Co-located teams

One of the best ways to get started with an effort to get more agile is to co-locate teams, creating “war-rooms” for them to work in. Studies like this show that co-locating teams at least doubles productivity. In the study above, the teams that used the new facilities after the study was finished actually did even better, doubling their productivity again, performing four times better than the company baseline. Also, both the teams and their sponsors were in general very satisfied with the experience.

How can such a large improvement be possible? Being co-located makes very high bandwidth communication possible, enhances learning and supports creating teams that really jell together. Remember, the bottleneck in software development is learning and the best work is carried out by small self organizing teams.

In the research on co-locating there are also some really interesting findings on what happens when people are not “at hand”. Communication drops of significantly it seems, right when people are first out of sight. Being 30 meters apart is essentially the same as being truly remote. One would think that use of email, phone calls, and video conferences would make up for distance in today’s high tech workspace, but in practice this is not so. Professor Thomas J. Allen puts explains it like this: “We do not keep separate sets of people, some of which we communicate in one medium and some by another. The more often we see someone face-to-face, the more likely it is that we will telephone the person or communicate in some other medium.”

So, if you feel up to trying out some co-located teams, here are a few tips:

  • Provide facilities for teams to work in, but don’t co-locate a team until they request this. Remember, the basic rule for all change is that it does not happen unless everyone involved individually takes the decision that the new way working is of direct personal benefit to them.
  • People may feel that giving up a private office for co-located space is a loss of status. To handle this, a co-located space must be made an attractive option. Working in a well designed space like this should be made feel like a privilege, not as a cheap alternative to offices. So use your best spaces and don’t crowd them. Provide windows, air, plants and lots of first class work equipment like whiteboards and computers.
  • Have just one team (i.e. ideally < 10 people) in each room. Agile teams get noisy and that is the way it should be. Provide noise isolation to prevent disturbing other teams/persons.
  • Supply adjectant conference rooms for meetings and hotelling cubicles for work away from team, making private calls etc.
  • Make sure desks support pair programming by having space for two people working side by side, shifting keyboard back and forth.
  • Encourage each team to write down and maintain its own set of rules on how to work together. This could include work hours, handling phone calls outside of war-room, no speaker phones, phones on vibrator mode, which type of discussions to hold in the war room and which should be taken to conference rooms, signals for indicating that a person wants some privacy etc
  • When co-locating and shifting focus from individual work to teamwork, remember to also update your performance evaluation systems. Bonus goals and other performance metrics need to be measured at team level (or in general, one organizational level up) to prevent sub-optimisation.

So, get right to it and tear down those office walls now…for people working in solitude refining the latest statistics on the wheat production in the EU, offices may be great. For software development it is simply not good enough anymore…

– Henrik