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April 16, 2006

Microsoft's Workplace Advantage

As I mentioned recently, Building 21 at Microsoft is scheduled to be remodeled following Microsoft's new Workplace Advantage plan. The goal of Workplace Advantage is to reconfigure offices to fit the 4 employee types that were identified after studying the workforce: travelers, orchestrators, concentrators, and providers (examples of which, respectively, are sales, program management, dev/test, and IT). The categories differ in how much time they spend in their offices, how much they interact with their peers while there, how many meetings they have, etc. The basic thrust is that private offices and formally scheduled meeting rooms may work for some people, but it doesn't necessarily work for all types.

If you're a Microsoft employee who is curious as to some of the plans, then schedule a tour of the Workplace Advantage showroom is Building 27. The former cafeteria has been remodeled into a mock office area that shows off different spaces: smart room (high-tech meeting room), standing meeting room (no chairs, high table, half the size of a traditional one), short-term parking (half-size office), closed workpoint (roughly 80%-of-full-size office), situation room (several offices and a meeting room in one open space) and a think tank (big open space with couches, displays, etc). Walls are often glass, of a kind that can be used like a whiteboard. Even the walls are covered in "high resolution paint" (no, really) which evidently does a better job of showing a projected image.

There are definitely some interesting ideas there. Desks are on wheels so they can be moved around easily. The standing meeting room, beyond taking less space, evidently encourages more efficient meetings, which is good. In one area they had a "studio", in which a group of closed workpoints were clustered around a wider hallway containing a table and chairs for impromptu meetings. Since the workpoints are smaller then a current office, the overall space used is the same as having only private offices, but instinctively it seems like a better use of the space. The closed-off areas used sliding doors instead of swinging doors, which saves space in every office (we were informed that a swinging door took up 9 square feet and just doing that conversion all over campus would be like getting a new building for free). The kitchen was relabeled the "mixer" and recognized not just as a place to get spiced cider mix, but also a common spot for employees to collide and interact.

It remains to be seen how much of this will become reality. The woman given the tour enthusiastically assured us that Facilities would be at the ready to reconfigure walls and doors at a moment's notice, which is the kind of thing you say when you don't have a budget in front of you (she also talked about how studies had observed how much time people spent walking to get printouts, so there would be more printers available; when someone pointed out that Microsoft had moved all its supplies down to the first floor, she was shocked). Although you get more flexibility at a group level, you lose one nice feature of today's buildings, which is that when groups are moved around within Microsoft, they at least know what they are getting in the new space (the same thing they had in the old space). If you like private offices and standup meeting rooms and you get reshuffled into a building with short-term parking and a think tank, how long will you have to live with it? I can see "My team's workspace doesn't match my personal workstyle" becoming a hot discussion topic on Mini-Microsoft circa 2010.

It's also hard to compare to current offices because the place just looks so dang nice. It's like those before-and-after ads for acne cream, where the model, in addition to having somewhat clearer skin, also has a new haircut, nicer jewelry, professional makeup, and better clothes. Does the standup meeting room look compelling because it is, or because the table and wallpaper cost so much? The early Microsoft buildings had dark wood trim; newer ones have light wood, which is less oppressive; and here we have metal, which looks clean and modern. Plus, the Building 27 cafeteria has nice high ceilings and as the piece de resistance has a giant skylight, which gives the whole area a nice "in the future all buildings will be made of glass that is as strong as steel" sheen.

To me the most impressive part is not the specifics, but the fact that this is happening. Microsoft has long sold the private office as an advantage, and to step back required some serious corporate reconsideration. And even if the company isn't going to redo your workspace every season, it is nonetheless apparent that the company is prepared to spend some serious money here to get this right. There are people who are already complaining (or at least there are rumors about people complaining; the front-line complainants may be imaginary, but let's ignore that and get on with my meta-complaint) about this as some nefarious plot by the company to screw over its employees, which I find appalling; even ignoring how ridiculous it is for our own employees to think we are evil, if you look over the Microsoft competencies/values/skills/etc, they are all about being flexible, trying new things, and being willing to fail. I fail to see how a knee-jerk "I must have a private office" reaction jibes with being an employee here. At least try it, right?

But, of course, the thing is that nobody knows. Nobody knows if flex space is really better. Sure, there are some obvious advantages. At the small company I worked at before Microsoft we were all in cubicles, and it was the tightest-knit development team I've ever been on. If you look at the literature on pair programming, some of it applies to open workspaces also: the ability to quickly get help from others, getting back on task quicker. And the hidden fact that nobody talks about, which is that it's harder to watch porn and have phone sex when you have someone sitting next to you. I don't doubt that within the Panopticon-like confines of an open workspace, I will spend more time working and less time distracting myself. But the work we do has something of an art to it, and it could be that time spent goofing off is actually beneficial in the overall scheme. Or maybe not. Who knows. But hey, I'm willing to give it a shot.

Posted by AdamBa at April 16, 2006 02:36 PM

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Not an employee, but I've long heard about how private offices are such an advantage, a "perk" of employment at MS. What I've seen in my 6-8 visits to the campus in the last year, and numerous Ch. 9 virtual visits, are cramped little offices, lots of work and interaction happening in the long narrow hallways, and a physical culture that pretty much requires the proliferation of email as the preferred method of communication. My impression of what it would be like to work at MS has always been not "wow, cool my own office", but "my, how stifling".

Posted by: kip at April 16, 2006 09:53 PM

I just hope it doesn't turn out like Chiat/Day's disastrous experiment, detailed in this hillarious story from Wired Magazine:


Reading this story should be mandatory for anyone who is thinking about forcing some new office scheme on other people.

Posted by: Nick at April 17, 2006 12:12 PM