When NCRC tenants and visitors pass through Building 200, they see a large open area filled with people who are working in large or small groups, having “standing” meetings, or working individually at large communal tables. What they don’t see are any cube walls or room dividers.
MSIS had experimented with collaborative workspaces in some of their other locations, such as the Taubman Health Sciences Library, Bradford House, and the Argus Building. Starting in December 2010, MSIS extended their experiment with flexible working environments to NCRC by initially removing 12 cubes in Building 200 and inviting staff to work in this open area on a voluntary basis. Initially two managers participated, with 20 staff soon joining them and eventually remove the remaining cubes to accommodate 92 staff (and plans for even more staff to join them). Cindy Leavitt, Deputy CIO of MSIS, explains, “We had teams spread all over Ann Arbor, both on and off campus. We wanted to combine teams in one location and at the same time reevaluate our work environment so that it better supported the values and culture of MSIS.”
MSIS was transitioning to Agile practices, an approach to project management that originated in software development and has project teams working in an open office environment in direct collaboration with their customers. MSIS staff visited a number of businesses that were using Agile methods and had open office environments, including Menlo Innovations and AAA. Their environments supported openness, transparency, collaboration, teamwork, and provided flexibility. Leavitt adds, “We wanted to provide different models for work space, recognizing that you’re not always doing the same work and you don’t always need the same work environment.”
The open office environment has encouraged cross-functional and cross-organizational teams and makes it easier to incorporate customers into MSIS project teams. The collocation and proximity to co-workers has also drastically reduced the need for formal meetings. Leavitt emphasizes, “No amount of electronic communication can substitute for physical collocation.”
MSIS Senior Project Manager, Lauren Malatesta, agrees, “From my perspective, working in a single, open space has helped encourage collaboration, foster teamwork, and has increased project productivity. Problems are solved within and across teams quickly and openly. I especially love how project information is constantly radiated across the room, using large monitors and peg boards.”
Variety has been key to the success of the Building 200 collaboration space—including providing employees private workspaces, no talking zones, enclave or small group spaces, team workrooms, and display spaces for work artifacts. Leavitt admits there initially were mixed reactions among MSIS staff, with many concerned about the noise levels. Once staff settled in, however, they found that the sound levels were not as bad as anticipated. Leavitt attributes this to the openness of the collaboration space. She explains, “Noise travels in a cube environment, but because of visual barriers, workers may think they are ‘alone.’ There are no visual barriers in Building 200 so you see people around you and that keeps things quieter.”
Leavitt concludes, “As an organization we can do more collectively than we can as individuals. Teams, both formal and informal, solve problems, challenge the status quo and deliver high quality products and services far better than any individual.” By creating an environment optimized for teamwork, MSIS is providing the resources their staff requires to be mobile and work anywhere at any time on any project.