Home Agile Transformation Is Team Co-location Your Biggest Agile Transformation Challenge?

Is Team Co-location Your Biggest Agile Transformation Challenge?

Anthony Mersino

April 1, 2016

1:43 PM

This is first in a series of posts about agile transformation challenges. Most organizations today have tried Agile approaches and the majority are finding them helpful. Unfortunately there are also a significant number of people for whom Agile has not been helpful or it hasn’t worked. They could not overcome the challenges.

Or, they tried it but they did not get the benefits that they had hoped they would get.  When I peel back the onion, I hear some of the same reasons for Agile not working.

Co-Locating Teams is a Frequent Agile Transformation Challenge

One of the top reasons for agile not delivering is that they could not co-locate their teams.  They had teams comprised of people from all over the globe and were not willing or able to create co-located teams.  So they tried to apply agile with their current distributed team.

Can that work?  Absolutely.  Will they get the benefits of Agile?  As Jeff Patton famously quipped, “If you want to run a marathon with ankle weights, don’t complain to me about your time.”


If you want to run a marathon with ankle weights, don’t complain to me about your time.

— Jeff Patton

Five Reasons That Organizations Struggle with Co-Location

Why are organizations not able to co-locate teams?  Why have they focused on using distributed teams?  I think there are 5 main reasons.

  1. They are seeking cost savings by hiring workers who are in low wage countries.
  2. They feel they cannot get the talent they need in their local market.
  3. They believe that a team can be just as productive if they are distributed or if they are sitting together in the same room.
  4. They don’t have the space to co-locate.
  5. They’ve created key person dependencies

Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail.

#1 – We Save Money With Distributed Teams

This is really fascinating to me. Do people really think that they are getting a saving because they can hire a faceless java developer in some distant land for 25% of what they would pay someone in Chicago, NY or London?  That is really what we are talking about here.

Is cost savings driving your team staffing strategy? Is this consistent with the way you make other decisions?

  1. Do you buy the cheapest coffee you can find?
  2. Do you select your clothes based on getting the best price, or do you consider what you look like?
  3. Do you drive the oldest and cheapest car you can find just to save money?

saving money#2 – Getting the Talent to Co-Locate

A few weeks back I wrote about Google’s recent quest to build high performing teams.  All the images I found of teams at Google showed them working together, face to face.

Separately I had an opportunity recently to observe a roomful of developers at Uptake (Uptake was previously named by Forbes as the 2015 startup of the year). Teams were swarming around tables like bees in a hive – talking, developing, collaborating.

Google and Uptake both believe that they can attract the talent they need where they need them. Then they put the teams together in the same physical space.  Why does this work for Google and Uptake and not for these other firms?

I think the answer is that getting the talent also relates to the first reason, saving money.  Google and Uptake are creating the conditions to attract and retain the talent.  And paying appropriately.

If you are pursuing a lowest price staffing strategy, then you have already communicated that you care more about cost than about the talent.  What is your strategy and who are you attracting?

#3 – Productivity of Co-Located Teams

The question of productivity of co-located vs. distributed is puzzling. One of the Agile Principles states that the most effective team communications are face to face. When there is a crisis we set up a war room or command center to get everyone together.

Why?  Because it is faster and more productive.  Why is it that when teams are needed to build high-tech and high-quality solutions, many people feel that the same focus and high-bandwidth communications are not needed.  Do we really think that teams that are distributed can be as productive as those that are co-located?

Studies have shown that it does make a difference having people in the same room, a BIG difference.  A study by the University of Michigan found that using a team room can more than double team productivity.

And this is just the productivity gained by moving people from cubicles and putting them in a team room.  Imagine the productivity boost if you were to eliminate the geographical and timezone separation! [See my related article on Why To Avoid Using Scrum with Distributed Teams]

#4 – Space for Co-Located Teams

This one is also a head-scratcher.  Team rooms actually take up a lot less space than their cubicle equivalent.  So that argument doesn’t really hold.  I am beginning to think that when someone tells me they don’t have enough room, what they are really saying is “Gee it would be tough to change our current cubicle setup”.

#5 – Reliance on Key Persons

Another common reason why co-location is difficult is that organizations have relied on specialists with narrow knowledge. These people have become key person dependencies.

I have a new client with just such a specialist. All decisions go through this person who happens to be located in a different state than all business stakeholders and all other team mates.

Co-Location Should not be an Agile Transformation Challenge

I do think that co-location can be tough, but it should not be an agile transformation challenge. And it is tough because organizations have not made it a priority. If organizations WANT to change, they can. They can take the following steps to create those co-located teams:

  1. Make Co-Location Part of Hiring Criteria – This is a long term strategy to intentionally create cross-functional teams that can be co-located. So if there is attrition or hiring, make it a point to co-locate any new hires with other team members.
  2. Make Smaller Teams that Are Co-Located in their geography – In thinking about the organization and teams you need to deliver solutions, be creative about creating teams from the people where they sit today.
  3. Aggressively Cross Train – Cross-training can help to reduce or eliminate key person dependencies. This will allow you more flexibility to create teams from the people you have. While you will always have rock stars, you can avoid having the rock star be part of multiple teams.
  4. Think Long Term – The organization you have today wasn’t created overnight. Think about the organization you will need and be strategic about your preference to co-locate your teams.

Co-location is not trivial. But it can be implemented if that is what the agile leaders intend to do.

Get more information about Agile Transformation on our Agile Transformation Consulting page.

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