Designing a Workspace for Software Engineers

Winter 2019/2020 Issue
By: Matt Ayres
Microsoft created new workspaces for its software engineers based on data gathered in a variety of ways. Photo courtesy of Microsoft

Detailed input helped Microsoft move from a one-size-fits-all approach to one that works for this critical group of employees.

For years, market forces steered many real estate professionals into designing and building one-size-fits-all workplaces. The real estate group at Microsoft has been working to change that. The goal is to create agile workspaces that flex to accommodate different-sized teams, instead of teams that flex to fit into their workspaces.

There are many ways to achieve a flexible workspace, but Microsoft’s real estate team begins with the same first step: Learning what users need. Over the past two years, this has been accomplished in a variety of ways. Passive data is gathered from sources like badge swipes, meeting-room data and wireless triangulation. From this, information on attendance, room usage, occupancy and workflow patterns can be derived without the use of sensors. The real estate team conducted interviews and focus groups with the software engineers, who were willing to work closely with them on solutions.

Direct Feedback

These engineers became the core of Microsoft’s first Engineering Advisory Panel. Right off the top, the panel identified a needed improvement — team area sizing. Microsoft was at the time transitioning from private offices to the collaborative team spaces it now uses — but some of the spaces were proving too large for the engineering teams. Spaces were being built for groups of up to 16 when many of these engineering teams numbered closer to half that. Data also indicated that these spaces functioned better when sized to accommodate a single team in its entirety.

While the engineers generally liked the look and feel of their buildings, many said that their work-station needs hadn’t been prioritized. Public spaces had been thoughtfully designed in handsome materials like reclaimed wood, but the individual work areas needed more attention. (At Microsoft, these are called Individual Work Points.)

Indeed, the engagements with engineers revealed that Individual Work Points were the most important aspect of their workplace — and they needed improvement. These desks were meant to be fully portable, in order to enable workspaces to be as flexible and reconfigurable as possible. But when fully laden and fitted with their CPUs, monitors and power and data cabling, the desks proved tough to move. Because of CPU mounting on the underside of the desk surface, the height-adjustable desks struggled to move up and down, wobbling in some configurations.

The real estate team worked to adjust and align the team space model accordingly. On the Puget Sound campus, the work began by adjusting the size of team spaces to accommodate smaller teams while increasing the space allotted to each individual. It turned out that there were ways to flex the size of the space to accommodate team sizes of eight, 12 or 16, using movable connecting partitions between team spaces, and layouts that position dedicated small meeting spaces between teams.

Manufacturers were brought in to test prefabricated, movable meeting rooms for two to four people to enhance flexibility and allow a degree of customization. Microsoft has now deployed these as a pilot in one of its buildings. Finally, much attention was given to the Individual Work Point furniture, including desks with larger wheels for greater ease of movement, more secure mounting of CPUs, monitor arms with a greater range of adjustments, and moveable desktop power/USB cubes for laptops and personal devices.

Small Changes, Big Impact

These small adjustments to the Individual Work Points made a huge difference for the engineers who use them. The tweaks were so valued that the Individual Work Point became known to the advisory panel as “the Square of Awesomeness.” That’s because users were consulted through the entire process.

In time, one Engineering Advisory Panel became two — one for software engineers, one for devices. Both convened regularly, surveying spaces, consulting with engineers or tinkering in The Hive, the real estate team’s workplace-testing laboratory where new ideas are workshopped and pressure-tested. The panels have even taken external benchmarking tours, visiting other tech companies to check out their workplace solutions.

All this work is ongoing as part of the Microsoft real estate team’s learning curve, which is about opening up to user input and best practices for workplace solutions from both inside and outside the company. When optimal workplace environments can be created that support team performance, it’s a win for employee productivity — and a win for satisfied employees.

Matt Ayres is the workplace research and innovation lead at Microsoft.