meetings.  During these time slots, a member can take care of low-priority tasks where intense focus is not required, such as filing expense statements, trip reports, or e-mails that can be quickly answered in 2 minute responses.  If someone stops by to discuss any issue, both members should go to a break-out area to discuss if they work in an open-plan environment to avoid disturbing other coworkers in their bullpen.  Even if agile teams in an organization need to spend 50% of time for face-to-face communication, open-plan office bullpens are the wrong place to do so.  Those team members need to go to team rooms or break-out rooms for face-to-face communication to avoid disrupting others in the bullpen.

As The Economist and WSJ articles suggest, don’t you think it’s time to get away from office bullpens and move into individual offices supplemented with team rooms and break-out rooms?

I would love to hear from you either here or by e-mail (Satish.Thatte@VersionOne.com) or hit me on twitter (@smthatte).

This entry was posted in Agile Management, Agile Methodologies, Agile Teams. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Balancing Individual Focused Work with Collaborative Team Work: Open-Office Bullpens are Harmful!

  1. Mike McLaughlin says:

    I experienced a similar pushback at the grass roots level at a large client. The execs loved the idea, but the team didn’t. We landed on the open meeting space and break out/huddle room concept, which worked out wonderfully. Good blog post!

  2. LuNell Gilliland says:

    I completely agree with your comments – the thought that an open floor space breeds collaboration and hence more productivity has just never seemed to work in my previous companies. It has caused chaos, lots of interruptions, diminished productivity and developers resorting to headsets to block out the noise created by all the collaboration. I love the idea of having team rooms that you can come in and out of, but still have your own private workspace (in our distributed team, we use Google Hangouts to simulate a team room and folks come & go as they are working on issues together – pair programming, refining stories, tasking and so forth). Great article!

  3. Satish Thatte says:

    Here is a very interesting article on the very same subject that just came out in the Fast Company Magazine’s March 2014 issue. The readers of the blog may find it interesting.

    http://www.fastcompany.com/3025568/are-open-offices-bad-for-work

    Satish Thatte

  4. Lowell says:

    As with most practices, to not understand *why* the practice is advocated is to be ill-equipped to adapt when the practice does have the desired effect.

    The concept of Open Workspace was made explicit in the agile world through the XP practices, which were influenced by the patterns community in the ’90′s. In Extreme Programming Explained, 1st Ed., the practice was referred to as “On-site Customer”, focusing on increasing the frequency of communication between the business person (ex. Product Owner in Scrum) and the development team. As we learned more, it became apparent that teams trying to delivery quickly and frequently in the presence of high complexity and change are more effective when in the same room. In Extreme Programming Explained, 2nd Ed. the concept of open workspace is suggested though the practices of “Sit Together”, “Informative Workspace”, and “Whole Team.” Although he Scrum Guide is not explicit about open workspace, many Scrum Teams find the open workspace essential in providing the transparency across the team through information radiators and frequent communications.

    So, open workspace is not something that the agile approaches define as an absolute that must be done. Many teams find it effective, particularly in the presence of high uncertainty and change. The practices is there to create an environment for continuous collaboration while *doing* the work. For teams who only collaborate to plan the work, but do not collaborate to do the work, its is understandable the open workspace brings criticism. Collaboration while doing the work is not as easy as some might thing, so leaders have to be open the question: “is the impediment the open workspace? or that the team is not using the open workspace to collaborate?

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