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July 30, 2006

Workplace Advantage Discussions

There has been discussion of my last Workplace Advantage post around the blogosphere:

  • Somebody in Joel Spolsky's discussion group linked to it as a question "Is this the end of private offices at Microsoft?". Chris Tavares, who works in the Patterns & Practices group (that has already been converted to flexible space), commented and then responded to various follow-up comments (of gradually increasing temperature).
  • Michael Puleio, who also works in Patterns & Practices, posted a "Follow-up on the new space" in which he discusses some of the unknowns I listed about moving to the new space (and also links to some earlier posts about the Patterns & Practices space). I'm not sure if Michael realized that I am positive about the change, but still interesting comments.
  • Then, Joel Spolsky picked up the topic for a top-level post "Private Offices Redux" in which he calls open space "fun but not productive."
  • And the ever-reliable Mini-Microsoft also featured it in one of his linkfest posts, and invited discussion on it, which generated a few comments (including "Cubicles are the #1 indicator of management that doesn't know the difference between programming and typing,", "If you really want to see a Mini-Microsoft, then abandon private offices for cubicles. I'll be out the door quicker than you can say 'boo'," and "'workspace advantage' site should be renamed to 'office space'").

So obviously there is some misconceptions about what is going on, the primary one being "This is all a plan to herd us all into cubicles to save money/space," followed quickly by "and I'll quit if that happens."

First of all, from everything I can discern (including the official statement from Facilities), this is not about saving money. It's probably cheaper to build solid office walls and never change them than it is to have demountable partitions (the delicious term of art for such things). It's certainly simpler from a Facilities perspective to have every office be roughly the same size with the same kind of furniture, than to have variable sized offices with various kinds of furniture. And the plan is to keep the same square footage per employee that exists now; any space saved in the actual employee workspace would be given back in lounges, meeting rooms, small phone offices, etc (the one possible exception is the nine square feet per office that is currently occupied by doors that swing open; with the switch to sliding doors, that space may be recaptured).

Note that I said the plan. Currently at Microsoft we are in a space crunch, and many people are doubled up (or even tripled up if the stories are true). We're building new buildings, but you can only pour concrete so fast. Being doubled up in an office designed for one (where you just have half the space, full stop) is certainly worse than being in an open space where you may have less space right around you, but it is given back elsewhere. In the current environment, it's true there is a bit of squeezing being done in the pilot projects. For example the Engineering Excellence rebuild will basically take all of our current space and re-do it, but also fit in some small number of extra seats to allow for headcount growth. The large scale deployment of Workspace Advantage presumably will wait until the new buildings are finished, at which point the space crunch will start to be alleviated and employees should receive their rightful allotment of space.

The other thing is that this isn't necessarily a move to cubicles. Teams can choose what they want. Joel Spolsky says that his interns were in a big open space and it was unproductive because people got interrupted too easily (in fact he says "There's not much debate that [individual private offices] is the most productive environment for programmers, but not everyone at Microsoft is a programmer"). I assume he means his interns were in a real open space where everybody just had a desk. Although teams can choose that in Workplace Advantage (and one part of Patterns & Practices did choose to set themselves up that way), it's not at all required. A more typical arrangement has desks with some sort of divider panel between them. And this is indeed for programmers, as well as other jobs. Remember, if teams want to go with the current private offices in the current size, they can do so. Or they can choose the "much more private niches (not quite offices)" that Joel has for his interns this summer (I guess he doesn't want them to be as maximally productive as they would be in private offices). My sister posted a comment complaining about being moved to open space with no conference rooms for private meetings, but nobody at Microsoft is suggesting that (my boss is getting a private office (against his wish), there are several first-come-first-serve offices around the building, and in our own space we should have room to carve out a private space just for our team).

And my mother (what is this, family hour?), who has recently begun reading my blog and sending me copious comments on the back catalog (Hi Mom!) also points out that having natural light available is a good thing. This is one of the benefits of Workplace Advantage: the partitions can be made of clear glass or frosted glass, so that natural light can penetrate further into the interior (the glass is also whiteboard writeable).

My mother also asks, "Could someone who thinks best in bed have a nice Tempur-Pedic moved in? What about people who have a surge of creativity while standing under the shower?" And you wonder where I get it from.

Posted by AdamBa at July 30, 2006 10:25 PM

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Having worked for many years as a programmer in an company where we all had an open area with Partitions, let me tell you that it has a negative effect on productivity. You can't shut out the other people, you have to have head phones on to shut down the constant white noise and there is no privacy. It was perfectly normal that, while you're working, someone would come up and just start talking to you, or if you had you head phones on grab the back of your chair and start to shake it to get you attention (something I treated to quite over to get to stop as it was so common). If you can look over the wall there's no idea of privacy, and if you have no door there is none at all, and it effects everything.

I've done many of the plans over the years, and the more privacy a programmer has, the better code is produced. Never under estimate the ability to close to the door and stick a note on it saying "e-mail only" (which will be ignored if people can just stick there head over the wall).

Posted by: Tyler Reddun at July 31, 2006 10:09 AM

Here is a snippet (OK a little big) of a mail that I sent to Chris Liddell on his "Redmond Campus Space" mail. As a side note on the valet parking...have you tried to get out of Red West E parking during the day...fuhhh-get about it.
In the “Enhanced Workplace” portion of myMicrosoft there has been one glaring omission in the area of telecommuting and/or flex work. Yes, we do have this, sort of, but for an employee to take advantage of this it is opportunistic and not consistent between groups. In order to assist in our space allocation issues, we need to address this in a much more formal fashion. Let me give you an outline of the program that I think needs to be put into place, at the very least for the Puget Sound.

