Nerds need doors. Microsoft (MSFT )—land of right lobes—has always honored this received wisdom. Nearly every employee gets a private office. That's pretty cush for a tech company, considering how engineers are stacked on top of one another at Google (GOOG ) and the proles at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) are stuffed into depressing, dungeon-like cubicles.
Yet the days of everyone wanting the same standard-issue box are long over. So HR chief Lisa Brummel is creating Microsoft's next-generation workspace: the elastic, meet-my-mood office. Here too she is going far beyond what most companies consider: open plan or not? Instead, she's creating a hybrid workplace of sliding doors, movable walls, and urban-loft-like spaces tailored to individual needs.
A Custom Workspace
It all starts in the Workplace Lab, a kind of parade of homes for offices where "Microserfs" can pick and choose their new digs. The lab also functions as a kind of workplace Freud; employees are divided into four worker types: providers (the godfathers of work groups), travelers (the types who work anywhere but work), concentrators (head-down, always-at-work types), and orchestrators (the company's natural diplomats). From there, managers and teams can pick the kind of workspace—down to carpeting that doubles as a golf green, Xbox lounges, or souped-up kitchens—that works best for them. Modular features mean spaces can be opened up and buttoned back together depending upon one's need for privacy or collaboration. Since most people verge on bipolar—needing privacy one day, yearning for company the next—glass windows have a frost-up feature for when prying eyes walk by.
Work teams also get to choose their midcentury modern furniture, all of which looks like it's straight from the pages of the Design Within Reach catalog. The range offered—and details considered—are astounding. Bill Gates is known for rocking back and forth in his chair. In mass homage, programmers at Microsoft often do the same. The lab offers white modern rockers for media lounges and living-room-like gathering spaces.
The Patterns & Recognition group was one of the first at Microsoft to pilot the new offices. Research found that 70% of their collaboration happened in informal ways. But there were no places for informal brainstorming sessions. Today the group's spread is a futuristic hybrid of private offices, expandable and contractible war rooms, and tons of hanging out spaces—lounges, media rooms, kitchens. The movable walls mean that at any time the boss can call a meeting and turn the cloistered warren into an open space capable of accommodating the entire 150-person team.
Microsoft is also making savvy use of a wasted asset: office walls. Floor-to-ceiling glass whiteboards mean that in Microsoft's new offices, walls are smothered in workplace graffiti, mental riffs, and punch lists. It's almost as if workers have dumped their brains onto the walls: knowledge work made visible.
By Michelle Conlin