The Board Episode 36 — Designing Agile spaces

By Rebecca Jones in Agile Other on November 17, 2014

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In Episode 36 of The Board, we talk about:

Full transcript

Kirstin Donaldson: Hi, everyone, welcome to “The Board.” We’re finally back after a few weeks of having a mad busy time and postponing the Board.

This is also Paul’s last Board, as he’s sadly leaving us, to go across town to it to someone else but I am sure we will still see him a lot. Perhaps, we can have him back as a as a guest, at some point.

Paul Flewelling: Yeah absolutely. Let’s make it a good one, shall we? This…

Kirstin: So today we will be talking about designing agile space. This is something that came out yesterday, when I’ve sit at the “scrunch lunch” here at Boost.

It was content, where I was talking about how they were redesigning the space, so that would really work for the team to work on it in the optimum way. He’d had some really interesting ideas. And so did a couple of others, he needs, you know and he had some thoughts about it as well, Paul.

Paul: Absolutely. For me, this is like just about the way that we work in an agile environment where this is a lot about discovery and creating a space for innovation. I’m really excited about this conversation. I think it’s a really important conversation to have.

Kirstin: It is. One of the things that, it was actually Jeremy from ITPS, was saying that is that he is finding that they don’t need as many desks anymore because people are always working together. They’re also finding people are moving a lot. They’re really moving to activity-based working in a very natural way.

The pullers is coming from the team rather than that being imposed by management saying, “No one’s going to have a desk out there.” They’re really looking for that kind of environment. The sorts of things that they’re looking at are “desks on wheels,” I like the idea of, just pull it up where you need it.

Reducing the amount of desks, obviously. They’ve got laptops and big monitors. They’ve found no one’s using the monitors, they’re just grabbing their laptops and going wherever they need to go, which is an interesting point. We’ve thought about monitors, but if you didn’t need them…

We were talking yesterday, one of our other attendees, Tanya from a company down the road, was mentioning that what Jeremy could try is prototyping the office layout with cardboard boxes. I think it’s such a great idea. It’s a really low fire way to get some quick insights, isn’t it?

Paul: Absolutely. Talk a bit more about that. What would they do with the cardboard boxes?

Kirstin: Instead of having to place their monitors in certain places they would just have cardboard boxes representative of monitors, for example, and computers and whatever else that normally sits on a desk.

Even to an extent you could do some structures representing desks in that way, couldn’t you? And then to have people just move them around and test out how that feels and how it would work for them.

She’s also talking about some other interesting ideas and layouts. One that struck me was, you know how people have an issue of waiting for the lift to arrive? I know at our office we’ve got one fast lift and one very, very slow lift. It’s very frustrating if the fast lift’s in use.

She said she’d read somewhere, you put a mirror beside the lift and people mind waiting for the lift a lot less. Because they just occupy themselves looking in the mirror.

Paul: [laughs]

Kirstin: Like birds…

Paul: I’m only laughing because I probably do that.

Kirstin: I totally would…

Paul: [laughs]

Kirstin: I only like lifts that have a mirror at the back so that when you are on your way to a meeting you can fix your hair on the way up.

Paul: That’s right. And make sure there’s no cappuccino stains on your mustache…


Kirstin: … No spinach in your teeth.


Kirstin: It really makes that lift ride go pretty quick when there’s a mirror in there doesn’t it?

Paul: That’s right.

Kirstin: Because we find ourselves endlessly fascinating.

Paul: What’s interesting for me to see our evolution, in terms of what we’ve done, from going from…I remember at the time we were all separate and all the developers had different spaces and then…

Kirstin: What did that look like? Was it actually separate desks on their own? Like with air around them?

Paul: Well no, what we had was like maybe two or three desks together.

Kirstin: OK, So we’re now joined up beside there.

Paul: Yes, so we had two or three desks and then we had another pod with two or three desks. And then we went to that moment where all the developers, all of our software developers, sat on one desk…

Kirstin: Yes, that massive pod…

Paul: That massive pod. The mega pod as we called it. And the reason the developers did that was so that we could talk. A lot of our communication takes place almost by osmosis, I think is the word I’m looking for. We hear other conversations going on.

Kirstin: Absolutely. And that’s about really removing those barriers to communication so that does happen. Facilitating that.

Paul: So someone will be talking about something else and you’ll hear or over-hear the conversation and you’ll get interested. You’ll start listening. You might even chip in.

Then suddenly there’s a whole different conversation that you might not have been involved in if… That might not have been particularly relevant to something that you’re currently working on.

