War rooms and open spaces

thinking outside the cubicle

Abstract

In some respects as a workforce we are really more personally disconnected than at any point in history. Even workers whose offices are in the same location are so busy being busy and virtually collaborating that they often don't spend enough focused time with one another working on key issues. For this reason, rather than sequestering individual talent behind the closed doors of individual offices or across cube farms, we need to recognize that the time has come to bring them together in an open workspace. Moving your team into an open workspace will make you a better project manager and will improve the performance of your project management office (PMO).

Introduction

This year the cubicle turned 40 years old – but is it time to put it out to pasture? The benefits of working in “war rooms” have been proven in multiple studies. In one study, teams of workers that labored together for several months in specially designed “war rooms” were twice as productive as their counterparts working in traditional office arrangements (University of Michigan, 2000). Yet, many organizations continue to “reward” star performers with private offices, far away from the rest of their team. Is this reward system undermining the success of our projects?

There are legitimate concerns when moving to an open workspace. Many cite “lack of privacy” and “noise” as reasons to retain private offices and cubicles, but these days collaboration trumps privacy. Many firms are moving their workers out of their offices and cubicles into wall-less, cubicle-less rooms equipped with white boards, flip charts and central work tables. This has, in fact, long been the practice of those in sales and marketing—but what are the benefits for project managers?

How Do Open Workspaces Make You a Better Project Manager?

In some traditional and status-based organizations, the allocation of offices is a topic of great debate, while in other organizations the benefits of a well-designed open environment is generally accepted. It would be a simple matter to focus on the logistics of open workspaces: tearing down cubicles, constructing a team room, and relocating your team. However, the more interesting question to consider is, “How will an open workspace make me a better project manager?” To answer this question, we'll examine three areas from A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth edition (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2008): human resource management, communication management, and risk mitigation.

Human Resource Management

Under the best of conditions, managing human resources can be tricky. Yet it remains the responsibility of the project manager to develop the project team by improving team interaction and the overall team environment to enhance project performance.

Does an open workspace improve the team environment? Many organizations that have embraced open workspaces have achieved greater awareness and communication among teams, and improved access to team members. They have more efficient and effective interactions, increased impromptu knowledge sharing, rapid learning by observation, and improved flexibility to rearrange groups and teams (Coster, 2009).

However, there are some negative factors for individuals that can seriously impact the quality of work they produce once they're moved to an open workspace, including lack of privacy or a feeling of working in a “fish bowl,” inability to concentrate due to noise, more distractions, and a lack of wall and shelf space.

For some employees, it can be difficult to overcome these challenges. Common complaints such as high noise-levels, distractions, bad lighting, and impersonal space are generally the result of the facilities team not understanding what workers require in an open environment.

Below are two examples of how open workspaces can be tailored to the needs of the organization.

Exhibit 1 shows the Menlo Software Factory™ in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The workspace consists of lightweight aluminum tables and rolling chairs, which can be rapidly reconfigured, as project needs change. This space houses the design and development teams for four to six different projects, as well as the management team for the company. The workspace was modeled after Thomas Edison's “Invention Factory” in Menlo Park, New Jersey. There are no cubicles and no private offices.

The Menlo Software Factory™, a vibrant example of an open workspace. (Photo credit: Ryan Pletzke)

Exhibit 1: The Menlo Software Factory™, a vibrant example of an open workspace. (Photo credit: Ryan Pletzke)

Exhibit 2 shows another example of an open workspace. Mayor Michael Bloomberg implemented an open workspace “bullpen” when he was elected as Mayor of New York City because he wanted to be surrounded by his top lieutenants and aides. Unlike the Menlo Software Factory™, which has no cubicle walls, Bloomberg's bullpen has low wall dividers, desks and rolling chairs.

Christopher Swope, who first visited Bloomberg's bullpen in 2004, described the space as follows:

“At the time, I figured it was what the executive office of every city hall would look like in ten years. Open and bright, with cubicles in the middle and meeting tables on the perimeter, the space itself said ‘transparency.’ Not that city business couldn't find a way behind closed doors somehow. But the office space itself wouldn't encourage that. It would send the appropriate message to developers, contractors and other bigwigs when they pay the mayor a visit.”

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's “bullpen” at City Hall. (Photo credit: Jason DeCrow/AP)

Exhibit 2: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's “bullpen” at City Hall. (Photo credit: Jason DeCrow/AP)

These two examples show that open workspaces are not simply the domain of high-tech companies. The transparency that Swope talks about is a highly desirable outcome that affects not only human resources, but communications and risk mitigation as well.

