A few years ago, the Norwegian telecom company Telenor decided to invest in a strange experiment. They got rid of hundreds of coffee machines, leaving just one for every 120 employees and expanded their cafeteria areas to accommodate more people. Surprisingly, despite the huge costs of the capital investment this experiment yielded a 20% increase in profits, a whopping $200 million.
Because office design can have a huge impact on the efficiency and creativity of employees and the right layout can improve information flow and knowledge exchange within a company. By the simple act of limiting the number of coffee stations, they ensured people from different departments would mix, socialize and network. What followed was improved information flow within the company and spontaneous collaborations between various teams.
The lesson is simple
The right design can stimulate your teams to reach their full potential. Recently, we embarked on our own experiment in workplace design, an experiment we ‘humbly’ called the The Best Agile Office Ever.
At Xsolve and Chilid (our sister company) we have been working with an agile approach to web development for years and we can attest to its value. More precisely, we are applying a popular agile framework called Scrum across the whole organization, including development teams and soft teams (HR, Sales, Marketing and Operations).
This has brought us amazing results with greater efficiency, transparency, communication, and predictability to name just a few. We have also noticed that Scrum has changed the way our teams are using the office space and thus we decided to design XSolve & Chilid’s new HQ in a way that would support the agility of our teams and the way they work.
With both companies expanding, we also wanted to preserve our culture and make sure that we sustain important elements such as the cross-pollination of ideas between departments and teams. After many months of research we came up with a recipe that has guided us throughout the process.
What is an ‘agile office’?
Our definition of the term is really simple: an agile office is a workspace that suits and supports the needs of an agile organization. You should consider creating an agile office both if you would like to encourage your teams to be more agile and when you already work in agile way.
To kickstart the process, we suggest that you spend one or two days simply observing your teams, talking to them and taking careful notes on what is important for them and the way they work. Studying our teams at work, we have noticed that there are several pillars that define the way they work: collaboration, communication, openness to change, transparency, and predictability of the development process.
Those were the basic notions that drove the architecture and design of our new office space and Ask yourself if there is anything you would like to change or improve such as exchange of knowledge in the organization or cross-team collaboration. We also took other factors into consideration, such as our company values, organizational learning and employee wellbeing.
We have distilled the core ideas and below we present you our top tips on how to create an agile office for your organization.
1. Create an open-concept space
After 13 years of various experiments with space arrangement, we are at a point when we can safely say that an open-concept space has great benefits for an organization. However, if you want your office space fully support an agile culture you should consider the following suggestions:
Remove any cubicles and all partitions
Two of the greatest strengths of an open-concept space is that it improves communication and transparency, so all partitions should be taken down. If your people cannot see each other and team members are unable to freely communicate then you don’t have a truly open space.
Enhance team mobility
Consider installing terminals or workstations at every desk so it’s easy for developers to move around, changing seats and teams – they can just plug and work. Remember to invest in good monitor handle kits, so each individual can adjust the screen according to their specific needs.
Monitors at every desk allow team members to change sits with easy plug-and-work solution.
Enable easier collaboration
If you want to encourage pair programming or simply greater communication in your company you have to offer workstations that are comfortable and allow people to join each other at the desks without the awkwardness of straddling a table leg. We have opted for customized desks with a retracted middle leg so people can easily join their colleagues and work alongside them.
Stick to a single-floor plan for your office and remember about the spacing between the rows of desks. People should be able to get up without disturbing those around them. This spacing should also allow people to comfortably create spontaneous meetings by simply turning their chairs to face each other. However, if the occasion requires a quieter or more private space, it should be easy to move to one without running around the whole office in search of a suitable space. We suggest lining your open space with small meeting rooms or booths.
Variety of options for work
The open-concept office shouldn’t only be about desks. Consider offering a variety of work options like standing desks, bouncy balls to sit on, beanbags, hammocks or swings. Sometimes just changing your usual environment can encourage creative thinking and enhance problem-solving abilities.
Draw, write and scribble everywhere
Visualising ideas and concepts is one of the most useful tools for learning and forming concrete plans. Every wall in your office could be a blank canvas for your team to use if you cover it with transparent wipe-clean paint. Of course, whiteboards are equally effective. Consider buying a whiteboard on wheels for each team; these can easily be taken to a meeting room and then back to where the team is based. Glass walls can also serve as spaces for scribbles and sticky notes.
TV screens on the walls
consider providing each team with a flat screen to cast the most important data. Visualising data can enhance transparency in the organization and improve the predictability of outcomes.
2. Provide spaces for conference calls, meetings, and quiet work
While open-concept space remains crucial for collaboration and teamwork, a quiet space is also vital to comfortably allow people some privacy for meetings or conference calls. Here are a couple of things to bear in mind while designing your meeting rooms:
Support your teams with dedicated meeting rooms
If possible, each team should have easy access to a meeting room. Our idea is to have one private, small meeting room for every two teams.
The aim is to provide easy access without the necessity to book weeks in advance. The teams can also safely leave their notes and scribbles on the walls without the threat that the next occupants will erase everything.
Consider installing noise-absorbing panels wherever possible
Noise pollution is rated in the top five most irritating and distracting factors at work. Noise-absorbing panels, soft carpeting and even plants can all reduce the level of distracting sounds.
Cover the walls with transparent paint
People can then use them as huge whiteboards.
