Online Extra: Microsoft's Mini-Me Susses Brummel

In an e-mail interview, Redmond's reclusive workplace blogger Mini-Microsoft assesses the software giant's new attitudes and HR

All anyone who wants to know how Microsofties feel about their employer has to do is click on the Mini-Microsoft blog. There, an anonymous employee chimes in every so often with the latest bit of internal news that affects the workforce. Then scores of other workers, also usually anonymous, chime in offering a virtual water cooler for the company's 78,000 employees.

Mini, as he is known, started blogging in July, 2004, as Microsoft (MSFT ) morale reached its nadir. Back then, Windows Vista was mired in development trauma, a seemingly endless process of redesigns and fixes that kept delaying the company's flagship product. What's more, the company had mushroomed in size from just 39,000 employees in 2000, creating a stifling bureaucracy that inhibited product development. At the same time, Microsoft's stock had barely budged in three years, and the human resources department cut popular benefits—everything from a free towel service at the gym to an employee stock purchase plan.

Mini spoke with BusinessWeek back then, and that time he criticized Microsoft's employee review system and its penchant for adding new staff. But that was before Microsoft put Lisa Brummel in charge of human resources. Since then, she went on a "listen" tour to hear employee gripes and launched her own internal blog called InsideMS. That led her to overhaul the review process and create a new framework for human resources called myMicrosoft. And she even restored the free towel service.

So what does Mini think of Microsoft's workplace environment now? He recently responded by e-mail to questions from BusinessWeek. An edited version of the interview follows.

Can you describe the view of human resources before the Brummel era? HR wasn't really on anyone's day-to-day radar before [previous human resources director] Ken DiPietro's cutbacks of the employee stock purchase plan and the towel service. I doubt too many people even knew the name of the HR director. My only personal grumbling around HR then was how the review form seemed to keep evolving every six months, making review-to-review performance hard to track.

When the ESPP and towel cutback happened (near about the time I started blogging) it was a moment for the employees to snap to attention and wonder who was in charge and why were these particular decisions being made. Cost cutbacks, with a goal of $1 billion, was the reason given. But it didn't really make good sense, given the areas targeted, let alone the clumsy way it was announced. Damage control ensued, as did focused griping by the employees.

What do you think of the job Brummel has done so far in redesigning human resources? Employees feel engaged with HR now more than ever. For example: Moving jobs [with]in Microsoft is not easy. It used to be an exceptional pain given that you had to ask permission from your manager to interview with another group. This was changed so that if you're in your current group for longer than 18 months, you can just announce "I'm interviewing!" and not worry about your boss saying, "No, you're staying until I say you can go."

Do you sense employee morale is better now? I think it's better (especially now that the debacle that was Vista is all over). Well, the morale question is at least on pause as people still deal with all the changes around the review system and myMicrosoft and decide, in the long run, is it good, bad, or indifferent. But the stock price is still the dark cloud that follows us everywhere. Until the stock breaks out, there's a large "meh" penetrating the workforce. Management doesn't acknowledge this.

Have the changes in creature comforts—such as food from local vendors and Starbucks (SBUX ) i-brew coffee machines in the buildings—made a difference? I love my Starbucks i-brew. Best morale boost ever. I'm delighted when I travel about campus and find some of the local food vendors giving us an extra option. I even schedule meetings sometimes so that I can have lunch in a different building's cafeteria. The other extras are a bit unused by someone like me (I have very little dry cleaning, so campus dry cleaning is a non-option for me). I'm not sure how useful other employees have found them.

Do you think Microsoft should go the way of Google (GOOG ) and offer free food? No, but at least subsidizing it would be good. Eating on campus isn't very cheap and, personally, if I didn't have to worry about losing my parking spot, I'd eat off of campus every day I didn't bring my meal. Also, just doing one thing that Google does would be ineffective. Google has a system of useful on-site benefits that make staying on campus easy and delightful. Our attempts at this so far have been rather shotgunned.

What have been Brummel's biggest accomplishments? Ms. Brummel's shining accomplishing is engaging with employees directly and making them feel heard. Her first Listening Tour was a brilliant move to take head-on the issues that were really bothering employees.

What are her greatest obstacles? What still needs to be fixed? Obstacles? So let's go to the InsideMS blog meltdown. Perhaps it was put up just as a place to internalize the conversation that was leaking out on Mini-Microsoft. Brummel received lots and lots of feedback through this forum, but then didn't utilize any of it. As part of the meltdown, she revealed that InsideMS didn't even show up in her personal commitments. How can a major point of employee engagement for the senior vice-president of human resources not even show up in her yearly list of accomplishments? Hmm.

She has to find a way to re-engage and enter a virtuous loop with the employees, hopefully ushering in other senior leaders of the company to do the same. The more that the employees are engaged with leadership, the more they can understand the challenges and issues and the thinking that the leadership is undergoing.

What needs to be fixed? Stop the hiring binge. I think this is slowing down, but Redmond is beginning to look like sardine town. We have more people than we need and that results in inefficiencies and lack of focus to keep busy and engaged all of these people.

Would you say employees have a positive or negative view of what Brummel has done so far? Positive. Very positive. Rock-star positive. I'm impressed with her and can only wish to have her clear, confident presentation and discussion abilities. She engaged herself into a hard issue and made the employees feel heard.

The question, to me, now is: Is that it? What next? My big disappointment is that we haven't realized that Microsoft is a company like no other and requires HR solutions and compensations and rewards like no other. We are the employees we hire. We don't have huge factories. Just brains. And we need to figure out a day-to-day world that celebrates all these fantastic people we've hired, unlocks their ability to contribute and not be encumbered by processes and systems we've lifted from other corporations (e.g., GE GE ) that don't apply well to our corporate culture. This is a fantastic opportunity to create something new from scratch.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.