Breaking the Silence

Evaluating the Effects of Workspace Factors on Non-Permanent Stakeholders

Being on parental leave has a funny way of forcing you to look backwards rather than forwards. To reminisce about your old life. The one where you went to work everyday. The one where you got through one book per week on your commute. The one where going out was impulsive and required less supplies. Nowadays you would think I’m embarking on an expedition to scale the nearest summit every time I walk out of the door with all the stuff I take with me!

Lately I’ve been reflecting on prior entries. Coming across my old pieces on workspace agility and developer perks collided with a colleague’s recent thoughts on the state of our workspace. He correctly pointed out that the same issues that have plagued us for years persist. They still impact those trudging into the office every day. But some were surprised to hear that they also impact me. Albeit for rather different reasons.

Yet again I’m thinking about work environment, but from an alternative angle. Workspace quality affects people other than those who use them every day. To this end I ask myself two simple questions. Who else are our workspaces built for? How do the gripes of the regular workforce impact those other parties?

Waiting on a Friend

Recruitment is paramount to the competitiveness and survival of any organisation. Leaders at all levels comment on the importance of the interview format and interviewer demeanour. Both are vital to conveying the culture and role. Considering my own interview experiences on both sides of the table, I see how important politeness and openness have been in attracting the candidate. Interviewers must be salespeople of the organisational culture.

Interview location also makes an impression on candidates. While contenders are usually ushered off to meeting rooms, even the quickest dash provides them with an opportunity to view their potential work environment. Applicants will absorb the noise levels. Candidates will observe their possible workstations. Interviewees will view how teams use any collaboration resources such as whiteboards and huddle areas. They will also observe if these spaces are actually provided. While they may ask questions about the environment, which some have in my experience, many will remain silent.

A good impression of the work environment should be presented to all entrants, regardless of level. From leaders, to managers, to future graduates, all have a vested interest in the space of their potential workspace. I recall my own assessment centre. We were placed high up on the swanky floor with the breathtaking view. Today we conduct office tours of the newly renovated floors to convey a similar impression to graduates. While I was aware that I would be unlikely to work on a floor filled only with meeting rooms, the latter tours can set up candidates for bitter disappointment when introduced to a cramped, noisy environment lacking those same facilities that they were sold. Such perspectives are regularly conveyed when discussing the older floors.

Keep the Customer Satisfied

Every technology team builds software for the benefit of a particular user base. Otherwise the need for the product should be called into question. The strong client focus baked into the Agile manifesto, and every practical implementation, means that development teams and client representatives need to collaborate.

With internal clients, logic dictates that you either have the development team and users co-located on the same floor, or individuals take turns visiting respective areas. Having the development team and Product Owner inhabiting the same area helps establish a strong, cohesive relationship. Although I do not work in such a situation, I imagine the reliance on noise-cancelling headphones we currently have could not thrive in such an environment. Fostering the desired synergy requires huddle spaces and noise reduction mechanisms to eliminate the need for headphones for brain intensive work.

Having operational teams and development teams on different floors can set a dangerous precedent in the event that facilities differ. Remember the infamous coffee machine incident? Animosity was allowed to breed as technologists believed they were being treated differently from other employees. Permitting a wedge to develop may harm the close relationship that we seek through Agile practice.

Hosting clients on the technology floor will not necessarily be harmed by having the lower specification coffee machine. Nevertheless, other factors such as lack of meeting rooms or huddle spaces will negatively impact collaboration. More of these spaces are required, complete with whiteboards. I am a big fan of using scribbles to explain my perspective, so the more whiteboards in the workspace the better.

Mother’s Little Helper

There is a common misconception that every employee taking a sabbatical, parental leave or any other extended time off doesn’t need or want to step foot in the office. That you are taking a well deserved break. As if it is a vacation. Sadly a small number of individuals still believe this to be the case.

Noise travels. I have previously discussed how the distracting hum of conversations ebbs through the floor like the blob slowly creeping and eliminating all productivity in its path. In my experience, this issue exhibits three key symptoms. Many employees wearing noise cancelling headphones is the first indication. The second manifestation is many colleagues occupying meeting rooms to complete focused work. Unfortunately the third warning is acrimonious employees complaining about noise levels.

By no means am I suggesting that offices need to support swathes of babies arriving everyday. There is no need for swanky parent rooms with baby changing stations, bottle warmers and every other baby gadget in existence. Although I do hear rumblings of office spaces having baby changing facilities on canteen floors, which is fantastic. Spaces simply need to be inviting to parents. The introduction of Shared Parental Leave in the UK, coupled with increased focus on female retention now makes baby friendly amenities an item to consider in the urban planning of work environments.

Workspaces have some useful resources. For example, Offices in the UK are required by law to provide private spaces for expressing. But such areas are often hidden away from work floors. Furthermore, monopolising these spaces for even a half day of KIT catch ups will inconvenience others. For reference a half day is the minimum you can claim for. A shortage of drop in meeting rooms makes spaces less inviting for visiting parents. The last thing you want on a KIT day is running around the floor with a crying baby and being asked by a colleague to quieten the child down.

Also examine the effectiveness of your remote working offerings, and ensure all sabbatical employees are provided with remote access for the full duration of their leave. Just like Eli Pariser proposes to foster desired culture on social media platforms, remote and physical work platforms should be evaluated for effectiveness and cultural impact using similar techniques adopted by town urban planners.

Baby Driver

Of course the primary consideration in the design of any workspace should be the employees working in the space everyday. Regardless, indirect users of any working environment will take away an impression of your culture from the provided facilities. Their perceptions are absolutely worth considering.

Organisations jumping on the Agile bandwagon should take note that workspaces must support squad practices. Only by addressing these environmental issues will you foster the culture you wish to convey to these additional agents.

Thanks for reading! Do also check out my other pieces on developer perks and workspace productivity. Comments, claps and questions are always welcome!

Lead software engineer with a strong interest in Agile, UX and Usability. Lover of cooking, tea, photography and gin!

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