Those kind of open space environments really help with that. I mean, they can be distracting. And that’s some of the other things you have to consider with these kind of environments. Sometimes people want to work quietly, and they need to concentrate. Because we are often solving complex problems.

Everyone has that on their work. They need some quiet time.

What’s interesting is that some companies have set up booths, which are, not soundproof, but they’re not your traditional kind of separator. They’re quite comfy. They are like the AV pods.

Kirstin: That’s just what I was imagining. That’s kind of got a roof over open sides.

Paul: You go and sit in there. You’ve got your computer screen. You’re probably using a laptop and you’re use a sort of Chrome cast device to actually cast your screen onto the bigger screen.

Kirstin: That sounds fancy.

Paul: It does. Those kind of things. You are in your own little space there. Some of the other things that I’ve seen is where they set up bigger booths. It’s a bigger pod, basically, where they have a round, what’s the word?

Kirstin: Like the moon? A prism?

Paul: A long table.

Kirstin: Right. Basically for a team that needs some quiet.

Paul: And they can sit together and huddle and discuss.

Kirstin: I think, when I’m thinking about our office, our office is quite quiet on a daily basis. Apart from five o’clock on a Friday evening when we’re drinking.

I was thinking, when I was walked out of that meeting we had yesterday and we had been talking about Agile workspace, I went out and I saw that we’ve got a couple tables that are breakout areas.

No one ever uses them. Very rarely do they get used apart from, again, drinks on a Friday night. I thought, “That space would be better used if it had a couple of sofas there.” To make it a comfortable, inviting space to sit and chat something through.

At the moment, the table are nice but they are formal.

Paul: That’s right. People don’t really sit there now do they? They come there and they talk. They’re standing, usually, and they’re standing around a table. They don’t usually sit down.

Kirstin: That’s right. Whereas, if we had the sofas, there would be a places for individuals to go to have a sit down and think about something but also for a team to have a chat.

Paul: We’ve got a few bean bags around the office as well. That would be quite a good space for a couple of sofas and a bean bag.

Kirstin: Bean bags. Bean bags are definitely for younger people, I find. I always feel like I need a hoist to get me out of it.


Paul: I love bean bags myself.

Kirstin: They’re just really like getting off the floor. I’m sure that’s safe on some of the other guys.

Paul: There’s even people who like sitting on the floor. They love sitting on the floor and having those low tables, Japanese style tables…

Kirstin: In this skirt? [laughs]

Paul: My wife does it all the time.

Kirstin: She works in a slightly different industry, I suppose, where she’s in comfy clothes.

Paul: I think the key thing with this is that – just looking at the way we work – the [indecipherable 8:22] model, which is a sense making model, which describes the kind of problems of what we’re solving in our industry. They require innovation and what we are trying to do is to create these spaces for innovation.

What makes complete sense to me, is that these spaces shouldn’t be static. They should evolve. People should be allowed to experiment with the spaces they use for experiment.

Kirstin: Absolutely. They should be able to do what works for them, all of us. When I was thinking about this stuff yesterday, what I did with that idea was just write a Post-It note and put it on the suggestion board, actually, and see if there is any interest in creating some new spaces.

Paul: I think it’s really worth it. I think it’s just saying, “We’re going to try this out. If it doesn’t work…” I would go with the perfect 10 style retro and say, “Can we score this space from a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being perfect and 1 being not good at all.

Then ask the team what would make it a perfect 10, unless everybody is up in the 10 then of course you can say, “It’s a perfect space.” It’s what makes it a perfect 10 and it’s working out what we need to do that. The guys, they’d give some honest feedback.

Kirstin: I’m sure. I was thinking it in terms of prototyping a more, sort of relaxed area such as sofas and bean bags. A bit more difficult with cardboard boxes, isn’t it?

Paul: Totally.

Kirstin: I don’t need to sit on them to see how that would feel. It’s not the same as sitting on a sofa, even if you could sit on a cardboard box if you need to be. If you’re from what’s bought into it, it’s all or nothing. You’ve either got them or you don’t.

Paul: I’m interested because, it’s obviously about collaboration and that’s the key thing that we are trying to invite here. Collaboration and, like we’ve discussed, different spaces but different activities. There’s quiet spaces, there’s team spaces, there’s group or bumping into people, that whole water cooler kind of concept from the 80s or 90s, whenever that arose.

Kirstin: I actually think that the idea of the sofas as a breakout area is really great for during lunch times as well. Especially, since our kitchen is freezing in winter. We do tend to sit around the table in the summer and chat but in winter, we are kind of at our desks because it is too cold.

