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How to Design Office Space for Scrum or Optimal Productivity

I was asked to work with a global architecture firm developing parts of Apple’s new campus. This campus is built for scaling Scrum. Open, flexible team rooms with minimal furniture ring the building, and every five meet together in an open room for Scrum of Scrums and MetaScrum. Every five of those meet in an open room for Scrum of Scrum of Scrums and MetaMetaScrum. And in the center of that sits the cafeteria to maximize cross-pollination and chance meetings.

Previously, I gave input into the interior build-out of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Campus, and at that time was surprised by how many single-person cubicles were requested by many employees.

With 20 years of research (Stanford), more than 4,000 companies (CA Associates), we do now know the fastest teams do what Apple does: “swarm”, or work together on one piece of work until it is done. This requires a backlog of work that is chunked in ways that the whole team could work on together, and not by specific discipline or phase but by module or value. This then creates the demand for the open floor plan. But, an open floor plan just doesn’t make sense for companies that have not incented cross-functional teams and re-split their backlogs into slices of customer-visible value or swap-able modules.

Walk into any of the 5 wealthiest companies in the world and we see massive caverns of beautiful, comfortable, flexible open space, inhabited by roving bands of self-organizing high-performing teams with furniture on wheels if they have furniture at all. Walk into many struggling companies and we see a tragically hilarious mix of open space and cube-farms, with people fleeing the open space and struggling to get peace-and-quiet to shelter from interruptions to their individually-assigned task-sized and skill-specific work items. Here an office floor plan adaptation of Conway’s law is perfectly visible: the structure of the work dictates the best fit structure of the workplace.

So what to do?

Best I have seen to date: if the work is split for individual work, the more private space the better. If the work is split such that an entire cross-functional team is required to call the work “done”, the team demands an open space to do that work and even the miniature “phone rooms” and bookable conference rooms sit unused.

Specific implementations I’ve seen be successful in the fastest teams I have had the pleasure to work with or around:

  • Power drops from the ceiling for rapid prototyping or computing.
  • Two-tiered rolling desks that are load rated to >200kg. The top tier often becomes a pedestal for a bolted-down large screen to show whatever is most important to the team and stakeholders. The lower “desk” is a high seat as often as it is a laptop stand or anvil.
  • Rolling double-sided whiteboards often become sound deflectors as much as scrum boards.
  • A cluster of bean-bag chairs and a cushy easy-clean couch every so often is invaluable as the team’s energy sinks and rises during the cadence of their sprint.
  • Some portable white noise speakers around these areas are also helpful.

The building itself is typically the biggest and most industrial possible, where people don’t worry about hitting something on the floor with a hammer or drilling something onto a wall. The building should provide access to all the comfortable human I/O on a regular grid or distance (bathrooms, garbage/recycling/compost, kitchen or snack shelves, printers/scanners, tool cribs, supply shelves). The most significant infrastructure investment seems to be holding the entire space from floor to ceiling at near the ideal temperature, which usually means a grid of ceiling fans and HVAC vents offset from the ceiling power drops.

I hope that helps.

If you have a great work space, please share it with the community at large. I would love to see you upload photos of your awesome team space or workspace and tag our Twitter handle @scruminc or share your data and experience in the comments section below.


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