9 Signs of Bad Team Spaces

One of the most popular articles here is 10 Rules For Great Development Spaces, so I thought I’d follow up by explicitly listing signs of bad spaces. These are my top 9, but I’d love to hear what others people have noticed.

  1. People wearing headphones. Part of the reason to sit together is to listen to one another. If team members are wearing headphones, they can’t do that. Don’t blame them, though; figure out what noise or distraction drives people to do that and eliminate the root problem. And if they aren’t part of the team, move them elsewhere.
  2. Stale artifacts on the walls. Every artifact on the wall should be there for a reason. If there are a lot of stale plans, charts, or lists on the walls and whiteboards, that’s a sign of trouble. Immediately prune the junk!
  3. Workspace as information desert. Development teams turn knowledge into software products. Rather than requiring effort to find things out, a good workspace requires effort to avoid knowing what’s going on. Bare walls often indicate low collaboration or high confusion.
  4. Minimal interaction. If team members sit near one another and never talk, it’s often a sign of an underlying problem. I’ve seen this caused by bad relationships, code silos, excess division of labor, too-long release cycles, excess schedule pressure, and plain old shyness.
  5. Furniture as barrier. Furniture should help you work, not get in the way. Barriers are great to reduce noise and chaos at team boundaries, but true teams should be able to share space and collaborate effectively.
  6. Sad or ugly spaces. You will likely spend more waking hours in this room than any other. Shouldn’t it be nice?
  7. Seating by job description. Agile approaches require cross-functional teams to make whole products. If people are grouped by job description, that is at least a barrier to collaboration, and often a sign of unhelpful silos. Group people by project instead.
  8. Space and furniture as status markers. In some companies, being distant from the action is a sign of status. On Agile teams, that’s a mistake. Instead of using rooms and desks to indicate hierarchy, give people the tools they need to do their jobs.
  9. No laughter, no fun. This is a big one for me. Every really productive team I’ve visited enjoys the work and their fellow team members. Money can make people show up, but it’s joy that gets the best results.

That’s my list. What’s yours?


  1. Rick Tonoli:

    How about: Excessive tea/coffee/smoke breaks – I’ve found a correlation between frequency and duration of “breaks”, and general morale of the team.

  2. William Pietri:

    Excellent point, Rick. Now that you mention it, I’ve seen that pattern, too.

  3. CTheB:

    Number 1 is wrong as a sign of a bad space. It presupposes that people don’t listen to music while they work because they enjoy it or for any reason other than to tune out some distraction(s). While it may be true that some people listen to music to tune out distractions, whether all or some of the time, that doesn’t mean that that’s the case with everyone or all the time. What the point should say is that one should identify whether or not there is something negative causing people to listen to music and if there is one (or many) to deal with them.

    I tend to spend an hour or two a day, sometimes more, listening to music while I work. Why? Well, mostly because I enjoy listening to music. That’s why I have it. Sometimes it’s because I’m preparing for a set and having it playing in the background helps me get more familiar with it. Every now and then it’s because something is distracting or annoying me.

    The rest I agree with.

  4. William Pietri:

    @CTheB: Thanks for the comment.

    Regarding headphones, I think it depends on the kind of work you’re doing. If you don’t need to be in touch with the people around you, by all means listen to music. But this being a blog about Agile software development, which is a team-oriented approach, I believe that not needing to be in touch with the people around you is often a sign of a problem.

    That’s not to say one should never do it. Sometimes people really need to do a bit of solo work. In which case, sure, wear headphones. Or, better, go somewhere else for a bit. But as a general rule, people not being present in the team room is a bad sign, whether that’s physically or just mentally.

  5. Decreased Productivity in Open Floor Plan vs. Scrum and Agile « Spare Cycles:

    [...] William Pietri commented recently on one of the top signs of a poorly functioning scrum space is people wearing headphones. I think that people wearing headphones is a direct result of team members trying to combat noise [...]

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