What to Consider If You Want to Switch to an Open Work Environment

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Agile methodologies are more than a decade old. Logistically, one of the changes needed to make an agile implementation successful is promoting an open office environment. Organizations that traditionally have had private workspaces have in the last ten years attempted—or at least thought of attempting—open-office workspace plans, either as cubicles or even completely open offices like in a lab setup.

Many organizations favor such a change to promote better collaboration and team interaction. Articles more than a decade old have discussed the pros and cons of physically opening up the work environment, including providing checklists to help evaluate whether such a setup would work.

Although organizations can justify such physical changes as improvements, an employee sees moving from a cubicle to a private office as a step up, both in professional stature and as a morale boost. Additionally, in the case of corner offices or offices with a view, bagging such a space gives an employee bragging rights—or at the very least offers him a feel-good factor. Studies show people in private offices have the highest satisfaction levels.

We understand the importance of teamwork and collaboration to successful agile environments and that an open office can promote these qualities, but most reports—including articles from reputable news sources such as The Wall Street Journal and The Economist—cite data showing that private offices with additional planned spaces for open discussions and collaboration are more popular and yield better workplace productivity.

One survey says about 70 percent of organizations in the United States now have open office setups. However, The Wall Street Journal reports that 63 percent of tasks are interrupted in open-plan offices, but people working in private offices have only 49 percent of tasks interrupted.

The latest organization to jump on the open-office bandwagon is Microsoft. One of the company’s large groups, the Developer Division, which is responsible for Visual Studio and several other developer tools, has gone the open office route.

What's interesting about this switch is that the policy has been uniformly applied top-down, including the division's executive in charge, who has given up his private office space and retained a conference room to use as needed. Whether or not such a move positively impacts productivity, the fact that the executive has himself embraced the change will at least lessen any adverse morale impact with a better buy-in.

Open-office environments cannot be implemented overnight under the hood of “going agile.” The move needs to be a carefully thought out decision that takes into account the productivity and morale factors of employees. Bear in mind that collaboration, creativity, and innovation are all important for an organization to succeed, and building workspaces to accommodate all of these qualities is important.

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Mukesh Sharma

Mukesh Sharma is the founder and CEO of QA InfoTech, a company that specializes in independent software quality assurance and testing. He is the author of “ Are You Smart Enough To Be A Tester” and enjoys test evangelism ranging from speaking at conferences, helping conferences rate and choose speaker proposals, to writing for publications including StickyMinds. He can be reached at mukesh@qainfotech.com