- Identify roles, levels and personnel that can work as or more effectively as a remote employee (telecommuting). There are employees currently in single occupancy offices that travel over 50% of the time. There are employees who “occupy” offices currently, but who through some arrangement with their manager are remote employees and yet they maintain a Redmond office usually occupied by the boxes of the last move. There are people who work much better outside an office, and who don’t require much face to face interaction with a team or whose team is scattered. These and so many more could be formal mobile telecommuters.

- Create a profile to help managers identify potential telecommuters in their groups. Publish this profile and train managers on how to measure and ensure success from this type of employee. This could also be a template for other regions who want to encourage the same model.

- Give employees the option under that profile to opt in to that model and a safe environment for them to be able to express this desire to their management. Currently this is a delicate subject for en employee to bring up with their manager. Often they fear they might be seen as a slacker or worse, when in fact they just want to be productive in their own diverse work style. Letting employees know there is a formal Puget Sound program for this and that managers have been trained gives them a safe conversation point to opt in to the model.

- Create a compensation package for a mobile employee and make it consistent for the Puget Sound. Most companies in tech have a mobile employee package. For companies like IBM this can be in the thousands of dollars a year stipend for the employee. For us, this could be simple. Fund a stipend for broadband for home ($50/month) and cell allotment ($80/month). And in both of those we could probably negotiate HUGE discounts with Comcast, Verizon, T-Mobile, etc. to provide those services. At the high end with no discounts that’s roughly $1500/year per mobile employee. I am not sure, but I have to believe that our yearly facility cost per employee is higher than that.

- Have a temporary workspace (the field calls this “hotel space”) where that mobile employee can plug into campus about 4 days a month to do office related things. This could be as simple as the currently unoccupied office down the hall, or someone in the office who doesn’t mind a visitor one day a week. Make this part of the “profile” for the manager so the employee can more reliably not have to worry about where to plug in when they need to.

- Implement ASAP. This would help office space, parking AND give Microsoft an enhanced public image in the Seattle area as an environmentally aware company, especially in this time of high fuel costs, etc.

I realize there is a little bit of work to do here, but I firmly believe that we can do it. I believe that our collaborative software, LiveMeeting, teleconferencing and VPN facilities that we offer make a wonderful infrastructure to enable this. The only changes we need are a formal program that everyone can participate in regardless of group, as long as they fit the profile.

What I got in response was the link to a program that is in pilot, but that lacked some of the funding and programmatic aspects to make it broadly applicable and impactful. Oh well...green we are not.

Posted by: PM Guy at July 31, 2006 08:50 PM

PM Guy, those are very good points. One of the 4 types of employees that Workplace Advantage is targeting is "travelers", who rarely work at a fixed office. Even in EEG one of the reasons we are leaning towards small desks is that a lot of the time half of us are teaching classes and therefore not at our desks all day. Also, we are going to need to work somewhere temporary during the actual building remodel and I presume that telecommuting will be encouraged then. This should be a good chance to see how that works over an extended period of time (obviously if people are telecommuting you lose the open workspace advantages).

I once met some people who worked for a consulting company. They literally had no fixed office; the company paid for their home broadband connection and laptops, and would even send them new printer paper and supplies if they asked. The savings in not having dedicate office space was more than worth it. One other interesting effect was that the company could form development teams with people scattered across the country as easily as it could with people who were nominally based in the same office, since in either case they only saw each other in person when they went to a customer's site.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at July 31, 2006 09:32 PM

The issue with flexible work environments, telecommuting, and distributed teams is that it takes trust on the part of the organization AND the line management. And the tone at the company (sure there are good pockets) is in the direction of distrust of employees and more "stare over your shoulder" type of micro-management. I long for the day when I can be in a company (and I hope that company is Microsoft) that trusts their software enough to allow their workers (in a majority of the highly creative IC roles we have) to work remotely.


Posted by: Anonymous Microsoftie at July 31, 2006 09:41 PM

What strikes me as somewhat strange in this discussion (or maybe I am just not reading closely enough) is the assumption that 1 person will/should have 1 type of working space (be it open, closed, cubicle, whatever).

Part of our company designs office environments where workspaces are based on the needed and desired interaction patterns between people as well as the flow of tasks seen from an individuals perspective. This means that a person will be able to use different types of workspaces througout the day depending on the task, and depending on the type of interaction that goes with it. It can be an open space, a 'mixing' space, a concentration space, or telecommuting etc.
It is a way to align your physical environment with the collective objectives of an organisation/group, where the space around you gives subtle clues as to how things are done most effectively.

It is something we tend to do more intuitively in our private homes, where different parts of our house serve different tasks, different workingstyles, all by and for the same people inhabiting the house.

Posted by: Ton Zijlstra at August 2, 2006 11:48 PM

Ton, that is the way it is planned to work at Microsoft. For example, in our EE dev space we have 6 people who will be working in a large area that use to contain about 7 old offices, so maybe 750 square feet. Our 6 desks aren't going to take up anywhere near all that space. So we'll also have an area with couches if we want to go read or have a discussion with someone else. There should also be at least one small closed office for personal phone calls. And hopefully there will also be room for a small conference table and chairs (if not in our own space, there will be several of these scattered around the building, separate from the larger formal conference rooms). We're not just being stuffed into a small space, we're being given the space savings back for other things.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at August 3, 2006 07:24 AM

I've has a Temp. mattress for years and think it's the best nite's sleep you can get.

Reasons for this are detailed in an article on my blog, which I hope you will check out.


Posted by: txdave22 at August 4, 2006 06:23 PM