The University Record, December 11, 2000

Working together in 'war rooms' doubles teams' productivity

By Nancy Ross-Flanigan
News and Information Services

Software designers who normally work in separate offices are shown here working together for one project in a specially designed 'war room.' Flip charts on the wall contain an outline and diagram of the project. The table in the foreground is used for both formal and informal meetings, with no vertical barriers in the room. Private side rooms are available for all participants to use for quiet space or personal phone calls. Participants photographed are shown from the back in keeping with the study's privacy agreement.

Photo by Lisa Covi

Teams of workers that labored together for several months in specially designed “war rooms” were twice as productive as their counterparts working in traditional office arrangements, a study by U-M researchers has found. Results of the study were presented Dec. 6 at the Association for Computing Machinery 2000 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work.

Recently, many companies in the software industry have been experimenting with putting teams of workers into “war rooms” to enhance communication and promote intense collaboration, explains Stephanie Teasley, assistant research scientist in the School of Information’s Collaboratory for Research on Electronic Work.

Instead of toiling in separate cubicles, workers sit at wall-less workstations in one big, open room. The room typically is outfitted with central worktables, whiteboards and flip charts to facilitate group discussions. While companies expect benefits from such arrangements, workers sometimes balk at the idea, fearing they’ll sacrifice privacy and the quiet they need to concentrate on demanding tasks. The U-M researchers say their study is the first to closely examine the effects of what they call “radical collocation” on both productivity and worker satisfaction.

The U-M researchers studied six software development teams at a major automobile company, all of which had little or no experience working in war room settings. The researchers evaluated the workers’ productivity using measures commonly used in software development; then they compared the war room teams’ scores with productivity data the company had collected on software development teams working in traditionally arranged offices. The researchers also interviewed the workers and had them fill out questionnaires at the beginning and end of the project. In addition, they made detailed observations of two teams—sitting in on meetings and conference calls, watching the teams solve various kinds of problems, and photographing them in action.

Teams in the war room environments were more than twice as productive as similar teams at the same company working in traditional office settings. In a follow-up study of 11 more war room teams, productivity nearly doubled again, making the war room teams almost four times as productive as their counterparts in ordinary offices. The setting alone may not account for all of the productivity differences; teams working in the war rooms also used techniques designed to accelerate software development. However, Teasley says, those techniques could only be carried out by radically collocated teams.

The before-and-after questionnaires showed that workers liked working in the war rooms better than they expected to, and were not as distracted by nearby colleagues as they thought they would be. In interviews, the workers said they learned to tune out distractions and tune in when something important was happening. Indeed, the researchers believe, overhearing one another’s conversations and watching one another’s activities probably had a lot to do with the productivity surge.

When a worker was stuck on a software-coding problem, others passing by would stop and offer help. And when one team member was explaining something to another, others could overhear and interject clarifications and corrections. The privacy issue was resolved by having a few private cubicles, equipped with telephones and computers, available near the war rooms. Workers used these mainly for making personal phone calls, such as calling a bank to check on a loan or phoning a doctor’s office for medical test results.

“Although the teammates were not looking forward to working in close quarters, over time they realized the benefits of having people at hand, for coordination, problem-solving and learning,” Teasley says. “With the growing push for using technology to allow people to work in virtual teams, this study shows us the value of having seamless access to team members and helps us to envision how technology might best be used to support teams that cannot be radically collocated.”

Teasley collaborated on the project with Mayuram Krishnan, assistant professor of business administration, and Judith Olson, professor of psychology, of business administration and of information, and Lisa Covi, who was here when the work was done but now is at Rutgers University.