Listening standing up


I work in a great big open plan office.  I don’t particularly like it but I’ve become accustomed to it. I first started working in an open plan office in 1990; it doesn’t really feel any better now than it did then.  Consistently in the large offices I have worked in people strive to create personal space by erecting barriers around them with cupboards, screens – anything really that allows them to create a more private cubicle of space. This is a picture of my ‘workspace’ (aka desk).desk

Yesterday I was walking through the big open plan office and I noticed a large team stood around having their ‘5 minute stand up meeting’.  These seem to be becoming increasingly prevalent in my organisation where there is a sense of delivery at any cost, with pressure on teams from many directions and people existing in a constant climate of change.

Conversations I have been having with people about buildings and environments coupled with my reading of the excellent book ‘Quiet : The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ by Susan Cain (highly recommended) got me thinking about the impact of management practices such as 5 minute stand up briefings coupled with the space we work in.

I can sort of see why stand up briefings might have a place.  For a boss who has a huge team, to actually stand up in front of them once a week creates a visible presence and potentially an opportunity to have your say; but does it?

I investigated where the idea of stand up meetings came from and it was no surprise to me that it has come from an environment called agile software development.  I work with teams of people whose job it is to implement technology programmes and I think the emergence of the weekly ‘stand up’ might give some clues about the type of culture of the organisation.  We seem to have exported this aspect of ‘agile’ into our management practices. I started to have a look around the internet to find out more about stand up meetings.  It makes interesting reading; they can also be called the ‘Daily Scrum’.  Language can be very revealing when telling you about organisational culture.

The concept of open plan offices and ‘scrums’ isn’t prevalent in all IT orientated organisations –  I used to go to the Microsoft UK Head Quarters on occasions; the offices there couldn’t have been more different from the offices I work in now.  You enter through a park with winding paths and an ice cream stand before entering the offices.  In the offices they have pool tables and coffee areas.  Offices allow privacy and quiet yet there are plenty of areas to meet and chat. The idea here is that people need quiet and space in order to focus and be creative; isn’t that true of many aspects of office work?

In the book ‘Quiet’, Cain discusses open plan offices and challenges the hype that shared spaces encourage improved team performance.  I tend to agree.  Personally I need my own space and on occasions need quiet and privacy to work.  I can also see how a scrum, or stand up session, may not be the most effective way of communicating with a team.  Even though I consider myself to be an extrovert (I may however be rethinking my assessment based on Cain’s book) I feel that standing up to listen in a large group to a communication may not be the best thinking space nor is it a space where even I feel confident to challenge and speak out.  Can individuals in teams say what they feel in a large open plan office standing up in front of a full team?

If we are to really allow staff to express concerns and hear what we have to say we have to allow them space to let this happen.  Its hard work – I can remember as a busy ward sister struggling to give everyone the time they needed.  But my reflections this week mean that I won’t be implementing any scrums or stand ups; I will have to find time to make sure me and the people I work with can listen sitting down and in a private, quiet space.  Considering the environment that we communicate in is important in clinical settings too – speaking to patients and their families and friends is a very intimate thing to do.

What about listening standing up? – It doesn’t work for me.

‘Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ Cain S., (2012)Portion of an office landscape floor plan show...

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5 thoughts on “Listening standing up

  1. Very interesting and very relevant, our organisation is currently focusing on agile working, using space differently and potentially needing less. I can see this has a place and creates an opportunity for efficiencies. However when I consider the culture we have created in our team and the motivation spurred on by every individual supporting each other i am wary what this might mean to us and quality. As the PCTs disappear we have less availability of quiet safe spaces to meet as teams and share and explore ways of working to develop and improve.I haven’t experienced the stand up meetings you refer to but i wonder whether it would create the right environment for me to contribute and i’m an E! I know we must consider new ways of doing things but i need to learn how we can maintain levels of connection and support within the team to enable us to deliver high level intimate communication skills with clients through an agile working approach.

  2. I agree. I think sometimes we do not think carefully enough about the implications of some actions that seem on the face of it logical and efficient. I absolutely abhor hot desking. I need a space I can call my own. Its just how I am……. The world seems to be getting less personal somehow. x

  3. As always, a thoughtful blog, challenging current ‘wisdom’. I no longer work in an open plan office (thankfully) – I often had to sit with earphones on listen to my music as a way to block out the constant low level hum across the office, for the year that I did work in that environment.
    I like the idea of the five minute f2f standing meeting in that it’s probably more focused than some sit down meetings: however I agree it shouldn’t be instead of quiet time meetings – it’s a bit like Twitter, good to convey short focused information as an adjunct, but can’t replace more indepth engagement. Thank you for sharing.

  4. I looked at the Youtube clip of Susan Cain, talking about her ideas. She makes a couple of interesting points in relation to classroom environments which, for me, connect to workplace. The notion that optimal learning is achieved as a collaborative/conversational process is, I suspect, a modern concept. Personally, I have always preferred to learn in the silence of my own thoughts. Yet, paradoxically, I do not present as an introvert in classroom environments – quite the oppposite – become Mrs Extrovert!
    Language is a finely balanced affair. I think there is a fair amount of research to suggest that hearing and comprehension is impaired if other sensory pathways are being bombarded by what might be considered small -scale stimuli – like taking your glasses off or standing up!
    Many of the greatest thinkers in history have been introverts. I thnk I shall try to resist the pull towards extroversion!
    Thank you Ann x

  5. Hi Anne.
    Read this blog with interest having spent over a year undertaking leadership development – some of which focused on exploration of my Myers-Briggs preferences, particularly introversion. I have also read the Cain book which confirmed some of what I knew intuitively about where I get my energy from (myself!). I am about to start a new job and – it may seem superficial – but one of my top queries when I met with some of my colleagues this week was ‘where is my workspace?’ (and quietly to myself, ‘is it open plan?’). Valuing the ‘I’ in myself and understanding the ‘E’ in others has been transforming. No to the 5 minute stand up meetings!

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