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February 6, 2010

On office organization?

Filed under: Design,Life — see @ 9:15 pm

Due to the fact that office layout at work has changed recently I was forced (being quite annoyed by the change actually) to think about how a middle sized (web)agency could work more efficiently (smaller agencies probably just sit in one big office and bigger ones have bigger problems anyway ;) .

How to place people into offices influences how they communicate which influences how they work together and in the end if they work efficiently or not. Things to consider:

  • people in a fixed project team (working more or less exclusively on that one project)
  • people having a variety of different projects
  • skill groups (specialists like the visual design group, the conceptual design group, the development group (which might again be devided in backend programming, frontend development, and maybe a dedicated flash group),  the management group (project managers and the like) and maybe other specialized staff like business development, PR, HR and accounting and possible teamleaders of any group
  • human factors

Leaving more organizational groups like accounting etc out of focus and concentrating on the majority of groups in a webagency (people working on projects at hand) I guess there are more or less two questions:

  1. how to make inner project communication and work efficient (the project team)
  2. how to make cross project and skillgroup communication possible (for the smaller projects with no dedicated team or people having multiple projects)

It seems question 1 is mandatory to answer as any company needs to finish any given project on time, budget and quality just to survive…

“Classic” agencies (especially) which mostly work on certain “accounts” seem to have fixed teams on any given account and so answer question 1 simply by putting all people working on an account together (which sometimes has the side effect that if an account is lost the whole project team is suddenly out of work and sometimes simply “lost” too – but that is not the point here ;)

Any agency not working in separated “accounts” but instead where most people work on several projects more or less in parallel has a problem there as there simply are no “projectteams” to place together.
(There is an additional  problem with fixed project teams. They tend to separate themselves from the other projects both on the personal and the work level. In the long term this is quite a dangerous problem for an agency.)

An idea how to solve this would be to place smaller projects dynamically into temporal “work” offices as long as the project lasts. (Preconditions of course are free dedicated office space (which sometimes would be double booked or in calmer times not needed at all and so somehow wasted) and you need all people to be mobile (mainly meaning they got a laptop and not a fixed PC)).
Again this does only work for short “peak work” (like pitches for new projects or code sprints etc) but not if projects actually are worked on in parallel. I do think however that dedicated space for short term concentrated work is a good idea.

Still you end up having to place all people into something that answers the two questions above. (Also I think to have fixed working place is good for a lot of people just to be able to concentrate on a task like e.g. a design or a complex Java application programming.)

Question 1 of inner project communication actually does not seem to be such a problem after all. I would argue that even if a project team does not work in one room they can work  together efficiently. They might schedule  regular meetings and they might work dynamically together in adhoc work teams simply by grouping in an office for some hours. Actually question 1 does more or less answers itself as the people involved simply HAVE TO communicate just to finish the project. (Of course you need to look into details e.g. if it would be good to place two people near each other who work close most of the time anyway. So I think small adjustments should be sufficient.)

Question 2 how to enable cross project and inner-skill group communication is a bit harder. It does not simply happen by itself as there is no need to do so.

One might think this communication is simply not needed at all and could be neglected completely.
But without communication here syndicated skills and knowledge transfer does not happen either! Any solution for a specific problem will be invented over and over again which simply kills efficiency naturally…

Also experience shows that cross project and inner-skillgroup communication actually is hard to achieve by outside means. Dedicated skill meetings can only help up to a certain level as day-to-day work is different to what you can present and discuss in a meeting or workshop. I think natural work side by side gives at least a certain amount of group communication.

So I think there are a few options to place people together.

  • place people of a skillgroup (including skillgroup teamleaders) together in dedicated offices as they naturally (implicitly) learn from each other despite not being on the same project
  • maybe mix members of different skillgroups into “knowledge groups”. I think you need to have at least 2 of every skill group in such a knowledge group (e.g. 2 visual designer and 2 conceptual designer) because of point 1. Knowledge groups instead of simple skillgroups have the advantage of cross skillgroup communication but may have the same problem as project teams (see next point). This cross skillgroup communication may better be handled with in actual explicit projects and not in the implicit communication talked about here
  • move dedicated project teams near to each other but not in a single office (problem of separation)
  • project managers are better off in separate offices (due to noise issues of phone calls alone)
  • have temporal office space available for “peak work” which would then provide for project (or cross skillgroup) communication

You still have the problem which people of a skillgroup (or multiple skills) to place together. But there also are a few options you have:

  • simply ask people what they think! (You might find out mondane stuff like if somebody likes to sit in a small or big office and possibly cannot fulfill any wishes but at least you know possible problems)
  • look which people worked well together in the past (in projects or in skillgroups). Some people just work together nicely while others simply cannot be productive together. This is a human thing and should not be underestimated but is a problem which normally can be avoided quite easily.

The problem of office organization definitely is difficult. Therefor you have to be careful with any change and also that you keep the balance of good inner- and crossproject communication. Also optimizing in details might be the best idea. On the surface minor thing like office layout might have other results than expected. There are the problems described above. But also any reorganization results in a reorganization of all the human relationships too. And these may take a while to adjust again (or might not adjust not at all in case you need to change again)…

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