When we think about agile transformation - the move toward leaner, more nimble ways of working within an organisation - the focus is often on process and people. For many of the organisations we work for, though, there is an increasing realisation that place also plays a critical part in enabling greater agility.
It's a daunting task, though, to not only have to radically rethink ways of working but also the spaces you actually work in. The mistake often lies in the assumption that you can simply throw in some whiteboards, give a team some collaborative space and then watch agility happen - until, of course, it doesn't. It's the same mistake we see people make when they start 'going Agile' by using Scrum without any real insight into the 12 Principles of Agile.
With these questions of optimum space in mind, many of our clients have turned their gaze to the way the teams work here at TAB HQ and begun to ask us what makes our workspace so successful in supporting our product teams.
It's a valid question. Search the internet, and there are innumerable articles about what such workspaces should and should not include. At TAB, we don't adhere to a lot of these guidelines, and yet here we are - a highly successful Agile organisation in a new, recently fitted-out HQ.
In this post, rather than list out the dos and don'ts of agile space, or the number of whiteboards you need per size of team, I wanted to instead share some of the simple beliefs that underpin our idea of a great workspace. At their core, these beliefs are grounded in the principles of Agile and they represent not the rules or tools to create an agile environment but rather the different mindset you need to make it a reality.
1. Make it for users
TAB HQ has a singular purpose: it exists to provide the most conducive environment for our teams to create great software. For those of us involved in creating the working environment at Spitfire, our approach also embodied the very first principle of Agile: for us, our staff are our 'users' in an Agile sense, and our priority is to give them the best quality space that we can. Everything about the space planning at Spitfire is seen through the lens of this filter.
When we began to design the space at Spitfire, we started with a list of 22 killer requirements that ranged from the creative to the practical - the crucial point is, however, that they are our killer requirements. They define what great, productive agile space means to our team - not an interior designer, the company CEO, or even another agile company.
The list itself emerged organically from the cumulative insight we have gained over five years of continually testing the ways we work best. Reflecting the fourth principle of Agile, the list incorporates the views and feedback from those on the 'business' side of TAB and those in product and development roles - from our scrum masters to me, the Marketing Manager.
Even in a company that has never worked agile before, it's vital to ground the design of a new space not only in headcount or desk layout, but also the character and culture of your team. This is more that just 'user-centric' design; this is, in our case, 'TAB user-centric'. We're not just any group of workers - we're TABbers, and we have a shared outlook and way of working that suits us. Functional needs must be met, but without this bespoke, team-centred approach, any space planning is simply a superimposed layer - with the result being that spaces often end up obstructing a team they fail to adequately respond to.
As the basis for a brief, these requirements were also invaluable as a steering tool, helping our fit-out designers - outsiders, if you like - to understand what we value most. It's important to us, for example, that even at maximum capacity (over 200), we have the room we need to bring the whole company together at a minimum of twice a week. Our weekly company cadence is a cornerstone of how we share knowledge, embed our culture and maintain our relationships. This meant the fit-out team had to be smart about how we might scale on the floors over time, ensuring we never lose that space regardless of our size.
2. Make it an MVP
A special quality of TAB HQ is that we know it doesn't have to be perfect from the get-go, and neither will our work on creating a great working environment for our teams ever really be 'done'. Regarding our space this way allows us to respond to the inevitability of change much more effectively - whether that's because the WIFI isn't ready on Day 1 (thanks, BT) or because the size of our team has dramatically grown by the end of the year.
Our first floor kitchen is a case in point. The 'main' kitchen at TAB HQ, this is the largest communal kitchen space and an important social hub in the building. But at the moment, it’s not quite working as well as we would like - the eating area is a bit awkward, our staff tell us. So we need to mix it up, and we also need to give more seating options to seat more people. All I can say is thank goodness we didn’t fill it with bespoke furniture on Day 1...
Being open with a team about the space as an MVP that will continually be iterated and improved manages expectations when a workspace undergoes a big change. It also crucially fosters a pioneer spirit: goodwill and support is much more forthcoming when the team feel invested in the development of a space - not just it's passive inhabitants.
And with that in mind, don't be afraid to validate your MVP workspace with your users: ask for feedback from staff regularly and often.
Good or bad, we do this all the time. At every stage, we actively engaged our team in the creation of our new space at Spitfire. We provided in-person updates every week at our status and wrap-up meetings. When we moved in, we knew things would go wrong and that the space had a long way still to go (still does). There were bound to be frustrations and grumbling. But we used our best asset - our staff - to help us identify those problems, and formulate ideas that might otherwise never cross our minds. Slack once again proved the perfect tool to help us capture feedback in real-time with a dedicated channel - creating the an archive of all our staff's great ideas to make the space better, ready to roadmap for TAB HQ 2.0
3. Make it to be used
It is human nature to want to make space personal. It's really no wonder a little piece of us dies at the sight of a call centre or a cubicle - there is nothing of 'us' or 'me' within those spaces. The ability to shape and mould the world around us gives us control and ownership and it goes a long way to defining how safe, happy - and therefore productive - we feel. It also makes us territorial in the best possible sense, reinforcing a feeling of belonging.
With this in mind, TAB HQ is never precious. No-one from Facilities created our breakout spaces (and then found them deserted because they aren't the spaces the team really needed). Instead, breakout spaces literally break out at TAB, sometimes in surprising places. Any flat surface at TAB HQ is fair game for post-it notes, for example - whether that's on the side of a cabinet or on the back of a door.
And all the astroturf and greenhouses in the world don't foster creativity simply be being there. Our space looks good, and the furniture suits us - but it doesn't shout louder and neither is it more important than the creativity of the people who use it. That's why no-one got upset when one of our scrum masters discovered our white gloss meeting table made a great horizontal whiteboard - after he scribbled on it. We just ordered another one instead.
Ultimately, its not important that collaborative working happens on designated surfaces or in designated zones. Its only important that we provide the right climate and environment for it to happen in the first place.
In summary, anyone who has been involved in space planning or an office move knows just what a complex challenge it is - made more complex when you suddenly need to rethink the way your teams work and communicate. But if we could pass any of our learning on from our own workspace or recent move, then these three values, grounded in the principles of Agile, are certainly the ones that enable us to create the best, constantly improving environment for our own team to thrive.