Agile & Change
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Agile & Change

An Office as a Product

A kanban approach to developing an office while capturing the engagement of all co-workers.

Co-written by Jakub Anderwald and Maciej Jureczko.

AN IDEA OVER A CUP OF COFFEE

On a rather gloomy July morning, Kuba approached me with an idea that both of us were to discuss over a cup of coffee. At the time, there were many things going on in the company’s office ‒ playing with different furniture arrangements, requests regarding additional showers and clocks showing various time zones, or testing innovative solutions for video conferencing. The Polish branch of a Danish company was already 400-people strong and managing all of their requests needed some systemic answers and budget balancing.

The conversation with Kuba gathered momentum as if it was a top-secret project that would have brought about a positive change for humankind. What resulted from it was a flood of ideas and some inspiring interpersonal dynamics. The goals we defined were the following:

― to effectively manage the flow of requests,

― to sensitize colleagues (the majority of whom were consultants) so that they become more mindful when it comes to our common office space and involved in developing it;

― to shorten the lead time while thinking holistically,

― to stay on the budget.

We were working in a big software house composed of multicultural teams, so the term “agility” was frequently on our lips. However, we have usually been using it when referring to some form of a scaled scrum, with multiple teams working on large products and long delivery plans within complex hybrid cloud environments. Yet, in this case, we felt that doing something local, tangible, and with quick turnaround time would energize the internal community.

THE KICK-OFF

So, we gathered a small team of managers whom Kuba, with his good sense of humour and mission, convinced to embark on this endeavour. Our coffee mugs had already been emptied and it was time to take action. We settled for a kick-off meeting with a certain proposal:

  1. We start small with a visualization of what is going on using a kanban board with three states.
  2. We build a backlog of things to do based on what we already know the administration department is working on and what our colleagues from various places in the Polish branch have mentioned in a recent satisfaction survey.
  3. In charge of the office budget was the Polish branch’s head who has agreed to be our Product Owner.
  4. The kanban board would be transparent and accessible to the entire company, where each change happening in the organization (regarding the office and its culture) would also be visualized on the board.
  5. Everyone can suggest items to be added to the backlog, which will be prioritized by the PO every now and then.

Just before the meeting we met with the Product Owner and queried him about his vision and responsibilities that we thought were important for him to acknowledge to the wider audience. As he was speaking we were made notes on cards. The result of this meeting was the following three traits of the office:

The three traits of what an office is: represents us, contributes to our culture, enables and fosters getting our job done.
The three traits of what an office is: represents us, contributes to our culture, enables and fosters getting our job done.
  • It represents our company — we want our office to be modern, clean, friendly and inspiring us to do great work. It is our competitive advantage for prospective job candidates and represents our company.
  • it contributes to building our culture — our office shapes our culture. It is here for our benefit. We want it to be tidy yet cost-effective. We want all of our co-workers to care about the office.
  • It enables and fosters getting the job done — ensuring our work is effective. The office space should facilitate the work, not disturbing or imposing. We acknowledge there is no fit-for-all solution. Every department works on things in their own unique way. It’s important that everyone can adjust the office to their type of work.

During the kick-off meeting we settled for the initial idea described above with a few suggestions from the group, which included:

― the PO would prioritize the backlog every 2―4 weeks

― since we did not have a separate team dedicated to this task, we would not opt for daily meetings, but rather met weekly or on a bi-weekly basis

We also prioritized our backlog based on the information we had. Knowing that the prioritization was not done based on data but rather on vision itself, we decided to start small. Data was to be added later on, as we learned more from the organization and decided on measures that should be used.

The kanban board in the beginning — an MVP created in an open space, near the kitchen area.
The kanban board in it’s beginnings — an MVP created in an open space, near the kitchen area.

Our “whiteboard” looked as above. We made sticky-notes and a marker pen available at all times. Some of the important notifications including:

― overall information on what this whiteboard was about,

― the vision of the product (i.e. our office),

― the list of basic usage rules, namely, where to add things to the backlog;

― contact details of the PO and the Scrum Master in case anyone liked to contribute to the product or had any queries on how to use it.

No sooner had we managed to send official communication to the company than new suggestions for the backlog already started to emerge. Each day a new batch of sticky-notes would be added by some colleagues passing by. Some of the requests seemed rather vague and we had to hold a discussion about one of the added items, unsure whether it had already been implemented or not. Thus, we added a note that each item should have its acceptance criteria so we knew what the author had in mind.

