Microsoft Goes Mod with Campus Expansion

Microsoft is in the midst of a massive expansion to its Seattle area campus and has a new strategy for the design of its buildings that reflects the software giant's changing business.

"It's not just Office and Windows anymore," said Martha Clarkson, a designer on Microsoft's staff who spearheaded the new direction.

Microsoft has decided to put more thought into the design of its buildings to reflect new businesses, such as the consumer-focused Xbox and Zune groups. It hopes that the added cost required to create the new look, which features open lobbies, colorful carpets and mod furniture, will pay off in productivity gains.

"We used to build generic buildings," said Chris Owens, general manager for real estate and facilities at Microsoft. Going forward, managers of businesses that will be in the buildings will have a say in the way the interior is laid out in order to support their business objectives, he said.

The new options are the result of a project that Clarkson undertook. She and her colleagues traveled to 26 Microsoft facilities around the globe, interviewing executives and studying the way employees work.

Some of their findings were surprising. For example, while employees estimated that they spent 75 percent of their work time in their offices, in reality they were in their offices only 41 percent of their time. The rest was spent in meetings or working from home, Clarkson said.

Clarkson and her team also discovered that even though Microsoft has a positive reputation for a policy that allows the majority of workers to have their own offices rather than cubicles, some teams prefer an open, collaborative work environment, she said.

Building 99, the first building created from the ground up to reflect the new design environment at Microsoft, has plenty of space for on-the-fly collaboration. The building, which officially opened Nov. 12, houses Microsoft Research and contains many small meeting rooms with comfortable chairs that workers can relax into and discuss ideas.

"We want serendipitous meetings," said Kevin Schofield, general manager for Microsoft Research. He wanted an open design that lets people see each other across the building or in another room and allows them opportunities to grab a nearby space to sit down and discuss ideas.

One group in particular should like the new available spaces. The theory group within Microsoft Research includes physicists, economists and mathematicians. They meet for afternoon tea every day, Schofield said. It's a social get together, but they gravitate into conversations that end up relevant to their work, he said. In their old building, they met in nondescript conference rooms that might not have windows or a white board.

In building 99, they'll be spoiled for choice of comfortable rooms to have their tea. Some rooms can't be reserved, so that they're more likely to be available for spur-of-the-moment meetings. Many have comfortable chairs surrounding a coffee table, more like a sitting room in a home than an office conference room. Also, most of them feature glass walls that workers can treat like white boards, writing diagrams or ideas on them and then erasing the drawings.

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