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Alexander reminds us that people spend most of their time at home or at work; nevertheless, office environments are almost universally empty of real vitality. "They are missing a depth of feeling and richness of function that lets people reach into those parts of their everyday life and work that are really important". He goes on to criticize stereotyped office furniture as one of the prime contributors to an inhuman work environment. The environment produced by office furniture has realized the nightmare of Orwell's 1984 at a level so subtle that many managers are not even aware of it. This is the deathly world that 58 million people in the U.S. are forced to inhabit eight hours a day. Not only is the situation oppressive, but instead of making it better, our culture has invested considerable resources to teach people to accept it without question. Architecture schools and the professional media deliberately mislead the public by insisting that emotional well-being is not a requirement of interior design. As a result, few people imagine that a pleasant work environment is even possible today.

-- World-renowned architect Christopher Alexander

Well, there's good news and bad news. The bad news is that Neil will be taking over both branches, and some of you will lose your jobs. Those of you who are kept on will have to relocate to Swindon, if you wanna stay. I know, gutting. On a more positive note, the good news is, I've been promoted. So, every cloud... You're still thinking about the bad news, aren't you?

-- World-renowned manager David Brent

I've spent most of my life toiling in cubicles of the Alexander-reviled oppressive modern office variety, working for managers not unlike David Brent.

At least the unexpected arrival of the Agile Impositioners brought a change of scenery; a few smart blows from their hammers and my Dilbert-esque cubicle walls came tumbling down around me unveiling a new agile 'commons' ... though 'caves' for individuals to retreat into for quiet contemplation were nowhere to be seen.

Caves and Commons

The phrase Caves and Commons refers to the creation of two zones in the room. The Commons area is organized to maximize osmotic communication and information transfer. For this to make sense, the people in the room must be working on the same project.

The Caves portion of the room is organized to give people a private place to do e-mail, make phone calls, and take care of their need for separation.

-- Communicating, cooperating teams by Alistair Cockburn

An open workspace doesn't leave much room for privacy, and pair programming stations aren't very personal. This loss of individuality can make people uncomfortable. Be sure that everyone has a space they can call their own.

-- The Art of Agile Development by James Shore & Shane Warden (Chapter 6)

Though perhaps ideal as an agile working environment, it's neither trivial nor cheap to convert a typical open plan office into a caves and commons landscape.

It is all right to say that individuals and groups have control over their realms and their work environments, but it simply won't work unless the actual physical materials the building is made of, and the structural systems by which it is put together, actually invite and facilitate this adaptation.

-- Toward a Personal Workplace by Christopher Alexander et al

I'm sympathetic to the reasons given for simply knocking down the cubicle walls: there's no need to spend any money on fancy office furnishings, architects, tradesmen or larger premises. Besides, as Alexander points out, overcoming the horror that is the typical modern office building is problematic. Finally, how do you persuade the bean counters to give you money for extravagant office fitouts for pampered programmers?

While acknowledging the political difficulties of acquiring office fitout funding, it does seem risky to penny pinch in this area. After all, as noted in Peopleware (p.51), the total investment in each programmer is likely to be around twenty times the cost of his/her workspace. Moreover, providing excellent working conditions should lead to other important benefits, such as improved motivation, lower turnover, and making it easier to attract first-rate programmers. Certainly, Google and Joel Spolsky take this seriously.

I'm interested to hear of experiences from folks who've attempted more ambitious and expensive agile office fitouts or used innovative agile office furniture.


One day, while I was describing this peculiar notion of convection currents of information flow, one of the listeners suddenly exclaimed, "But you have to watch out for drafts!". He went on to explain that he had been working in a place where he and the other programmers had low-walled cubicles next to each other and so benefited from overhearing each other. On the other side of their bank of cubicles sat the call center people, who answered questions on the phone all day. They also benefited from overhearing each other. But, and here was the bad part, the conversation of the call center people would (in his words) "wash over the walls to the programmers' area". There was a "draft" of unwanted information coming from that area.

-- Communicating, cooperating teams by Alistair Cockburn

Your team will produce a buzz of conversation in its workspace. Because they'll be working together, this buzz won't be too distracting for team members. For people outside the team, however, it can be very distracting. Make sure there's good sound insulation between your team and the rest of the organization.

