How Important is it to Co-Locate Agile Teams?

Anthony Mersino
October 28, 2016

I've been an advocate for co-located teams for quite some time.  However, I seem to be in the minority when pushing for co-location.  Am I crazy for thinking that if we put people together, we will get better results?  Am I the only one who believes that co-location is an essential ingredient to high performing teams?

My writing on the topic has gotten a lot of pushback over the years including from other Agile coaches. Some is easy to dismiss.  The Agile Practice Lead for Cognizant Technology Solutions pointed out to me that the reality is that most teams are distributed and we just need to deal with it.  Coming from Cognizant, whose business model is predicated on distribution, I didn't find it surprising.

But the data shows that distributed teams are the reality.  The most recent VersionOne survey (10th) had 82% of respondents saying they had some teams using agile in a distributed fashion.  That doesn't mean 82% of teams are distributed, but 82% of respondents had at least some distributed agile teams.  Another statistic showed that only 26% of teams

Another data point is the 2015 State Of Agile Development by Forrester.  That reports showed respondents had only 10% of their teams fully co-located.  The other 90% are either partially or fully distributed.

Finally, Dr. Dobbs had a survey in 2011 that indicated that 26% of teams were co-located.

So it seems that distributed Agile teams are indeed the reality for most people.  But hey, just because everyone is doing it, that doesn't make it right! It is still a choice that leaders in organizations have made. It is only a reality because people did not take steps to intentionally set up co-located teams.

Last week, Jurgen Appelo spoke at a Meetup in Chicago and he touched on the topic of co-location for Agile Teams.  I really liked Jurgen's Management 3.0 book so was a little surprised by what he said.  It had me wondering if I was off track.

Jurgen stated that most agilist think that co-location is important, but that the point of co-location is to create mental proximity among team members.  His point is that physical proximity may help, but it is mental proximity that is even more important.  You could have physical proximity (sitting together) without mental proximity, and mental proximity without physical proximity. 

I dug around and found this InfoQ article where Jurgen expanded on his idea:

 

You will have to redefine proximity from the narrow sense (which is just geographical proximity) to a broader definition that includes virtual and mental proximity. I feel very close to some people who actually live far away, in other countries. It takes frequent travel, great communication tools, and meaningful practices (such as Personal Maps) to achieve that feeling of proximity.

 

So what are some ways that we can create mental proximity independent of physical proximity, outside of the personal maps tool that Jurgen suggested?  Most distributed teams use tools such as these that work best for teams that share common working hours:

  • Real time collaboration tools (e.g. Slack, IM)
  • Real time "always on" video
  • Video conferencing

These tools help us to put people over process and tools, to avoid relying on documents, and to have face to face communications.

The challenge is when there is little or no overlap in working hours for team members.  Then, there are a few asynchronous tools like Slack, Wikis, and Agile lifecycle tools like Jira or VersionOne.  However, it seems that we begin to fall back on document handoffs and infrequent or non-existent face to face communications.

So I guess I sort of agree with Jurgen that mental proximity may be more important than physical.  But I believe that the overlapping working hours are a must.  In other words, the proximity needs to be in working hours and ability to collaborate synchronously. 

Your thoughts?

About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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