“The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”
– Agile Manifesto Principles
The Case for Face-to-Face Conversations
With the predisposition of millennials to all things digital including showing up on the web as avatars, the notion of physical face-to-face conversation seems to be a thing of the past. Never mind face-to-face conversations, I can’t even remember the last time I had a phone conversation with my daughter. No wonder the majority of cell phone plans offer unlimited minutes – no one talks with their mouths anymore! Our fingers are doing all the talking.
Studies in the past like the one in the graph below have shown the correlation between communication and distance. The closer people are to each other, the more likelihood they will communicate with each other. Too far apart and communication stops altogether. But of course, what we don’t see is the impact of digital mediums taking over to carry on virtual conversations without any regard for distance apart.
Digital virtual conversations are highly efficient allowing one to interact with countless others from the convenience and comfort of their keyboard. But how deep and effective are those conversations?
- What’s the quality of those virtual conversations?
- What happens to the metacommunications that occur during face-to-face conversations?
- Can we still read between the digital lines of what someone is saying?
Professor Mehrabian’s famous studies concluded that only 7% of communication is verbal and 93% is non-verbal made up of 55% body language and 38% tone of voice. No amount of emoticons can make up for that missing 93%.
Two of my favorite technology disruptors realized the value of face-to-face communication.
“There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat – that’s crazy.”
– Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs was a strong believer in face-to-face meetings. That fierce belief permeated the design of his new Pixar headquarters in California. The design featured a central atrium that promoted random encounters and unplanned collaborations.
“Elon is changing the way aerospace business is done… He’s just taken the best things from the tech industry like the open-floor office plans and having everyone talking and all this human interaction. It’s a very different way to most of the aerospace industry, which is designed to produce requirements documents and project reviews.”
– Carol Stoker, NASA
When Elon Musk built his SpaceX facility in El Segundo, he had desks interspersed around the factory so that Ivy League computer scientists and engineers designing the machines could sit with the welders and machinists building the hardware. This was SpaceX’s first major break with traditional aerospace companies that prefer to cordon different engineering groups off from each other and typically separate engineers and machinists by thousands of miles to benefit from cheap real estate and labor.
Even within other traditionally conservative business domains such as the insurance industry, Agile chic is in when it comes to office space design. Gone are the individual workstation cubicles and physical separation between colleagues and departments. In its place are “innovation labs” and “digital garages”. Replete with open, collaborative spaces, floor-to-ceiling whiteboards and lots of natural light for all.
Our Limitations and Barriers
As our teams gelled and became high-performing, the limitations of our traditional cubicles and functional segregation became a sore point with the teams. It was hard for cross functional members of the teams to co-locate in a space geared towards individual privacy, thought and effort. The partitions between adjacent cubicles muffled face-to-face conversation. It prompted one of our more willful and lateral thinking team members to rip-out the partitions once and for all.
Let’s Run an Experiment
Needless to say, the ripping out of the partitions did not curry favor with our Facilities manager. Something needed to be done. There wasn’t time or money for a long, drawn-out workplace study. We had to start with what we had to determine what we needed. And so one of the teams took matters into their own hands. They ran a cheap, low-tech experiment to see if they could redesign a part of their space to be more Agile team friendly.
It was amazing how much happiness a few fold-able lunch tables and chairs could bring. The team’s new Agile space was up and running. It was a United Nations of team members sitting together from different functions. Development, QA, PMO and Product Management all sat together every day. The waste and latency created by meetings and email between team members significantly declined or stopped altogether. They were replaced by spontaneous, just-in-time, meaningful and productive conversations initiated by the asking of a question, a tap on the shoulder or a wink of the eye. Answers to questions in real time – what a concept!
A New Space from the Ground Up
With the success of one team’s Agile space experiment, the death knell for the other teams’ cubicles had sounded. At the same time, the company was planning an office move and renovation. A perfect time to apply lessons learnt from the experiment. Fortunately we had a very supportive and engaged HR leader driving the office move. She invited us to help design the new space for our Agile teams.
The removal of physical barriers to teamwork benefited not only the Agile teams but also the business stakeholders they served. Sprint demos became highly anticipated, standing room only events for the business. Coordination of each team’s demos allowed each team to share in each other’s demos raising their awareness of the overall teams’ progress and products. The new space became more than a team space to build working software – it became a space for business people and technical people to congregate, question and debate what they together were building.
Agile Space Teething Pains
Moving from individual cubicles to team rooms was not without its challenges. The rooms each had two walls, a panel of windows on one end but open on the other end. The open end of the rooms created problems with noise and interruptions. The teams could not talk amongst themselves without distracting the other teams and other parts of the office. The open view of the teams in the rooms invited interruptions from those walking by. It would’ve been better if each room was fully enclosed with a door. The team members themselves had to get used to less privacy, less space for their personal things and no individual landline phones. Accommodations also needed to be made to enable virtual face-to-face participation from remote team members.
Despite the challenges, the new space for the teams provided many more benefits:
- Colocation of cross-functional team members
- Enabling business people and developers to collaborate and work together face-to-face daily
- Real-time communication and problem-solving
- Faster team gelling and performance
- Fewer meetings and less email
- A place for each team to call and identify as their own
 Morgan, Jacob, Driessen Says, Guest Says, and Niclas Lillman Says. “How Distance Impacts Employee Communication and Collaboration.” Jacob Morgan. N.p., 22 Aug. 2012. Web. 04 May 2017.
 Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013. Print.
 Vance, Ashlee. Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of Tesla, SpaceX, Is Shaping Our Future Future. New York, NY: Ecco, an Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2015. Web.