Note: This article is part of Extended SAFe Guidance and represents official SAFe content that cannot be accessed directly from the Big Picture.
Adopting Lean and Agile practices across the Enterprise greatly benefits from a physical environment for teams and Agile Release Trains (ARTs) that support these new working methods. Experience and research have also shown that effective workspaces are one of the keys to high productivity. Further, the environment must positively reinforce the cultural changes while amplifying the focus on face-to-face communication and information transparency.
We describe the following physical spaces that encourage collaboration, communication, and innovation as Agile Workspaces:
- Workspaces for Agile teams that balance the need to work together daily alongside occasional privacy
- Cross-Team collaboration spaces that support critical events such as PI Planning as well as encourage innovation
- Work visualization techniques that create transparency and alignment alongside opportunities to improve processes
Workspaces for Agile Teams
In the search for ever higher productivity and employee engagement, many enterprises have experimented with team workspaces explicitly designed to support Agile development. Such experiments are not efficiently conducted, as arranging and rearranging a physical workspace involves facilities, capital expense, potential interior remodels, and more. Out of these experiences, a few standard requirements have emerged:
- Provide individual focus space for being in the zone of developing code, tests, and other artifacts
- Support the need for constant informal team collaboration
- Support the need for occasional privacy
- Provide room for the Team Sync and space for whiteboards, visual information radiators, and at least one large monitor
We’ve observed practices at the extremes, from individuals in traditional cubicles to completely open workspaces designed for ad hoc pairing, teaming, and ease of reconfiguration. While opinions vary considerably (XP shops, in particular, appear to favor the fully-open pairing concept), in our experience, neither extreme is optimal. Many organizations have arrived at a reasonable standard and efficient design, as illustrated in Figure 1.
In this design, teams of 8-10 individuals work in a ‘pod’ of semi-private cubicles. The walls within the pod are low, allowing for informal discussions. Their focus space is inside their cubicle, yet it will enable informal communication and knowledge gain from hearing the team members’ conversations. However, the higher outside walls of the pod essentially separate the noise and conversation from the team next door. In addition, the gathering spaces in the middle provide an area for hoteling team members, spontaneous pairing, and quick, informal sessions. The pod is supported by whiteboards, a large monitor for video conferencing, and information radiators.
Ideally, a separate shared meeting room with video conferencing and private phone cubicles should be near the pod, as illustrated on the right of Figure 1. The meeting room allows the team to post their information on the walls and collaborate with remote team members and other teams. When not used by the teams, it also provides a retreat for private conversations. Sometimes, these team rooms can be shared with other teams and serve as an informal conference rooms for others. Where feasible, a few personal phone cubicles support the need for individual privacy. In some cases, these have been provisioned as movable and stand-alone ‘phone booths’ inside a more open workspace.
Workspaces for Remote Workers
Agile development was initially designed and optimized for collocated teams. After all, “the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is a face-to-face conversation” . To this end, enterprises often spend significant time and energy establishing collocation. The Agile pod design above is a reflection of that.
However, collocation is not always feasible, especially during the pandemic and now in the current COVID-19 endemic. Some people who can contribute the most cannot be located—or relocated—on-site. Today, many Agile teams are distributed across geographies, sometimes with significant time zone differences.
We have both witnessed and participated in high-performing teams with a significant degree of distribution. While being distributed does not change the basic Agile ways of working, it does impose some requirements on the business and the remote workers.
- High bandwidth video and audio connectivity
- Tooling for the team and ART Kanban boards and backlogs
- A wiki or intranet site providing access to Strategic Themes, Portfolio Vision, and other critical information
- Collaboration tools for communication, visualization, and ideation
- Overlapping core hours for the Team Sync, Iteration Planning, demos, and other events
- Commitment to routinely travel to PI Planning events
Cross-Team Collaboration Spaces
In our experience, successful cross-team collaboration must support two work patterns. The first is to bring the entire ART together for critical SAFe events on a predictable cadence. These include PI planning, System Demos, and Inspect and Adapt (I&A) events. Additionally, individuals need space to collaborate across teams to innovate away from the pressures of their day-to-day work, generally in a workshop-style format when needed.
ART Collaboration Spaces
PI planning is one of the most critical events SAFe, and a semi-dedicated physical space for planning is prudent and will pay for itself over time. In addition to the physical space, adequate communication channels must be established for attendees who cannot be in person. For many enterprises, room for a single ART or two is about all that can be allocated permanently. Figure 2 provides a typical room layout for a PI Planning event.
One memorable anecdote is the management help desk. This emerged organically in one enterprise when it recognized that it was impractical for all the Business Owners to attend both full-day sessions of each PI. Their workaround was to create a help desk where one or more Business Owners were always present and who could reach others on demand for real-time decision-making. (Note: We think this help desk triggered one of the cultural turning points in that enterprise).
In larger multi-ART implementations, it may be impractical to provide a dedicated space large enough for all the ARTs. In this case, a single on-site ART planning location becomes the cornerstone but facilitates are extended during PI planning to include hotel conference centers and other venues.
Of course, this space won’t be used just for the regular PI planning schedule. During the PI, it will also host the system demo, the I&A, and additional team-sharing spaces. (This is covered in more detail below.) Alongside cadence and synchronization, a permanent location adds predictability, minimizes uncertainty, and reduces the transaction cost of organizing these events. In our experience, this space adds to the collaborative workspace strategy that benefits the Agile enterprise.
Providing Space for Innovation
Innovation is a different and inherently creative process apart from current roadmaps and features. To achieve real innovation, people need time to put aside their daily responsibilities and dwell on the more significant problems and opportunities. This need encourages more extended periods of backlog-free time to explore potential ideas and prototype and test those ideas with your current customers.
