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Let Your Employees Design the Office. Seriously.

How office design anarchy worked for one software firm looking to apply lean ideals to its workspaces.

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The lean philosophy is all about building a minimum viable product, failing fast, learning fast, and evolving fast—and doing that all quite cheaply. It's quick, dirty, and very hot at the moment. But can it also apply all the way down to details such as office design?

Who cares about office design? World-changing products have famously have been built in garages and dorm rooms. But one software company that's dedicated to lean principles has found a way to translate its philosophy to the design of its workspaces. And they say it helps them build great products.

When Rally Software, which makes project management tools for enterprises looking to stay agile and, well, lean, moved its Boulder, Colorado, offices, the company did the usual thing and hired someone to stick their conference rooms and cubes in the right places. All except the R&D department, which had other ideas.

"We need zero private offices, and you can just pile all of our desks and chairs in the corner," Steve Stolt, a product-line manager who represented the R&D organization, told the architects kitting out the space. Huh, they responded, scratching their heads. Eventually the design pros went to the CEO Tim Miller, complaining about the obstructionist from R&D, but Miller explained that for Stolt and his team there was method to the madness. Stolt laid out the department's thinking in an email:

The folks in R&D knew exactly what they wanted: flexibility. The tough part about space planning, typically, is dealing with the constraints: walls, power and network hardlines. To solve the walls problem, we decided to have "t-walls" built. These are "T" shaped walls on wheels. They come in a variety of different heights, and some have transparent portions like windows, while others have white boards built in. We chose these because someone had seen something similar at the Stanford d.school. To handle the power and network challenges, we ran power grids on the ceiling. These grids allow us to drop a power line anywhere we need it. We also use these grids to run network hard lines. Our desks and chairs are all fairly portable as well.

It turned out, in fact, the team did really want their desks stacked in a corner. So no doubt shaking their heads in disbelief, the architects gave in and dutifully did nothing. Would Stolt's department regret their play for office design anarchy? Not at all:

On move-in day, our desks, chairs and computers were there, carefully piled in the corner. We also had our t-walls and power grids ready to go. Remember when you built forts as a kid? That's pretty much what this was like. Teams started arranging desks and chairs and getting computers set up. After a few hours of fort building, the teams were able to start working. It was great to be able to get up and running so quickly, and reinforced the value of the flexible office components that we had chosen. The layout has changed quite a bit as we have continued to hire and as various projects have come and gone.

All in all, "the R&D teams love the new space," says Stolt. "The best part is that we own the space. We built it, and if we decide at some point that we don't like it or it isn't working anymore, we can change it. No one is stopping us." The idea to have a movable office structure completely controlled by those using it is of a piece with the team's larger lean philosophy, he believes.

"We're an agile, lean company, and these principles are built into everything we do. We don't want to incur the waste of paying for big structural (i.e., walls, cubes, power) changes on an ongoing basis, so we came up with a flexible design. We also want to amplify learning opportunities, which is a key part of the Agile methodology. Overall, we want the teams to feel empowered, and that's why we let them design their own working space," he says.

How would your team react if you simply gave piled the building blocks of a flexible office in the corner?

Last updated: Apr 10, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.
@EntryLevelRebel




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