In fact, I’ve worked in an office where we had sofas and we all use to sit down there for lunch and chat all about work, which is usually important as well.

Paul: That’s right, so you can really have a break from what you are doing. It’s often that time when you get that lateral thinking happening as well. You get out, you get away from the problem you’re trying to solve and suddenly some spark’ll happen.

Kirstin: That’s right. We’ve got sofas in this room which is great, because it’s a handy space for a chat. However, it can be a bit…what’s the word for it?

Basically, if you and I come in here for a chat, it does look a bit to the team like we are having a secret conversation. It’s not a great look.

Sometimes we do need to have confidential conversations. There are a lot of conversations that aren’t but we do have in here which is another reason that I want some comfy space out there. I can have conversations with you without it being mysterious.

Paul: There’s this movement at the moment, which is kind of interesting. I haven’t seen much about it. I’ve seen one blog post about these guys who are, they’re giving a homely feel to their office and making it feel more like home.

Kirstin: You said that this morning.

Paul: I find that interesting because I’ve always seen the office and the home as a separate space.

Kirstin: That’s the thing. I like the separation also.

Paul: I like to be at home and I like to be in the office but I’m in different modes when I’m in those spaces. I’m just interested to see where this movement goes.

Kirstin: What would be the purpose for that? Would it be to make people feel comfortable?

Paul: Yeah, comfortable and I wonder if, to some degree, it’s trying to make it seem, it’s your home. Let’s make it a space you want to work in.

Kirstin: It just sounds like they are trying to encourage people to stay longer. They might get confused and think they are at home.

Paul: That’s right. That’s obviously an issue for people. I know people who do sleep in their offices. Those kinds of crazy things.

Kirstin: Just the other week, we were talking to one of our newer team members, who wandered in one day and turned out to be a fantastic sweetheart. He use to work in India and one of his first jobs, I’m don’t know if you were there…

Paul: I was.

Kirstin: You were. He was saying that they made it very comfortable there. They had some beds upstairs, they had a pool and a gym. He absolutely didn’t mind spending 24 hours at work because he could work in the middle of the night, if he wanted, whatever was convenient for him.

Then, when he didn’t want to work, there were all the facilities for him to be there. That was an interesting idea but it’s not for everyone, that kind of environment.

Paul: It takes me back to the, this is going back a bit to the new towns in the UK that was set up by industrialists, like Bondville Cadbury.

Kirstin: Around the factory kind of thing?

Paul: The town was called Bondville, I believe, and it was set up by Cadbury for his workers. Obviously, accommodation was quite poor in those days. Workers didn’t have the best home environments.

What he did was create housing for his workers which meant they had a much better life outside of work which meant they were more productive at work.

It was that kind of psychology that he used, which was really good. He was actually quite the humanitarian, in his own way. As a result, he got much better results from his workers. That’s that kind of thing, I think they’re doing with that home away from home environment.

Kirstin: Certainly and I think with this place in India made it very comfortable for people to live there, essentially. I think it’s not for everyone.

Our team member, at the time that he was single and just interested in learning more and more about code, it really suited him to be there a lot of the time. He’s married now. I can’t imagine he’d want to work that way now.

Paul: The thing I’m interested in in these new activity based spaces is that they are about creativity and about collaboration, because we work in this kind of experimentation spirit. We have to experiment with the way that we build, the way we innovate.

I’m not sure that my home is the place that I want to innovate. My home is the place where I…

Kirstin: Home is the place where you can switch off.

Paul: It’s about switching off. You still have those moments in the shower where you go, “Yep.”

Kirstin: You need that space that is different from your work place to illicit that.

Paul: I don’t necessarily want a whiteboard in my shower though, not where I…

Kirstin: It wouldn’t work because it washes off.


Kirstin: What’s your new office like?

Paul: The new office is activity based. They’ve got a mixture of standing and sitting desks, they’ve got their breakout areas. The really interesting thing is that they have the office space is two ends of a building and they’ve got a central atrium.

Kirstin: I like that. Lots of nice light in the middle of the building.

Paul: Beautiful light and they’ve got little areas, like terrace areas, that you can sit out on those floors.

Kirstin: To look out over the balcony.

Paul: The other offices in the building, they’re not shut off, they’ve got half height glass so you can lean over the glass and shout down to…

Kirstin: I’ve worked in an office like that. We were on the ground floor and upstairs, in corporate cons, there was a lady with and incredibly loud sneeze. I never got to know who it was but because it was all open around the atrium, every time she sneezed, everyone was like, “What!” [laughs] It was hilarious.

