Coding from the Couch

Photo: iStockphoto

When SAP began implementing agile and lean software development methods three years ago, it expected that employees would require some time to get used to the new team structure and working process. It did not anticipate, however, that this change would create the need for office environments that are better able to support teamwork.

At any given time during the development process, team-members need to meet and discuss issues as a group, brainstorm and kick around ideas with a few colleagues, and work alone in a quiet, concentrated environment. The traditional workplace set-up, with small offices for just two to four people, isn’t conducive to this kind of frequent interaction with different colleagues. Studies show that employees are unlikely to communicate with people who aren’t physically close to them. But simply packing the whole team together into one room isn’t the answer either. Such open-plan offices can make focused work nearly impossible.

Designing an office with teamwork in mind

Enter SAP’s new office space for teams. This work environment is designed specifically for the type of teamwork that lean development and design thinking methods require. It offers open areas where both planned and spontaneous conversations can take place, smaller work areas that support face-to-face teamwork, and several spaces for individual tasks that require greater concentration.

Next page: Details make a difference

The design was created not only with teams in mind, but also with their input. “It was not pre-planned. It wasn’t a concept that was imposed on employees from the outside,” explains Karsten Koch, Head of SAP Facility Management in Germany. This focus on collaboration helped teams get behind the idea, says Sebastian Wolf, one of the developers now working in the new office space: “It was always an ongoing process, and that removed a lot of skepticism from the beginning.”

That initial skepticism will become less of a barrier as more teams see the benefits of flexible work spaces. Also working toward this goal is the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering with its “Office 21” project. The multi-year research project examines how work environments can help companies improve performance, efficiency, and capacity for innovation in a global and competitive market. Its first round of recommendations prescribe a flexible arrangement with more mobile work stations and fewer individual offices – quite similar to the new office space now in use at SAP.

Details make a difference

But whereas “Office 21” takes a very scientific approach to designing the future office (researching acoustics, office density, and ICT), SAP made sure to also consider those less tangible aspects of design that make employees feel at home: “It was important to us to pay attention to material and coloring – to find furniture that you actually want to sit on. Things like fabric choice make a big difference and are also linked to emotional aspects,” says Koch.

Wolf and his colleagues agree. In what they call the team living room, the team holds informal meetings and sometimes just talks about crazy ideas. And whether or not it’s due to the comfortable and colorful couches – they often work out these ideas not at their desks, but right there in the living room.