My favourite Agile Manifesto principle is "Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done."

As coaches, we naturally work with people helping them form cross-functional teams and install agile practices that drive iterative product development. How many of us throw our energy into improving the environment that people work in? Yes, most agile coaches know how important it is to setup a visual workspace, with cards on a board in the team space, as Xavier illustrates so well on his Visual Management blog. What more can we do?

In the first edition of "Extreme Programming Explained", Kent Beck exhorts us to "rearrange the furniture" to make team working and pair programming possible. Keith Braithwaite reminds us at QCon that larger monitors for programmers should be a no-brainer to improve programmer productivity. I'm particularly sensitive to inappropriate space for team meetings. No new kit needs to be acquired to shuffle the furniture and enable the team to stand comfortably standing around their board or to remove superfluous tables from a meeting room so the team can work together more closely.

Rearranging the furniture seems like a very practical way to support the teams you're coaching but it's more than that. Kent goes on to explain that for a team "Taking control of their physical environment is the first step toward taking control of how they work overall." Changes in the work environment send a powerful signal to the team that change is afoot and that the needs of individuals on the team are valued.

And there's more to environment than desks and computers...

At Open Volcano , Marta Gonzalez encouraged me to join her in hosting a session about "Creating an Agile Environment" based on a series of workshops I ran with Mike Hill at XPDay 2006, SPA2007, and Agile2007. There was an empty slot in our open space schedule so we announced the topic and posted it on the board.

Heaven  Hell  

The previous workshops with Mike involved asking participants to model environments with craft materials and Mike's old lego bricks. We had a sack full of crazy Playmobil characters (including pirates, medics, and firemen) that I picked up on eBay to represent people at work---surprising how appropriate some of the characters are for work situations. However, I figured we could do roughly the same format at Open Volcano by inviting participants to draw agile work environments on flipchart paper.

Everyone loves to tell horror stories about places they've worked. So we start the workshop by drawing "hellish" work environments, based on their real experiences. The pictures quickly fill up with pictures of noisy phones and windows with bars on. You'd think drawing would tend to focus on the obvious physical features of the workspace, such as furniture, but people also showed invisible annoyances like noise, temperature, smells, and management culture.


When we shared the drawings with the group, Marta and I teased out the following environment factors as sometimes impeding the work of teams:-

  • Access to information and people
  • Temperature (too cold or hot for comfort)
  • Noise (from printers, phones, construction work, and other people outside the team)
  • Coffee (eg, broiled brown liquid labelled as "normal coffee" isn't!)
  • Smell (from food or team mates)
  • Light (no daylight)
  • Drabness (beige and grey decor doesn't spark creativity)
  • Status symbols implying hierarchy (manager has the private office with windows)
  • Rules (notices from other departments about what's allowed) --- like Irving's Cider House Rules written by someone else who does not understand the needs of the workers.
  • Space (some offices are cluttered and cramped with stuff that doesn't belong to the team working around it)

Some of these are what Hertzberg called Hygiene Factors, we notice their absence and many reflect the company culture indicating whose needs are appreciated by the organization. Talk to the team about what annoys them about their work environment, now you can work with them (and managers) to start resolving these things. Many of these can be improved by the team. For instance, the team can brighten up the team space by bringing in pictures and plants from home, or club together to get a better coffee machine.


Next, we asked the workshop participants to draw a heavenly environment. Not surprisingly, agile teams want plenty of mobile whiteboards, movable desks with large screens that support pair programming comfortably. We also saw more human needs reflected in the work environments, such as pets!

It's clear that people may have different preferences about work environment, which may not be compatible, and this becomes a concern when they are working too close together.

The key seems to be people want to be able to configure their workspace. Here are some ideas for coaches to improve your team's work environment:

  • Work in stealth mode, ask for forgiveness afterwards!
  • Get everyone involved in the design.
  • Offer to restore environment after trialling new setup.
  • Read Christopher Alexander "The Timeless Way of Building" and visit Frank Lloyd-Wright buildings.
  • Visit other agile teams to get more ideas.

It goes without saying that changes shouldn't conflict with genuine concerns from an organization's perspective such as health, safety, and legal concerns.

Last but not least, here's a great cartoon that Chris Matts drew while talking to Marta about her perfect work environment while she took care of our youngest participant, baby Noah.