The Engineering Excellence group recently remodeled their office space to include “Team Rooms” for each of the discipline focused “Excellence” groups. Microsoft’s policy of supplying individual offices to engineers is well known, and Peopleware, DeMarco and Lister’s seminal text on productivity among software engineers explains how and why private offices for engineers increase productivity.
Why would Microsoft change their ways and make a “cube farm” (that’s harsh – our room – as you’ll see below – is nothing like a cube farm)? In the case of Engineering Excellence, the decision was almost purely experimental. Agile software development practitioners talk about the necessity for collaboration that a team room provides, but I’ve also met many people who would rather work in a tree house than in a shared office. The work that our team performs does have some collaborative aspects, but certainly can’t be considered as collaborative as a software product. Nevertheless, a few days before the remodel we packed and moved to a temporary office, then moved into our new team room a few months later.
I don’t know if any of us knew completely what to expect, but overall, I think we were all pleasantly surprised. I think the biggest benefit is that we have nearly 1000 square feet of space dispersed between 6 of us – given the nature of our jobs (and a liberal telecommuting policy), it seems even bigger since outside of team meetings, it’s extremely rare that we are all in the office at the same time. We also have flexibility – if we were to add one more person to the team, we could make some small modifications and find room for them easily. We have couches, chairs, a ceiling mounted projector, an Xbox and an espresso machine. Almost every wall is usable as a whiteboard, and we’ve hung whiteboards on most of those that don’t. Most of the workspaces sit along a wall of windows (bottom of the drawing below).
It looks like this:
The room can get “busy” sometimes and we all have had to resort to headphones occasionally to cut down on the distractions, but most of the time we are all happy with the room. We have our own spaces, but we can talk face to face when we need to. Our arrangement is a bit of a compromise between a “cube farm” and an individual office. We have 6 in the room now, and it would probably work with a few more, but I think the team room concept would fail as team size approached double digits. The biggest benefit of the shared space is that we are all more aware than ever of the work that our teammates are doing (this is more important than you probably can imagine) – and we have a fun, modern place to work. Perhaps the most prevalent indicator of the success of new room was that when I took over the leadership of the Test Excellence team, is that I chose to keep my desk in the team room. I also have an office that we all use for 1:1 meetings and interviews, but I enjoy spending most of my time working in what we have come to call our “test lounge”.
 Lister, Timothy and DeMarco, Tom. Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. 1987