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Written by Greg Patterson   
Thursday, 26 February 2009

Agile methods emphasize face-to-face communication over written documents. Most agile teams are located in a single open plan office to facilitate such communication. An open plan office environment makes collaboration much easier. Communication is clear and open between all members of the team. In our agile development environment, it is important that we get things done quickly with a partnership between designers, developers, and QA. Because of our workspace, there aren’t geographic divisions between different groups. Each environment has strengths and weaknesses. I really like this open plan office because it encourages communication, team unity, and the spirit of agile development.

Benefits of a Single Open Plan Office

Communication is an important thing. Even though Developers, QA Engineers, IXDs and management all have different responsibilities, in this open environment we work together, help each other, and sometimes crossover roles and responsibilities to get the job

The benefits I enjoy from a single open plan office include:

  • Clear communication on the details of work. If clarification is needed, it is immediate.
  • Fast communication. If there is an issue, everyone knows about it – everyone is in the loop.
  • More collaboration. Because we are closer, there is more cooperation. If we need help, we know who to ask and when they are available.
  • Team unity. The team is much more cohesive and has fun. There isn’t a strong feeling of “the development team vs. the QA team.” It is the project team.
  • An open air feeling. You can see sunshine coming in the windows. The room seems large and not closed in. It’s like you have a huge office, with more people in it, with the buzz of work going on.
  • Management can more easily monitor work in progress.
  • Sometimes there is a conversation that you can overhear, and you can add value or feedback to that conversation. In a closed environment, they may not have known to ask you and could have wasted time.

Disadvantages of a Single Open Plan Office

There are challenges with an open plan office environment that must be addressed. Here are a few we encounter:

  • No privacy while you are working. White boards create the appearance of a wall. The white boards are on wheels which makes them temporary and mobile. Also there are conference rooms for meetings and smaller rooms for private conversations or phone calls.
  • A higher level of noise. This can be minimized through noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Conversations that cross several non-participant desks. This causes problems when people in the middle don’t want to be part of the conversation. In our group, instant messaging tools solve this challenge.
  • Meetings next door. Sometimes meetings start up at someone’s desk, attract more participants, and start a meeting in the middle of the floor. This is bad for individuals trying to focus on something.
  • Greater chance of getting sick. According to some health studies, open plan offices contribute to the likelihood of contracting contagious diseases.

I have had the opportunity to work in many environments during my career, from tiny cubes with dull, brown walls, to a spacious, quiet office. Working in an open plan office environment and not in a fabric covered box, has really helped my team work together and break down barriers.

Greg Patterson is a QA engineer for the Church.

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