Spurring Creativity: Building Remodel Puts Microsoft Tinkerers in The Garage

REDMOND, Wash. – August 19, 2011 – At Microsoft, and also in technology industry lore, The Garage is both a place and a metaphor.

It’s a place where innovative ideas and mega companies – including Hewlett-Packard and Dell – can be hatched and nurtured.

The Garage at Microsoft, behind three glass-paned garage doors in the newly renovated Building 4 on the company’s Redmond, Wash., campus, is a bright, spacious room with whiteboard walls, a large touch-screen display, a plethora of chairs and tables, and a reputation for grassroots innovation.

The X-shaped building was one of the first four that Microsoft moved into when the company came to Redmond in 1986. Chairman Bill Gates’ first Redmond campus office was on the building’s second floor and overlooks a pond that came to be known as Lake Bill.

Today The Garage – and the community of people who work out of it – gives Microsoft employees an outlet to explore ideas they might normally tinker with in their nights and weekends alone in their own garages. And through The Garage some of those ideas eventually ship in Microsoft products, said Quinn Hawkins, community manager for The Garage.

“The Garage is open to anyone, which means we have people from all over the company working together. The Garage provides support through Garage Weeks, Science Fairs, free hosting, and a worldwide community to help you build things you wouldn’t be able to accomplish on your own,” Hawkins said.

The Garage’s new location provides more room, and in November it will be equipped with tools for hardware projects, including soldering guns, laser cutters and a 3-D printer. The Garage is a main floor anchor of the newly remodeled Building 4, home of the Office Research, Experimentation and Design (RED) Team. The team researches, experiments, and designs for Microsoft Office.

“The Garage got better, but a lot of things got better,” Hawkins said of the Building 4 renovation.

The building will eventually house about 200 people, and is doing so in a rather revolutionary way. Prior to Building 4’s renovation, it was configured primarily of private offices and conference rooms. That configuration has been flipped; most employees sit in “pods” and open spaces, and rather than reserving rooms for group conferences, they reserve private “focus” rooms.

“Like most of the campus, the building was divided between single offices and meeting spaces, so the work style most people adopted was to default to personal and heads-down time and schedule and go someplace else to collaborate,” said John Snavely, a user experience designer for Office Envisioning. “We tried to flip that.”

Snavely, who graduated with an architecture degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), worked with Microsoft’s Real Estate and Facilities team on the remodel. “We have plenty of spaces where people can go spend time alone,” he said, “but we made collaborative spaces the starting point, not the end point.”

The building is one of several on Microsoft’s Redmond campus that are part of a program called Work Place Advantage (WPA) – an effort to explore what types of space works best for employees.

The building’s base is modern – Eames furniture, Aeron chairs, concrete floors, raw and reclaimed wood furnishings, and even a plant wall in the staircase. Along with the natural elements, it also has bright colors and wallpaper, though it has far fewer walls since the remodel.

“It has light and fresh air and energy,” Snavely said. “People love it.”

The building has more than 60 touch-screen monitors in pod rooms, focus rooms and conference rooms. It also has its own fleet of bicycles that employees can use to travel between buildings for meetings, and the kitchens and cafeteria have more public space. One of the most talked-about features of the new building is in the cafeteria – a Coca-Cola Freestyle touch-screen soda fountain featuring more than 100 combinations of soda and flavors.

“We have the coolest pop machine invented by man,” said Darren Fisher, a senior software design engineer for Office Labs. “You walk up to the machine, put ice in your cup, touch a symbol and get a display of all these flavors. You can touch Fanta, then cherry or vanilla, and it just comes out. Just like that. On demand, any flavor combination of soda or water that you can think of.”

Fisher moved from a private office into a pod with a handful of other people from his team. Though he had to significantly pare down the amount of desk memorabilia, office decorations and furniture, he enjoys the new space.

“When I was seeing the plans I was a little cold to the concept of being in a shared space. I’ve been at Microsoft a long time and I have always had my own office and I valued that kind of privacy,” Fisher said. “Now that I’m here, I like the space a lot. It’s an improvement actually. Maybe it’s just the fact that all of my teammates are within arm’s reach, or that there’s more conversation, but it’s been pretty dynamic.”

Kathy Thompson, a user experience designer for the Office Experimentation Group, works in a large, open workspace.

“I really like it,” she said. “It’s a lot less email back and forth. I can just pop my head up and say, ‘Can you send me that file?’ It’s faster coordination, better collaboration, and more helpful, impromptu discussions during the day.”

Snavely said Building 4 could be a sign of things to come for work spaces at Microsoft. Visitors to the building have had enthusiastic responses, he said, and perhaps even some envy.

“Some people have said they wish these sorts of renovations might happen elsewhere,” Snavely said. “It was done not just for the sake of making it look better, but helping us work better. There’s a strong business case for why we’ve changed our workspace and how that change can help Office.”

Read a CNET article about The Garage and the Building 4 remodel.

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