Decreased Productivity in Open Floor Plan vs. Scrum and Agile

There is an interesting debate that I’ve taken more interest in recently. There’s new research which points at the productivity and health problems associated with open floor office plans.

However, adopting agile software development principles in a scrum setting is the most effective way of delivering quality software.

How can the two be rectified? William Pietri commented recently on one of the top signs of a poorly functioning scrum space is people wearing headphones. I think that people wearing headphones is a direct result of team members trying to combat noise pollution in their work environments. I think the key distinction is headphone use the default mode of the person in their work environment? If people are wearing headphones to combat noise pollution, are those people available when needed?

Pair programmers produce great software, but they are noisy. Being in a pair is exhausting in itself, but trying to pair, and at the same time filter out the noise of another pair nearby is very stressful.

There are also plenty of development tasks that don’t require active pair development. Engaging in these tasks in a chaotic environment can be difficult.

Here would be my recommendations for reducing distractions and pollution in the work environment while still retaining the collaborative nature of agile with scrum:

  1. Separate scrum teams into different laboratories. In many of the environments I’ve worked in, all of the different business groups are mixed in a wide open floor plan. Sales, client services, finance, IT, development, even executives are mixed across the floor plan with scrum teams. This is a distraction for all parties. A laboratory is a specific workspace for a team. Laboratories can be frenetic, active, and creative, but any pollution is contained.
  2. Follow the pomodoro technique. Programmers, especially pairs, should engage in 20-25 minute periods of focused attention on a task and interrupt that task with a five minute break. Modern research generally agrees that the average human sustained attention span is around 20 minutes. Anything more than that is generally the result of intentional training. The pomodoro technique takes advantage of people’s natural attention spans and allows them to recharge. The recharging period is also an opportunity to escape any open floor plan or laboratory stresses and mitigate their effects. Hence…
  3. Go outside. Use a pomodoro break to get fresh air. If you’re lucky enough to have a park space near your work, utilize it.
  4. Reduce your computer distractions. Turn off your RSS feed reader. If you’re in the middle of a pomodoro, close your e-mail app, close IM accounts that aren’t related to work. Turn off OS-wide IM notification apps (like Growl, or bouncing dock icons). There is such a thing as unnecessary multi-tasking. Reducing these distractions can reduce your stress level.
  5. Remain available. Before starting a new pomodoro, make sure that your attention isn’t required elsewhere. If team or workspace noise requires headphones, make sure that it’s not your default mode. Interrupt headphone usage periodically when noise or distraction subside.
  6. Practice attention exercises. There are plenty of exercises that can be done to increase the depth and length of your focus and attention. Research some and find ones that work for you. Talk with your colleagues about exercises they employ.
  7. Be mindful of your effect on others. Take non-team related discussions and activities to isolated spaces.
  8. Discuss distractions with the team. Deal with workspace distractions in a “parking lot” discussion after your scrum stand-up. Perhaps there are ways that the team can improve the workspace to reduce distraction.

Do you have any other ideas on how to decrease the cons of an open floor plan, while retaining the pros of a collaborative work environment?

One response to “Decreased Productivity in Open Floor Plan vs. Scrum and Agile

  1. Ambiguous User

    Give every person an office! There’s no possible way people can function/focus/concentrate being distracted by the physical presence of so many bodies, people talking, etc., … TOO DISTRACTING.

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