Based on the above we amended the original communication and suggested two things:

― each item must be added along with success criteria, so we know what are particular expectations;

― persons were encouraged to self-organize and take an item from the top of the backlog in order to start working on it if they were willing to help. We only asked to provide a company ID on the notes, so other employees could contact them if necessary.

FIRST TWO-WEEKS

After the initial two weeks, we did a thorough inspection of the board and inquired what had happened on a retrospective. At the same time, our Product Owner settled the priorities. Below, there are some statistics and conclusions we gathered about the two-week run when we met next to the board to retrospect:

  1. Visualizing the backlog helped us discover quick wins that could be readily addressed.
  2. There were questions about the ways of ordering the backlog and how we wish to approach it.
  3. The initial team of seven had shrunk to just four, as people overestimated their ability to contribute.

A COUPLE OF MONTHS LATER

After some time, Maciej, the Scrum Master, took over as the main driver for the initiative. We could notice active involvement on the part of the company, and we realized we actually did hardly any communication around the board and yet a lot happened. People were naturally drawn to it by curiosity.

Some Post-its were either unclear or people had a different idea on how to solve the issue, so they started adding cards with comments. At some point, we saw a discussion happening via posting questions and replies written on Post-its attached to one backlog item (see below). Brilliant!

Updates on a ticket from the ‘in progress’ phase towards ‘done’.
Updates (actions, questions, current state) on a ticket from the ‘in progress’ phase towards ‘done’ column.

There were several challenges we encountered along the way:

  1. Not having a separate dedicated team and relying on volunteers from the entire office meant we had varying amounts of engagement throughout the period. We have to keep in mind it was a side task for everyone involved. Apart from the office staff where the team was just three-people strong.
  2. Limitation of the tool. While a physical kanban board placed in the company’s kitchen naturally draws attention, it also has its limitations. You have to walk up to it (quite often from a different floor) to read information or post anything. Balancing visibility versus process efficiency is something we need to keep our minds on.
  3. Focusing on the actual need. Those of you who have worked with products might easily and intuitively understand the need for refinement and precision while working with backlogs. It is easy to define backlog items as outright solutions which tend to die out due to conflicting interests.
  4. Rejecting such propositions (see point 3) seems to be a risky idea, as we rely heavily on individuals’ engagement.

Some changes have been proposed to tackle the above issues. One was putting your name under the Post-it you add. Anonymous Post-its were, in turn, redirected to a specially created area of the board for ideas in need of further refinement.

SUMMARY

After the initial four months, we managed to get 24 items “Done”. Over the same time, we decided to not go through with 10 items due to various reasons (incompatibility with the vision, budget limitations etc.). Nine items were still in the making, while the backlog consisted of 16 items, and 6 more were awaiting clarification. We kept both sets out in the open, so everything was transparent and whoever posted a need could see what happened to it and that it was not ignored.

The “Done” items varied as to their size and complexity ‒ some were quick fixes, such as replacing old marker pens in conference rooms and setting up a cycle to maintain these accessories. Others put forward quite time-consuming changes, such as rearranging a shared co-working space into a comfortable room with sofas and armchairs. That being said, some tasks were rushed towards “Done” without obtaining the full understanding of the need.

We also got indirect feedback on how people felt about the office. If we saw new stickies being added asking for small adjustments, like a different brand of tea, we gathered that things were seen as generally OK. However, when we got asked for big changes and we could see that people put a lot of time and energy into making them as creative and eloquent as the one below, we knew this was an area we should look into more carefully.

A meme & text conversation on one of the tasks.

We started this initiative, as we felt there is a need for being more transparent when it comes to how we manage our office.

As we are an IT company, we used an approach that was already known to most of us. Having a physical kanban board proved to be helpful, yet we felt that it was not the method that made it a success but rather that, by having it out in the open, the company management (including the country manager) delegated a lot of responsibility to anyone who accepted it.

Taking transparency in your company to another level and listening carefully to your internal customers can help you see where to prioritize. Inviting your colleagues to contribute and join the process can foster engagement that cannot be kindled by even the most colourful and content-filled newsletters. When people take ownership of their surroundings, magical things happen.

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Marcin Konkel

Marcin Konkel

I write about hyper-productive teams and focused organisations where people and products flourish. I also shoot documentary work at https://marcinkonkel.com