Communication Management

One of the key responsibilities of the project manager is to manage stakeholder expectations, to communicate and work with stakeholders to meet their needs and address issues as they occur. When issues arise in a project, often time = money, so the faster they can be addressed, the better. In more traditional, cubicle-based cultures, the inclination may be to e-mail the project manager about the problem, schedule a meeting in Outlook, or to wait until the project manager visits to ask about status—all of which delay corrective action. In an open workspace, where the project manager is embedded with the team, this communication becomes much more rapid. When the threshold for reporting a problem becomes simply saying, “Hey Ryan, I think you should know…” the problems are identified and resolved much more rapidly.

An example of this recently took place in the Menlo Software Factory™. Our project managers were all working in a pod in the open workspace, but were separated from the development team by about 25 feet. Megan, the Dawson project manager, made the decision to relocate herself in the middle of the Dawson development pod, thereby deeply embedding herself. This simple act has resulted in higher engagement with the team, increased frequency of communication, faster problem identification and resolution, and an enhanced sense of connection between the team and their project manager.

Open workspaces offer the opportunity to make communication visible. Whereas many organizations rely heavily on e-mail or long, boring status meetings to discuss issues or problems with their teams or projects, these sorts of issues can be rapidly resolved by a quick meeting around a white board or a short ad hoc meeting because the team is collocated and in close proximity. The walls of the space can be used to post important documents or other artifacts of the project. For example, one might choose to cover the walls with a series of bulletin boards where information, such as the project schedule, can be readily displayed.

Note the materials posted on the walls of the open workspace. (Photo credit: Ryan Pletzke)

Exhibit 3: Note the materials posted on the walls of the open workspace. (Photo credit: Ryan Pletzke)

Risk Mitigation

Keeping information such as the current project plan up where others can see it leads to greater transparency between the team, the project manager, and the sponsor. This can be an important first step toward helping you mitigate project risks. Tracking identified risks, identifying new risks, and evaluating your risk process effectiveness becomes much easier when you are working shoulder to shoulder with your team.

How Do Open Workspaces Improve Project Management Office Effectiveness?

In many organizations, the project management office (PMO) gathers the project managers together, but sequesters them from their project teams. This is a common mistake. Consider, for example, the duties of a typical PMO office as defined in the PMBOK® Guide (PMI, 2008). It includes, but is not limited to: coaching, mentoring, training, project oversight, and coordinating communication across projects.

If the project managers are relocated and embedded with their teams—as in the case of Megan, which was discussed earlier—these types of duties become much easier for the project managers involved.

Project managers work with one another as well as with their teams. (Photo credit: Ryan Pletzke)

Exhibit 4: Project managers work with one another as well as with their teams. (Photo credit: Ryan Pletzke)

Conclusion

Changing the work environment is not something that most organizations think of as a tool for improving project quality. Projects and project managers benefit because of the increased transparency, accountability, and accessibility. Removing physical obstacles literally removes barriers that limit progress. This is not a solution that is limited to technology companies; it can be implemented in nearly any industry that has a need for high-performing teams.

Try it. Bring your team together in an open workspace for the purpose of accomplishing something specific: your project. The results might surprise you.

References

Coster, S. (2009). Today's Workspaces and Open Plan Design in the Media Spotlight, [Press release]. Retrieved from http://www.degw.com/press_release.aspx?id=6&name=Today's+Workspaces+and+Open+Plan+Design+in+the+Media+Spotlight&a=1.

Grossman, R. (2002, September). Offices vs. open space: Deciding whether to tear down the walls or build them up isn't always an open-and-shut decision. HR Magazine. Retrieved July 20, 2009 from http://www.shrm.org/Publications/hrmagazine/EditorialContent/Pages/0902covstory_offices.aspx.

Project Management Institute. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge: (PMBOK® guide)—Fourth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Swope, C. (2007, February 22). Warming up in the bullpen. Governing.com. Retrieved July 20, 2009, from http://governing.typepad.com/13thfloor/2007/02/warming_up_in_t.html.

University Of Michigan. (2000, December 13). Working together in “war rooms” doubles teams’ productivity, University of Michigan researchers find. Science Daily. Retrieved July 7, 2009, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2000/12/001206144705.htm.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2009, Menlo Innovations LLC
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida

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