-- The Art of Agile Development by James Shore & Shane Warden (Chapter 6)

My new desk in the agile commons was situated next door to our internal systems team. And boy was it drafty! All day long, I listened to them responding to support calls and joking around while doing so. And they often built new PCs, so there was a constant whirring from new PCs under construction. Within a week I wound up with a nasty dose of tinnitis.

While the improved (osmotic) communication within our team was certainly welcome, the elevated noise level, drafts, and constant visual distractions were not. I felt like I was living in a fish bowl, which reduced my general level of psychological comfort and well-being.

People cannot work effectively if their workspace is too enclosed or too exposed. A good workspace strikes the balance ... You should not be able to hear noises very different from the kind you make, from your workplace. Your workplace should be sufficiently enclosed to cut out noises which are a different kind from the ones you make. There is some evidence that one can concentrate on a task better if people around you are doing the same thing, not something else.

-- Toward a Personal Workplace by Christopher Alexander et al

Another chronic difficulty we faced, due to the lack of 'caves', was efficiently solving demanding problems requiring large chunks of uninterruptible time.


Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity... It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.

-- Flow (wikipedia)

You hear evidence that this is true in such frequently repeated statements as these: "I get my best work done in the early morning, before anybody else arrives"; "In one late evening, I can do two or three days' worth of work"; "The office is a zoo all day, but by about 6 pm things have quieted down and you can really accomplish something". To be productive, people may come in early or stay late or even try to escape entirely, by staying home for a day to get a critical piece of work done.

-- Peopleware (p.42)

The average employee is interrupted approximately every six minutes. The fall out is that we rarely get the chance to complete tasks and the solutions are that we have to come in early, stay late or take work home. Other fall-outs are that we are losing our ability to focus and concentrate on single tasks. Scientists are now talking about a condition called ADT or Attention Deficit Trait. This is where adult's brains during the day are mimicking a child's brain with ADD. They don't actually have ADD but their brain acts like it does at work, where they can't focus and they start a lot of things but complete very few of them. Also new research tells us that around 28% of the average person's day is lost due to distractions. Almost a third of a person's day is spent going "Now what was I just doing.....".

-- Dr Adam Fraser from Are You Being Bullied by Your Environment?

I used to program from dinner till about 3 am every day, because at night no one could interrupt me. Then I'd sleep till about 11 am, and come in and work until dinner on what I called "business stuff". I never thought of it in these terms, but in effect I had two workdays each day, one on the manager's schedule and one on the maker's.

-- Paul Graham from maker's schedule, manager's schedule

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.

-- Donald Knuth on email

I am a loner; I like to retreat to the mountains or an isolated seacoast, or even just into an attic, and think. New ideas come slowly and require large blocks of quiet, undisturbed time to gestate; and most worthwhile calculations require days or weeks of intense, steady concentration. A phone call at the wrong moment can knock my concentration off balance, setting me back by hours. So I hide from the world.

-- Kip Thorne in Black Holes and Time Warps (p.499)

There is a well-documented psychological state called Flow, aka "being in the zone".

What I found puzzling is that the agile zealots at work seemed to dismiss, or at least downplay, the overwhelming scientific and anecdotal evidence demonstrating how valuable "flow" can be. Instead, they'd become obsessed with boosting "team communication" no matter what the cost.

The reality, of course, is that there's a delicate balance between the need for the team to communicate and the need for the individual and sub-group to concentrate and focus. And this balance varies considerably, depending on the project, the individual, and the team. It makes no sense to attempt a blanket rule on this. Each team must be allowed to organise their own "team communication times" and "individual flow times" in ways that suit them.

I might add that, without caves, it's much harder to get in the zone: some folks donned headphones, others came in early or left late, worked from home, or disappeared with their laptop to a quiet and secluded office location.

Some of our new agile coaches persistently berated our team for being "too quiet" and exhorted us to "communicate more". After a while, this became so ridiculous that we began to feel like the unfortunate Belcerebons of Kakrafoon Kappa.

The Belcerebons of Kakrafoon Kappa had an unhappy time. Once a serene and quiet civilization, a Galactic Tribunal sentenced them to telepathy because the rest of the galaxy found peaceful contemplation contemptuous. Ford Prefect compared them to Humans because the only way Belcerebons could stop transmitting their every thought was to mask their brain activity (or its readability) by talking endlessly about utter trivia.

-- Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Other Articles in This Series


In reply to Nobody Expects the Agile Imposition (Part II): The Office by eyepopslikeamosquito

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