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Why sharing a team room might be not so good

Just reflecting on a couple of cases where team performance – by design – depends a lot on sharing the same room. Sharing a room is good for productivity and builds on all kinds of powerful activities that happen in  physical space. However, there are a couple of issues with that.

Operating in a shared space makes various interactions informal and their value implicit – everyone is there, questions are asked and answered, insights and artefacts shared, actions observed. However, this means that if someone is not in the room for whatever reason (ill, off-site, etc.) they miss important bits and don’t have an idea of what they have missed. Strong reliance on sharing a space usually means that there are not many backup information flows (to revisit from a distance or later) and that communication practices are not well articulated (so it’s difficult to change them or “move” to another – digital – format if the need arises).

Sharing a room creates convergence, but also thicker group boundaries. Developing shared understanding of what and how have to be done is great for getting things done, but also “locks” the team in it’s own practice. This makes it more difficult to change and to incorporate external influences. And it’s difficult to extend a group like that since it’s difficult for a newcomer to get “up to speed” fast and to bring own ideas to the table.

So, where a team room makes sense?

  • projects that are more about getting things done than about interconnections
  • projects with little travel or flexible work
  • relatively short term projects, so needs to extend the group or change it’s practices are not that likely

Doesn’t mean that teams shouldn’t share rooms in all other cases, just that they have to make sure that they articulate their own practices and establish alternative mechanisms for developing awareness,  communicating and creating opportunities for incorporating external influences.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Martin Lessard November 27, 2009, 21:25

    I agree with you. Especially about the thickness of the group boundaries. I’m currently working in such space. Whenever I have to work from home I felt I was three continents away when back…

  • Ruud November 27, 2009, 22:37

    One of the reasons why our project team decided to move into a team room is that team members travel a lot and most of them do not work full-time. The rationale: when you’re at the office you’re sure to bump into your team mates. This is exactly opposite to your second point under ‘when does at team room make sense’. A second reason for ‘our own room’ was that we could easily leave the results from project discussions and brainstorms on the whiteboard. No need to wipe it all out as you would in a regular meeting room. Such activity traces are also a way to inform team members that were absent of what went on. Anyway, I agree with your point that you should be aware of such effects before settling for a team room.

  • Richard Gauthier November 27, 2009, 23:10

    Having worked in such a room in two cases, in an ad agency and within a communication department (we used to call that room “the Aquarium” because there were windows at the upper part of the wall), I can tell that sharing a room works pretty well if everyone are atuned for such a detail as… the music played on!

    Sharing a working space implies a flow of energies and disruptions, one must accept or recognize that fact. Even if everyone shut up when another one is on the phone, or if someone asks for silence for a length of time. Respect is key to kingdom. Having a private space for some duties as well.

    At the agency, the shared room was a mess (I won’t name it even if Martin have worked there I think ;- ), while at the Aquarium, it was really great and stimulating. I don’t think that everyone likes the energy of a shared room. But I do think that similar tasks, creation for instance, raise the acceptance of the flow of energies that come with a sharing workspace.

  • Lilia Efimova November 30, 2009, 10:54

    Guys, thanks for sharing your experiences!

    Ruud, I guess I was too fast with the ‘recommendations’ 🙂 What I meant in this case is ‘a team room as a main coordination mechanism for the team’, rather than team room per se. When people travel a lot it makes sense to create as many opportunities as possible for them to meet f2f, so team room might make a lot of sense. That’s said, I also think that your case is a bit of a luxury, since many organisations would rather create flex rooms for mobile professionals, than have team rooms where half of the places would be empty because people are travelling. There should be some sweet spot in between.

    Richard, right – personal compatibilities and ability to develop shared practices (e.g. around interruptions) are important for a successful teamroom.

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