Paul: That’s the thing. Obviously, you’re going to hear…

Kirstin: You are going to hear a bit of chatter and if someone is a loud sneezer.

Paul: The nice thing, I think, is there’s areas that wouldn’t be so open and inviting around the lifts. Like you were saying with the mirror, those conversations that you have around when you bump into people at the lift with people you don’t usually see.

Kirstin: You can, maybe there’s some chairs there so you can postpone your lift trip and sit down for a bit.

Paul: That’s right. “Nice to see you. Let’s just sit down and have a chat.”

Kirstin: The one that I worked in with that atrium, it was quite a new building. It had been an engineering firm so they had built a bunch of new buildings for themselves. That actually had the kitchen and cafe style breakout areas by the lift. You could just drift over there.

Paul: The ground floor has a cafe downstairs as well.

Kirstin: What’s that like? Is it just a cafe for you organization?

Paul: It’s a cafe for all of the companies that are in the building. The organization itself has got a kitchen area. It’s got stools and high bench tops, different spaces that you can sit down and chat.

It’s got a whole different range of spaces. The company I’m going to work for, I’ve only just moved into such a building, I think it’s part of an experiment for them to work in. They want to collaborate more. This is definitely a thing that they’re trying to achieve.

Kirstin: It’s a great start. Moving into a new building is perfect opportunity to do an interesting refit.

Paul: It’s so different from the space that they were in before, which was closed and traditional.

Kirstin: Was it partitions?

Paul: I don’t think they had partitions but there were definitely people with offices. You couldn’t see who was in the meeting room, the door was closed. The new building has got all the meeting rooms have frosted glass with a little windows so you can see.

Kirstin: This really handy if you’re looking for someone. [laughs] You can just sort of run past them and look. Signal to them.

I was telling someone last night, we had some people come over to our office last night, I always find people are really fascinated by our office and are quite impressed by the view and the fact that we have a massive space in the middle.

I was saying that it used to be quite different. Obviously, I wasn’t around at that time but did you see this office before it was refitted?

Paul: I did, briefly. It had a completely closed in middle section, like a meeting room or a board room, with no windows.

Kirstin: Grim.

Paul: No natural light.

Kirstin: Wow. To me, I forget what the office is like because I’m here every day, I’m very jaded to it. To have people come in and say, “What an amazing space!” it kind of reminds me and prompts me to think about what else we could do with it as well.

Paul: Absolutely, because we set the space up. It was designed by us.

Kirstin: Good job. Well done.

Paul: I think there is an opportunity for us to…

Kirstin: Revisit?

Paul: Yeah.

Kirstin: Because we were talking about moving offices recently. It’s one of those things that is always last thing on your list when you’ve got a list of things to do, to look at offices.

What we actually came to, in the end, was, “Let’s not move. It’s a great space, it’s a good size. Let’s just think about making some improvements.”

It’s like, “If it ain’t broke.” It might be slightly broken, you might want to slightly fix it but, I think, rather than going through the trauma of a move, we don’t really need to do that. We’re lucky we do have a large space that we can do a lot with it.

Paul: Absolutely and we just rethink some of the spaces that we’ve got, and try to think of different ways we can use them.

Kirstin: What I’d like to do is to not waste so much space. Some of the space is a little bit wasted, I think. Particularly by the door.

One comment last night, someone came in and said, “Isn’t it great that your guys have so much space to themselves. I’m use to walking in and seeing developers packed in.” I thought, “Yeah, that sounds grim.”

Paul: That’s how it used to be.

Kirstin: I went to a friend’s office in London, when I was there in May. That’s what it was like. A biggish room but set up with desks like rows. Just so packed, you could barely move between them. I was aghast.

I was like, “How do you do any work?” Because there’s a lot of people in there.

Paul: The great thing about our bigger desks and our space is that the high-adjustable desks, we’ve mentioned this a couple of times, when you’re standing you are more easily approached. People will come over to you and talk to you, if you’re standing at your desk, they’ll come over for a chat and it’s much more open.

Kirstin: It’s harder for people sneak up on you.

Paul: It’s quite awkward when you’re sitting down and someone walks over to you and they are standing.

Kirstin: It’s like an unequal footing.

Paul: You feel like you have to stand up or the person who is standing has to kneel down.

The other thing is that the space on the desk is so big, they can just move their stuff over. They can literally stand next to each other.

Kirstin: Have you seen my desk? [laughs] Some of us just use it to store lots of junk on.

Paul: I noticed, like Bradley and one of our designers and one of our developers, moving their equipment over to one desk so they could work together very closely.