Invest in a good teleconferencing equipment
As a company providing remote teams, we know how important this can be. Teleconferences should be as easy as sitting across the table from your client.
Provide tables on wheels and foldable chairs in small meeting rooms
These simple additions enable easy and quick reconfiguration of the space according to the team’s needs.
Create a cozy atmosphere in big conference rooms
For bigger conference rooms designed for holding longer and more taxing meetings, provide comfortable chairs and soft lights. Try to recreate the atmosphere of a living room so people can relax and focus on the task at hand.
If you want your organization to be more transparent, consider the effect of your office layout on people. Can you really talk about transparency if no one knows what is happening behind closed doors or when cubicles are blocking your line of sight? Here are a few things to remember when thinking about improving the physical transparency of your organization:
Glass walls everywhere
This is a simple yet effective way of increasing transparency. Almost every meeting room (but one) in our company has glass walls.
Open space without cubicles or partitions
Another important element of transparency (as discussed in the section above).
Monitors on the walls
Keep everyone in the loop by displaying burndown charts, projects’ predictability, backlogs or important stats for anyone to see.
Management, sit with your teams
Don’t let higher management close themselves up in their corner offices. For better transparency and communication, they should sit among the team – they are part of it, after all!
4. Disrupted ergonomics
Although the web offers fantastic communication possibilities, face to face interactions are hard to beat when it comes to cross-pollination of ideas and knowledge across departments. But how to encourage such behavior? Traditionally, offices are designed to increase convenience for employees and maximize the time at their desk.
However, the new approach, pioneered by companies such as Google, asks you to turn this idea on its head and disrupt the ergonomics of your office to increase the number of chance interactions. It turns out that creating an unintuitive office design helps people to move around their workspace more thus increasing interactions between colleagues and teams and improving the exchange of knowledge. Here are a few steps you can take to disrupt your office:
If you have to walk across the whole office to get to the printer there is a good chance your eyes will cross with at least a couple of people, opening up an opportunity for a conversation.
One coffee machine
Remember Telenor? The coffee machine can be your meeting spot where members of all teams mix and interact.
Amplify the effect of the coffee machine by creating a cafeteria space where people can continue their conversations. Recreate the cozy atmosphere of an urban café or bistro where your employees really want to hang out.
This might sound surprising but in many cses, the reception area with a classic counter and a dedicated person guarding the entrance is simply unnecessary. If possible, consider removing it entirely and instead investing in a friendly and comfortable place with sofas or cafe-style tables.
Encourage all employees to take action and greet people at the door and you’ll send a strong message about your company culture to whoever visits your premises.
Consider the flow of people throughout the day and carefully think about how you can stimulate their mobility. We decided to place the main bathrooms at the very end of our office. People have to walk from the main open space, pass the cafeteria and kitchen, and enter another room to get there.
This way we encouraged the use of the whole office space throughout the day. It also increases the chance that you will see all your colleagues in the course of a single working day.
5. Fun and relaxation
For the past few years there has been a lot of hype around play areas at work. Critics see them as a gimmick to draw in millennials or a fashionable fad, a must-have if you want to position your company as a ‘cool’ startup. We believe that there is much more to it, namely, fun and relaxation can help your team solve complex problems.
Researchers have proven that factors such as being in a good mood, taking a break, or allowing your mind to wander all help us to experience those breakthrough moments. To trigger that process you should consider providing alternative spaces in your office. Sometimes a change of environment is enough to start a new thought process, other times you need to dive into a completely unrelated activity.
Research also shows that fun and play at work are crucial for improving both productivity and creativity. Here are are a few ideas for relaxation and play environments:
When the open office is too much to put your thoughts together you can dive into a perfectly quiet environment, either for work or to simply lay down and relax for 15 minutes.
Provide places where employees can dive into quiet work or simply relax in silence.
This is where the team can let off steam and make some noise. Equip this space with a PlayStation, table football, table tennis, darts or whatever else comes to mind.
Terraces, a garden, a balcony, you name it. There is nothing more refreshing than a gust of fresh air. Equip your space with deck chairs or bean bags as well as big sun umbrellas and maybe the chance for a little volleyball or badminton. Encourage outdoor and walking meetings whenever possible.
Allow people to relax in a cozy atmosphere where they can pick up a magazine and drink a coffee with pleasure. Apart from lunches and coffee breaks this area can also be used for meetings if you want a change of environment from the regular meeting rooms. We use TV screens on wheels to turn our café into a meeting space whenever required.
On a final note, there is one more thing you ought to consider – namely the style of your interior design. Over the past 15 years, startups have changed the way we think about contemporary office design, incorporating crazy colors, flamboyant furniture, and surprising decorative elements. However, before you commit to that style, ask yourself a couple of questions. Is this environment serving the employees or only serving the brand?
After the initial wow effect, will your team be happy to work in that environment two or three years from now? The choice is yours but we decided to go with a cozy, homely feel instead, locking our design down to a palette of just four colors and allowing the people to brighten the space. If you demand high concentration and creativity from your employees, don’t overstimulate them with unnecessary design thrills.
Click here to see the Agile Office infographic.
We hope these tips will help you to improve efficiency, transparency, and communication within your company. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to contact us or leave a comment below. We would also love to hear about your experience with office design – please share your insights with us.
You can download a list of our Agile Office furniture and equipment here. The full album of our agile office photos is available on Flickr.
All images by Janina Tyńska