Importance of collocation

This post was originally published here.

Jeremy Miller mentioned that Fred George is blogging now, and that he’d be worth reading.  Wow, Jeremy wasn’t lying.  One of the first posts really resonated with me, on collocation.  I’ve now had the opportunity to work in a variety of different office types:

  • Individual offices
  • Shared room, facing walls
  • Shared room, facing each other, away from walls
  • Cubes

It’s something I noticed but couldn’t quite quantify or measure at the time, but collocation had a drastic positive effect on our team communication.  Basically, if I have to stand up and walk to talk to someone, it’s not going to happen very often.  If I don’t even need to turn my head to have a conversation, communication happens all the time.

Since most inefficiencies I encounter during work are because of a lack of communication, it follows that we should optimize our environment for communication.

A rough measurement

So how many conversations did I have per day given each office type?  This is based purely on my recollection, so obviously it’s skewed and a bit off, but here’s what I remember:

Office Type Conversations per day
Individual office 1-3
Shared room, facing walls 20-25
Shared room, facing each other, away from walls 50-60
Cubes 5-10

When it came to the shared rooms, I had to estimate in conversations per hour, because communication happens so often.  When I was pairing, it was a continuous conversation, so I’d have to start measuring in length instead of number.  Even when I wasn’t pairing, I would get involved with maybe a dozen conversations per hour.

Communication is also something that training can only take so far.  If the training is working against what the environment naturally encourages, the success rate isn’t going to be too high.

Tweaking the environment

When I was in a shared room, facing walls, our setup looked something like this: (apologies for the crude drawing)

We had several issues with this layout:

  • People talked to each other without looking anyone in the eye (losing valuable visual communication)
  • No wall space for whiteboards 
  • People usually only talked to those in their immediate vicinity
  • Those on the left never heard those on the other side of the room

I should point out that our room wasn’t this small, it does look a bit cramped in there in my drawings.  To address these issues, we played around with our desks until we arrived at our final layout:

We found several advantages with this layout:

  • Everyone was facing each other
  • Everyone could hear all conversations and jump in if needed
  • Wall space was freed up for whiteboards, to put up status, do some modeling, etc.
  • Whiteboards were visible to everyone in the group
  • We became a more cohesive, trusting team

The biggest impact was the last point, since communication builds trust. With trust in place, we can achieve true shared responsibility, and finger pointing was reduced to almost nil.  If finger pointing did happen, the entire team knew about it and recognized the problem, and the issue would come up and get resolved in our next daily stand-up.

As one of the biggest Agile values is communication, collocation is absolutely essential in building a smooth running Agile team.  Without collocation, the Agile team can become fractured, distant, and slip back in to the siloed, deferred responsibility paradigm that waterfall processes enforce.

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About Jimmy Bogard

I'm a technical architect with Headspring in Austin, TX. I focus on DDD, distributed systems, and any other acronym-centric design/architecture/methodology. I created AutoMapper and am a co-author of the ASP.NET MVC in Action books.
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