A Case for Pairing: Open Workspaces and Distractions

I currently work as part of an agile mentoring team in a large organization. Up until recently, we shared a project room. At any given point in time, there might have been one of four to six or seven team members (including a manager), plus one to three people that we were working with. On average there were four people in the room at any given time.

Up until this experience, I had always had positive sentiments about open workspaces and team rooms. In this current setting, I did benefit significantly from getting to converse frequently with all of the other people in the room. I learned things I probably would never have learned otherwise. And, I had a grand old social time.

But I also found that I wasn’t getting much work done when I had things I need to concentrate on. It seemed like I could be guaranteed a distraction at least every five minutes. Either someone was asking a question, or I was overhearing something that I felt compelled to respond to. It got to the point where if I had to find a couple hours to work on something (such as preparing training material), I ended up leaving the open workspace to find somewhere quiet.

The problem wasn’t the open workspace, it was the fact that none of us were really working on the same thing. The other mentors were usually working on a different project than I was. And my manager, well, you know how managers are, there’s always something they want you to pay attention to right away.

Escaping the room on occasion was an adequate solution, but the better solution ended up being pairing. I noted that as soon as I found a partner to help build a solution, or someone that I was mentoring, the distractions disappeared. I surmise two reasons: first, as a pair we were focusing on a problem. That meant I was no longer listening to any external conversations. Second, people are more reluctant to interrupt two people that they see obviously engaged in a conversation or task.

As I’ve paired more and have worked with teams employing pairing, I’ve grown a long list of benefits that I’ve seen accrue from the practice. My experience here adds a new bullet item: pairing minimizes distractions.

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