The agile workspace design concept has its roots in an approach to developing software. In the first article in our agile series, we answer where the agile term comes from, what it means today and how it’s changed our environment.
What we mean by agile working and agile workspace design are two very different things, but the former has definitely influenced the latter, as we’ll see.
“Once-in-a-lifetime cusp of a shift”
According to US Work Design Magazine, Google’s Jeremy Neuner believes our society and economy are on a “once-in-a-lifetime cusp of a shift” in how, where, and why we work. He told delegates at the sixth annual Agile Workplace Conference: “It’s not about the space, but the people in the space. For perhaps the first time in human history, we have the chance to align our economic development with our human development.”
Jeremy, who is the product area lead for real estate and workplace services at Google, added: “If you want to unlock human potential, you have to give people freedom.” Powerful stuff.
Biggest change since the Industrial Revolution
Facilities group, Mitie feels the shift is almost as seismic: “The last time there was this much change in the workplace was at the start of the Industrial Revolution, which took a whole century,” says its Executive Research Programme. “The Information Revolution has happened in less than a decade, which highlights the dramatic pace of change.”
True, the pace of digital change has been phenomenal, and it’s only going to get faster. Which makes Mitie’s 2015/16 research programme all the more dated already — it was collated from interviews with 200 senior property and facilities directors and started in 2013. Yet it reveals some “startling” findings, including the much-reported prediction that by 2020 more than 70% of UK offices will be agile workplaces.
Its research programme adds that by 2020 the need for commercial office space in the UK will be half that of 2010; that just 40% of office workers will have their ‘own’ desk; and 60% of staff will spend more time working out of the office than in it.
A lot has changed since 2016. We’re only two years off those figures, and there is still a bewilderingly high amount of offices stuck in the open plan or cubicle hell of the last century. Nevertheless, the perceptions of senior property and facilities directors are interesting to note.
Mitie’s definition of agile, via Agile Organisation founder, Paul Allsopp, goes like this: “Agile working is about bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task. It is working within guidelines (of the task) but without boundaries (of how you achieve it).”
We can do better than that.
In this context of software engineering, agile is a set of four values and 12 principles, not a set of prescriptive practices, as Mark Shead says in this video. Agile was formalised in a manifesto for software developers in 2001, but it started a decade or so earlier, according to TechBeacon.
According to agile coach and author, Belinda Waldock, from Being Agile, it’s a global methodology developed by the tech sector that not only provides a business and project management tool kit but also, more importantly, a “culture and mindset.” A culture of agility is “vital,” she says, when launching and growing businesses and developing new products in an environment of “extreme uncertainty and constant change with disruptive and fast-moving markets.”
She adds: “Agile works by integrating change on a regular basis, whether driven by external or internal forces. It’s a learning-based method that builds continuous improvement into your daily workflow. Agile builds time to reflect, think and experiment into the process, providing a structure to make small, regular, iterative improvements.”
Despite its IT origins, today agile is applied to other knowledge sectors, as Belinda explains: “The tech sector uses agile to create enterprises that are led by its people. They leverage their talents and create teams that perform at their best which enables their businesses to thrive. But that approach is so transferable. Tech companies have the same problems as lots of other businesses in different sectors.
“Agile is about harnessing the power of people and processes by reorganising people away from silos and into cross-functional teams. It’s a way to gain visibility and improve performance and, by its very nature, it encourages collaborative, collective relationships through ownership of roles and autonomous teams.”
For example, in a software company, instead of having teams of project managers, developers and designers all working in different departments, an agile approach would mix up the skill sets, picking one or two from each department. This new grouping becomes a “small, cross-functional, autonomous team of 6-8 people who work together and in a collective, interactive, owned space.”
And this is where we find our link with agile workspace design.
Agile working reorganises the office
This change in the way people work has led to an organic reorganisation of offices where agile working is fully adopted.
“Once you have that agile mindset your environment has to change,” says Belinda. “I have seen time and time again teams reorganise their offices about six months into their agile journey. When I come into their workspace the whole place has been reorganised. Everything and everyone has moved away from their corners and silos. That’s great to see.”
It’s not that agile coaches like Belinda instruct teams to reorganise their offices as part of the methodology. Far from it. Like most things in agile, it unfolds naturally. “I’ve not advised them to change their workspace they just do it because it makes more sense. It’s very organic.”
Central to agile is visual project management which uses collaborative spaces for planning, mapping and creative thinking. Spaces like walls, boards, glass; Post-It notes, canvases, dashboards and roadmaps. Along with meetings and games, the boards within agile help connect teams and build regular channels of communication around shared spaces, enabling people to interact, engage, share and work together.
Often workspaces make space for boards and then realign their layouts and movements around their new boards and collaborative activities.
“That’s where the magic happens”
In a true agile (or smarter) working environment, teams are given autonomy and ownership over the work, roles and their environment. They may turn their desks so they can see each others’ screens for learning and sharing ideas. They may put a sofa in the corner for break out, social or meetings. They might have a private huddle room for focus; they may have stand-up desks or high-backed sofas for quick meetings and collaboration. In a true agile working environment, it’s up to the team.
[We’ll see in the next article how these four elements — learning, focus, social and collaboration — relate to agile workspace design.]
Belinda says: “And that’s where the magic happens. If you make people feel like they own it, if you put them in the right workspace (or allow them to change it) they will do their best work and productivity and innovation are the results.”
One of the 12 agile manifesto principles fit it perfectly here: “Build projects around motivated individuals; give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done.”
Agile engineering = offices optimised for collaboration
Spotify’s journey best illustrates agile’s influence on workspace design. The music, podcast, and video streaming service has been using the agile development approach since it launched in 2008. Importantly (to understand the link between agile working and what has become known as agile workspace design) it used autonomy as its key driving force.
Spotify says in this video that autonomy is important because it’s motivating, and “motivated people build better stuff”. It also speeds things up by allowing decisions to be made locally and allows the business to scale. Spotify focuses on high alignment and high autonomy simultaneously, acting like a jazz band: “although each musician is autonomous and plays its own instrument they listen to each other and focus on the whole song together.”
The business created “small, cross-functional, self-organising teams,” or “autonomous squads,” usually less than eight people. They sit together and have end-to-end responsibility for the stuff they develop, deciding what to build, how to build it and how to work together to that aim. The squads are aligned with the company’s bigger vision and they have their own long and short-term goals.
But here’s the important bit.
Their offices are “optimised for collaboration”. The squad members work closely together with adjustable desks with easy access to each other’s screens. Right next to their desks there’s a lounge where they gather for planning sessions and retrospectives and a ‘huddle room’ for smaller meetings or quiet time. Almost all walls are whiteboards.
Spotify’s use of agile is manifested in the physical environment of its teams. The results are clear to see.
As Belinda says: “Agile is about harnessing the potential of the people, optimising that and giving them the best space. It triggers the office reorganisation into a collective, owned, interactive environment. Agile by its nature improves communication and encourages innovation.”
It would be rude to leave Google out of this.
Everything is on wheels
An extreme example of agile offices is the notorious Google. As Google program manager, Mamie Rheingold, says in this video, Google Garage is its hacker-maker-design space where Googlers come together to learn, create and build. Power cords drop down from the roof, everything is within reach and no-one is confined to one place.
Google’s design evangelist, Nadya Direkova says: “The garage is kind of like my playground. When you come in you can write on the tables, you can write on the walls and you can reconfigure the tables to be in any position you want. Everything is on wheels and that allows people to be more flexible and to be more playful in a way that the typical space and the typical conference room just wouldn’t. The space doesn’t need to be fancy in order to be functional but what it really needs to be is flexible.”