The physical environment plays an important role here, not only in creating a collaborative space away from the daily work. It also supports the variety of approaches used during the creative process. Success patterns that we have observed include the following:
- Ease of booking rooms – To ensure they are available for running creative and collaborative workshops, these rooms are prevented from being block-booked for recurring events. Excessively using these spaces for less critical purposes leads to delays in collaboration and innovation or teams giving up on trying to use the area.
- Facilitation kits – Both inside this room, but also across the organization, facilitation kits should be readily available. These generally include pens, stickies, scissors, tape, and so on to support any innovation process. A working agreement ensures that the teams restock the kits and return them once finished, reducing the preparation overhead for the next team.
- Moveable whiteboards – Although fixed whiteboards in each room are beneficial for illustrating ideas and capturing information, they must be cleaned when vacating. A better solution is moveable whiteboards that are wheeled in, then kept for a while, ensuring that the output is not lost and can be worked on in future sessions.
- Rearrangeable furniture – The room’s layout must adapt as the event’s purpose changes. Avoiding fixed furniture will allow people to set up these spaces for various scenarios, such as multiple tables for group work, a lecture-style arrangement to present ideas, or removing the chairs and tables to create a completely open space.
- Video Conferencing Capabilities – Often, cross-team collaboration involves a few individuals who cannot attend in person. Always-on video conferencing capabilities in these spaces ensure everyone can participate. In addition, the use of robots, which the remote attendees can control to move around the room, enhances their inclusion.
During various SAFe training forums, attendees frequently ask, “but if I was to leave here and do only one thing to start implementing Lean-Agile development at scale, what would it be?” Our answer is always the same: Visualize the work. That is why when you visit an Agile enterprise, you see work everywhere—on walls, whiteboards, monitors, wherever you look. Visualization converts the intangible to the tangible, flushes out unnecessary, unplanned, unapproved, or duplicate work, and aligns everyone to the current state instead of simply following the plan. The common thread across all these approaches is that the information is always available without the effort to discover it.
Based on our experiences, we’ve recommended some starting points below.
Visualizing Who We are Working For
Agile development is obsessively focused on the customer; that’s one of the things we like most about it. To ensure they are addressing the problems of real customers, Agile Teams use personas to bring the customer to life. (See Design Thinking). It’s common to see even life-size cardboard cutouts of one or more personas in the team workspace. Along with the documented attributes of the persona, these serve as constant reminders of who the teams work for and how they support the jobs to be done by their real user.
Visualizing the Flow of Work
Lean teaches us that you can’t manage what you can’t see. Making the current work visible exposes the amount of work in process, bottlenecks, and what people are doing instead of what we think they are doing. It highlights the status of the flow of value throughout the system. A general-purpose Kanban system can manage any work following this approach. The left and right sides of Figure 3 show the Portfolio and ART Kanban systems we use at Scaled Agile to manage Epic and Feature flow.
In addition to monitoring the progress of work items through the system, dependencies between teams also warrant close attention. The ART planning board, also visible in Figure 3 and created during PI planning, captures this information and should be displayed prominently during the PI. Successful ARTs use the ART planning board as a focal point for Coach Sync events.
Figure 4 illustrates another example of visualizing work. This image shows an investment corridor identifying all current and potential epics in flight at one large enterprise. This corridor was the planning visualization for a PI-like, large-scale portfolio prioritization workshop.
Rather than confining it to a room, information is readily visible, making it easy for people to walk up and add their thoughts and suggestions. Also, making the transparency of data brings the strategy into the open and helps create alignment across the organization. Other examples we have seen often include the additions of the enterprise and portfolio’s strategic themes, vision, and Roadmap, to give a complete and rounded picture of the current and future direction of the business.
Visualizing Solution Health
Customer support teams have long seen the value in displaying the number of waiting calls, daily closed and open tickets, and current SLA levels prominently on monitors close to the teams who rely on that information. Agile teams have adopted this approach to include metrics on the state of the current solution. Examples of these include critical quality metrics, such as:
- Build health
- Number of defects
- Percentage of passing tests
- Performance and load of the solution infrastructure
An example can be seen in Figure 5.
This real-time information needs appropriate tooling, which collects data the solutions provide. (For more information, see the DevOps article.) It’s a worthwhile investment as it visualizes the association between cause and effect and helps teams quickly assess the impact of frequent application changes, leading to faster resolution of issues. The public availability of this information creates a healthy balance of accountability alongside a constant drive for relentless improvement.
This article has shared how successful enterprises have adapted their physical environments. All these changes have one thing in common: to remove the barriers to adopting Lean-Agile working methods. Although making these changes can involve an initial investment, the business benefits delivered are substantial and make it worthwhile.
- Agile workspaces create the conditions for high-performing teams to emerge
- Space for cross-team collaboration and innovation ensures that we deliver on our short- and longer-term business objectives
- Visualizing the work brings opportunities for process improvement into focus and accelerates value delivery
In today’s endemic, enterprises are at a crossroads, determining if work will be performed in-person, remotely, or in a hybrid environment. In any case, many of the concepts in this article can apply to all three work scenarios. However, they must be adapted to hybrid and remote environments. (See the Working Successfully in Agile with Remote Team Members.)
 Hesselberg, Jorgen. Unlocking Agility: An Insider’s Guide to Agile Enterprise Transformation. Addison-Wesley Signature Series (Cohn), Pearson Education.
 Manifesto for Agile Software Development. https://agilemanifesto.org.
Last update: 22 February 2023