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What ever happen to caves and common?

Way back in a time before iPhones  my team at Logica transitioned to Extreme Programming. One of the ideas that we implemented at the time was the idea of separating the work space into zones. One zone for collaboration and pair programming and another for solo private work, free from distractions. This was a pattern known as the Cave and Common.

Fast forward over a decade and it would seem as though the largest constraint in an organisation is now office space. Under the guise of efficiency teams are now thrown into open plan spaces with the facilities groups achieving a high office density (engineers per square inch). Well done on optimising your real-estate KPIs but you forgot to see the whole. Does anyone in facilities understand the nature of software engineering or are we all confined to battery style office planning like call centre workers.

The nature of a team working in agile does indeed require lots of collaboration and preferably face to face interaction around a white board; for those teams that use pair programming or mob programming, they do need a physical space to swarm around a screen and keyboard. So great. Whats my beef with open plan? Open plan working gives all of the opportunities for collaboration. Surely its the best fit for agile teams.

Not so fast. Many software engineers (not all) are usually paid to solve highly complex and challenging problems that require careful and deep thought. Concentration requires and environment free from distractions. A space for quiet and reflection.

However, I’m not professing to bring back the cube. A soulless place only fit for hermits. My recommendation would be to adopt the pattern of cave and common to balance the needs for collaboration and deep thinking.

What can you do if you’re stuck in an open plan?

  • Ensure your scrum master is providing air-cover to ensure limited external interruptions
  • Try a white noise generator to break up background noise
  • Use earphones and do not disturb signs
  • Book private meeting spaces periodically

Further reading:

http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?CaveAndCommons

http://www.nytimes.com/1993/04/25/business/where-the-cubicle-is-dead.html?pagewanted=all

http://www.perlmonks.org/?node_id=823108

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