Space – The Final Frontier for Your Business?

Guest Post by Tom Meloche

Space - the Final Office Frontier?

Does your office space resemble a black hole?


This is a guest post by colleague Tom Meloche, whose new book on organizational ceremony just came out.

It is an authorized extract – edited to remove client-specific information – from a private client communication and how to achieve the next level of agility.  The client has an agile tribe that other companies come visit for inspiration and exposure to “doing agile well.”  Every visitor drools over the tribe’s office area and the radically better “feel” it provides.

Tom, however, contends that their space … the very office area that other companies covet and the client uses as a showcase … is actually holding them back from going further in their agility journey.

Here are his thoughts:


“The facility is a nightmare.  Love, Tom.”

I would like to make it clear to the entire executive team why I would write something so rude about what is a visually beautiful facility.

I want to make sure I equip you, your boss, and the entire coaching staff so you can clearly state what you need and why. What I think you should have affects all sorts of agreements that those in charge of facilities will make with other vendors, from janitors, to furniture suppliers, to food service providers. Not knowing the agreements they have been making, it may already be too late. This leads to a much bigger discussion with you and your boss about the ultimate nature of agility … but I will reserve that for a future date.

Here is my overall goal for tribal sacred space:

The tribe should be able to restructure and use their sacred space as they need to without a screwdriver and without permission.

This is the autonomy principle. And yes, I am using the word SACRED very intentionally. It is how I think of work space.

I build agile sacred space as a giant open space with everything the Tribe needs. In this space team members arrange their own desks and chairs and whiteboards to match the specific needs of the specific work packages, cycles, or releases they are working on. They tend to arrange their desks so they have at least one wall or board close by to be their task board. The rest, they improvise.

Removing fixed walls and cube walls (those walls where you attach desks) allows for density and restructuring in an agile manner as the needs of the tribe members change. The agile sacred space adjusts its appearance dynamically, in real time, all without expensive (time, money, impact to work, etc.) build outs. The people who work in this space can change it at the drop of a hat. The space, more than anything else, sets the tone for the entire agile journey. This is why the space is sacred.

This Agile sacred space allows the entire tribe to work together as a unit. It is not just a space for one team but a space for all of the members of the tribe. A space where new teams can instantly form, and where old teams can instantly dissolve.

Build it well, and it will pay off for years to come in better agile behavior. Hmmm…. the inverse is also true. And you are already experiencing it.

Actions and considerations:

Here are some actions:

  1. Remove almost all internal non-load bearing walls.
  2. Make all load bearing walls usable (whiteboards, idea paint, metal boards, and pegboards).
  3. Acquire only easily movable furniture, tables, and white boards (e.g., on wheels).
  4. Acquire nice chairs for tribe members and a large number of padded folding chairs for visitors during demos.
  5. Drop power and internet from the ceiling.
  6. Drop power and internet down all load bearing walls and load bearing pillars.

The space should provide area for:

  1. Communal eating.
  2. Impromptu events.
  3. Acoustically isolated videopresence meetings.
  4. Empty tables and flat work areas.
  5. Laying flat on tables an entire backlog.
  6. Training.
  7. Playing.
  8. A few meetings in a room.
  9. Many meetings outside of a room.

Don’t do this:

  1. Isolated offices for executives or managers.
  2. Walls between teams.
  3. Fixed or heavy furniture.
  4. Personally assigned work space.
  5. Things which require facilities to move.

More things to make the space nice:

  1. Telephone booths
  2. Lockers on wheels
  3. Internal buildouts/open windows
  4. Portable file cabinets on wheels
  5. Portable supplies on wheels
  6. Portable library shelves on wheels (for your Library).
  7. Long tables for paired work
  8. Tables with white board tops
  9. Visitor spaces.
  10. Paint
  11. Indicate fire lanes and exits on floor
  12. Concrete floors (ironic No?)
  13. Coat racks on wheels.

Space. Space. Space. Space to do all of this.

I would rather be in an old warehouse with lots of extra room!  In fact, this is the type of facility I ALWAYS seek to get for my tribes.

Why do I care so much about this?

Because structure defines strategy.

Physical structure shapes, channels, and constrains tribe and team behavior. And different goals will want different behaviors, which will require different room structures to optimize those behaviors. Since we are doing dozens of projects each year the tribe may desire to rearrange the work space frequently in order to accommodate the unique teams assembled and collaborating for each project.

Offices and cubes are great for independent work.  If you’re doing lots of solo work without coordination, by all means set up cubes, so as to foster that kind of independent work.  If you’re doing collaborative work that mostly involves working with other folks, then don’t do cubes, walls, or heavy furniture.  They destroy communication.

Structure defines strategy.

Once upon a time, when we shifted some members of our team from 50 yards away to 75 yards and a staircase away, our communication frequency dropped by a factor of 3.   We measured.

Space matters, location matters, and different problems and projects will require at least somewhat different solutions.

It’s why the Agile Manifesto says: People over Tools. Because choosing a tool, much like choosing a space, constrains how you can work, and how it is easiest to work. If you force folks to work in a specific tool, or in a specific work configuration, you are giving up substantial value when the problem changes.

This all went into why I used the word “nightmare” at the beginning …