How Microsoft Redesigned HQ For Productivity

Thinking your workplace isn't as effective as it could be? You could take a leaf out of Microsoft's book and let the IT department redesign all the floor plans.

Picture by [email protected]

In the locknote speech at TechEd Australia 2012, Dr Joseph Williams, managing director for SaaS partners at Microsoft, discussed how Microsoft had sought to redesign its headquarters throughout the world.

In 2005, the company was managing 33 million square feet of facilities. Redesigning those offices and making more intelligent use of technology allowed the company to cut down on real estate costs while actually adding headcount, Williams said. "We're leveraging productivity tools in a way that allows us to reinvent the future."

Those redesign schemes were typically driven by the workplace engineering team and the internal IT department. The role of the latter was important in ensuring that the right systems were in place to let people work in any location, including easy access to wireless networks and software-based communication systems. "We did a lot of 'imagineering', driven by IT," Williams said. "The design principle doesn't emphasise desks, it emphasises working areas. We don't have offices anymore; we have workspaces."

That didn't mean the change was always easy, Williams noted, citing Microsoft's Sydney HQ as an example. "Microsoft Sydney was a very traditional workplace; everybody had a seat, and that's what drove the architecture When we started to talk to Sydney staff about moving to the new way of work, some people were very resistant."

The transition has ultimately proved successful. "Instead of having a focus on desks, we had focuses on workspaces. The vast majority of Microsoft Sydney does their work in the cafeteria. They sit down and they talk through the day. Employee satisfaction has gone way up. People like working in this environment."

Visit Lifehacker's TechEd 2012 Newsroom for all the news from the show.

Disclosure: Angus Kidman is attending TechEd 2012 as a guest of Microsoft.


    As ex-MSFT, I find it difficult to believe that most people are very satisfied with this arrangement. Back in Redmond, everyone in the traditional offices with doors that Microsoft was once famous for voiced strong displeasure and disdain at the new experimental workspaces designed in the fashion described by the article. Sure, maybe PM's like to collaborate. Devs and testers like to put their heads down in their own spaces and WORK.

    Many at Microsoft basically live at work, at least during ship time. It's nice to have a workspace with all the comforts of home (including a futon or dish chair for sleeping), personal art up on the walls or on one's bookshelves, a couple shelves of books and research materials, some plants to remind you that there is an outdoors, and an area of the office in which to store your historical collection of company swag and ship-its (plaques or trophies that contain the list of products you've helped ship).

    Let's call this "productivity redesign" what it is: The next evolution in physical plant space-saving. The first was when the world eschewed individual offices for cube farms, because you could pack more people in the same space that way. This evolution is a result of realizing that with the rise in travel (which, I will note, has plateaued in the past decade), many employees aren't at their desks every workday, so why not re-use those desks? It's awkward to re-use space that is so full of someone else's stuff, as people feel like they're invading, so let's remove all of the personalization and claim that no one owns any turf, so everyone can use any space they find. In a slight twist to this, gee, we're always short on conference rooms (ask anyone who's worked in Redmond -- it got so that departments and execs PERMANENTLY CLAIMED public conference rooms so that they'd always have an available space for ad hoc meetings), so let's remove the barriers between these hot-desks and let people use them as meeting rooms as well as individual desks!

    If you have shift workers, they can share a cubicle. Sure they overlap - but hey, they can "hand over" in that time. Whats a few wasted hours every day, compared to halving the workspace required?

    So if you want to halve your workspace, just put your staff on arotating shift schedule...

    Alan, if you put a stack of people on shift - your can basically say good bye to a stack of people. Better to let people work from home.

    @Barb - We don't yet do the open office concepts for developers. Microsoft has tens of thousands employees in the field who don't need a futon in their office space - many field people don't need office space at all but they need some place to hotel when they are in the building.

    The key is to use appropriate technology to enable the right environment for folks to be productive how and where they need to be.

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