Kirstin: Bradley, being [indecipherable 22:30] , is quite fastidious about his space so it’s always clear. He’s very able to be flexible with his movement.

Paul: One of the things we’ll do, in future, is our equipment. We’ve got relatively new equipment.

Kirstin: Who is we? Us?

Paul: Yes, Boost.

Kirstin: Just thinking because you’re moving. [laughs] Which we…

Paul: Probably as you guys start to replace that equipment, add new computers, you’ll probably go for laptops.

Kirstin: That’s the idea but I was really interested when Jeremy suggested that they not use the monitors, which I think the idea of thinking about that more carefully before we decide what we’re going to get is a pretty good one. I would be loathed to get a bunch of fancy monitors and laptops if no one used the monitors.

Paul: What I’m really interested in is just some spaces that have got monitors in them, like the pod space, where you’ve got a big screen.

Kirstin: That’s a great idea.

Paul: We’ve talked about mod programing before and what is [indecipherable 23:29] and his team and the way they work. They all sit around one screen and they work together and they solve complex problems as a team. The BAs, the testers, the developers, the designers, all sitting in the same room.

That would be a great thing to experiment with and see how powerful that is, because I think it has got some power.

Kirstin: Absolutely. I think, in general, the idea of not having a monitor each is a great idea because if we are trying to promote peer working, what better way?

Obviously, if you’ve got a laptop, you’ve still got your own screen if you need to. I would say the designers would still need a messy monitor. [laughs]

Paul: I would say, that if you do get screens, that you probably don’t need them on every desk. If you’re activity-based working, if you come in and you want to work on a big screen that day, then you can.

Kirstin: People can choose to, even if they just wanted to sit on a sofa and work off a laptop all day, right?

Paul: That’s right.

Kirstin: Although, I don’t think that would be very good for your back but it’s up to the individual, isn’t it?

Paul: Bean bags.

Kirstin: I don’t really care for bags.

Paul: That beautiful reclining chair we’ve got.

Kirstin: The Glossie reproduction. That doesn’t seem conducive to work. You are very much hooked back.

Paul: It’s conducive to restful thinking. [laughs]

Kirstin: I think it’s fine for naps and I’m not adverse to people having naps. I think it’s a really good idea. I wouldn’t do it. I don’t think I feel comfortable enough snoring in the office. I’ve certainly had colleagues taken naps during the day before in other companies and never a problem. Stretch out on a sofa and have a nap.

Paul: It was something you did when you are at school, when I was at primary school.

Kirstin: I really did it in kinder actually.

Paul: When I said primary school, I meant from five to seven.

Kirstin: I think we had to stay awake after age five, unfortunately. [laughs] Cat naps, nothing quite like it, is there?

Paul: Like I say, it’s the things that we should experiment with, these are possibilities, try out the different possibilities and see what the opportunities are for different ways of working. We are noise workers. It’s becoming a very different way of working for…

Kirstin: To the traditional headphones on and the pod, don’t talk to anyone.

Paul: We’re not building the same things over and over again. We’re building different things. We’re innovating all the time. It’s more like a laboratory than an office space and that’s the way we need to think.

Kirstin: At least, it should be. I think one of the ways to foster that is to changing the environment.

Paul: That’s right.

Kirstin: Because, if you are looking to affect a change, then environmental is one of the things that has a massive impact. What was it, like 90 percent? Something that Nathan was quoting a while ago.

Paul: We’re talking in agile quite a lot about setting up a safe to fail environment so, because we want to encourage learning and we want to get it done as quickly as possible and failure is a way to learn.

We are constantly conducting these sort of experiments, that are very short and sharp and if we learn, we amplify these experiments if they work and dampen them if they don’t. We can try something different. That environment is quite important.

Kirstin: I was thinking, on the fly, we could totally try out the sort of sofa break out idea by taking these out there and then just popping the round table in here for meetings. See how that works for a few weeks. Can we do that tomorrow?


Kirstin: I’m joking. You’re not here tomorrow. You’re imaginary. How about next week? [laughs] I think that’s about it for today. Although Rick is waving at me, I don’t know why.

Paul: No, she’s good.

Kirstin: OK, she’s moving now. Thanks for joining us.

Paul: Thanks very much.

Kirstin: Hopefully we will be back in two weeks, without Paul but perhaps he would like to come and join us as a guest at some point and have a chat about his experiences at his new organization.

Paul: Absolutely. If you’ve got any thoughts, please post them.

Kirstin: Do and we’ll respond to that after. Thank you.

Paul: See you.