Agility and Co-location

Posted by Keith McMillan

October 9, 2015 | Leave a Comment

There’s a weird tension in the modern office around disperse vs. co-located teams. We have lots of ways to integrate off site folks into the team these days: video conferencing, instant messaging, VoIP solutions like Skype (which also include video), and soon solutions like SIP will join the fray as well. Don’t forget there’s also the “old” solution of email and telephone too. With all of these solutions, it’s easier than ever to be “there” even when you’re two minutes, or two hours away. So why is there still such a premium on physical co-location of teams?As an agile practitioner who has worked with numerous teams over the years, there is an advantage to physical co-location of a team: it definitely lowers the barrier to information flow. If I hear you discussing something you’re working on with someone else, and I have some useful input, then I can join the conversation. If I’m having trouble, it’s easier for me to ask you for input if you’re sitting right there. Staff that are co-located tend to jell into a team more easily than one that is not. Are these things impossible with a non co-located team? No, but they are a bit harder.

Is that worth the cost of admission? Of insisting that the entire team has to be where I can see them? Maybe.  Does the same holistic communication occur if I’m co-located, but have my earbuds in all the time? Maybe not.

I can’t help but feel like there’s another less benevolent reason that some managers or organizations prefer (or insist) on co-location: they feel they don’t have control of the team unless they can see what they’re doing. This goes back to a traditional view of management: that knowledge workers still need to be managed. If you’re a manager of a technical team, and you don’t “manage” your workers by directing what they’re doing, are you even “doing your job?” How do you even know if they’re doing what you told them to do?

I hope this concept is suspect. We expect the knowledge worker to know what to do, and how to go about doing it. It’s right there in the definition of what they’re expected to do: apply their knowledge. If we acknowledge this, it’s somewhat schizophrenic if we also don’t expect them to be able to manage how they do it, and that they need close management supervision. Further, sociologists have provided research and experiments that indicate that knowledge workers are motivated by mastery, autonomy and purpose. Take away one of those *cough* autonomy *cough* and you get less than their best performance.

We’ve talked for years about the virtual office, and some companies have made inroads in having most or all of their employees work from home (or wherever).  It’s a beautiful concept: it cuts down on travel and pollution, and lets people work from wherever they want! To be honest however, most teams and companies still just don’t work that way. Agile goes so far as to place a premium on co-located teams, and I do believe that they work better than teams that are not physically co-resident. It’s still not clear to me if we can continue to do so, or if we need to identify ways to make disperse teams function more like co-located ones. The person who figures out how to make a dispersed team jell and communicate like a co-located one will win the game.


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