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What can we learn from Microsoft’s HQ re-thinking of its physical workplace in a digital world of work?

When we discuss what the digital workplace means for organizations of any size, it is impossible to properly explore the subject without persistently referencing the physical places where work happens.

Probably the only annoying part of conversations I have about the digital in work is an assumption by some that this means we will somehow never meet or work together in person again.

Microsoft field tripAs I point out the digital workplace is present and growing in capability everywhere we work – including in offices, warehouses, shops, factories and so on. It enables increased mobility and portability of work (good thing as it gives us choices) but that is only part of its power; the rest lies in the richness, depth and reach of the digital workplace as a new texture and layer to how work happens anywhere.

On the second day of what now feels like a pivotal recent Digital Workplace Forum (DWF) field trip to Microsoft’s HQ Campus in Redmond, Seattle we took a trip into what is possible physically in office spaces. I wrote last week about the digital journey the DWF Members went on at the ‘Envisioning Lab’ at Microsoft, but the next day we were in the hands of the passionate and visionary Martha Clarkson who has been responsible for the ‘Workplace Advantage’ programme globally. What Microsoft has been doing is re-thinking what staff need when they come to work in person and experimenting with new office formats – and using the research that emanates to re-design as they go.

What has this got to do with the digital workplace? Well all the DWF Members tasked with implementing aspects of an advanced digital workplace in their companies deal with people who have to be somewhere physically and real estate is a key stakeholder in any digital work programme.

Relating the ‘digital’ to the ‘physical’

What fascinates me is the relationship between the digital and physical in work. We need human connection but how much, how often and what about the people we work with who we may never meet? Some organizations and people prefer to be together each day – others part of the week – others little or not at all. How can these varieties be included and what happens to productivity and engagement?

Microsoft is full of highly technical, rather introverted and geeky guys. There is a building I walked through (as yet untouched by Martha’s hand of change) where each dark cubicle room feels like a den where someone lives – old sofa in the corner, indoor putting green, discarded stacks of computers, multiple screens.

But what we also saw was the future that is rolling out (with some pain) across the campus….collaboration spaces, no desk you call your own, private space when you need it, phone rooms, desks where you can stand as you work, highly equipped video conference pods, bright, airy, beautiful spaces. The difference is transformational. The new spaces are exhilarating and Microsoft has customers piling into its offices around the world to experience the design.

The new spaces are exhilarating and Microsoft has customers piling into its offices around the world to experience the design.

And like the technical innovation, Microsoft is using its deep pockets to reconfigure its work spaces even if they only have average occupancy of 25% – it can afford to swallow the wasted space. It feels the space needs to attract people to come to work but staff can still choose where they work and have large amounts of autonomy. Few major companies would tolerate such occupancy rates and that is an issue – office space is shrinking but getting a place to ‘touch down’ can become impossible as the likes of BT has discovered in its London HQ.

DWF Members loved what they saw but the issue of reduction in owned or leased corporate real estate is driving most agendas. Companies talk about creating collaboration and innovation but then struggle to allow the amount of floor space to meet that need. What do we do when ideally most people, given the choice will come into an engaging office only some of the week but want space that accommodates them when they do come in?

Offices are in ‘chaos’

Seems to me that offices are in some level of chaos at present because the digital workplace is presenting ever more potent places to work and enabling choice about we shape our work days. But companies – and particularly the large technology firms like Facebook and Google – want people to ‘come to work’ most days so they are fighting harder to provide compelling reasons to travel to work. Google is turning its offices into a kind of working fun park but what when the charm wears off?

What we discussed after Martha showed us the scale of her progress and the work still do, was the rate of change. The digital workplace is growing and evolving fast and at a pace that leaves companies gasping but the physical world is slow and needs trucks and builders and takes years to adapt.

My own predictions (some of which are covered in my book) are:

  • Large corporate offices will eventually disappear or at least decline dramatically
  • Companies will own or lease or share numerous locations much closer to where their staff live
  • Starbucks style corporate environments will be found within a mile of most homes and large organizations will co-work there
  • Third Places – spaces that are neither home or company run facilities – will emerge as a new industry catering for everyone from freelancers to senior executives – and will be as pervasive as coffee shops or restaurants
  • Different companies will adopt different models suited to their culture, region and ethnic differences
  • We will also choose to spend some of our time working physically with colleagues but as the digital increases, the entire “working together” picture will fragment and become impossible to control.

Read part one of this blog series.

About the author

Paul Miller - CEO of the Digital Workplace GroupPaul Miller is a technology and social entrepreneur. He is CEO and Founder of the Digital Workplace Group (DWG). He has been at the heart of the work and technology revolution for the last 20 years and has given inspirational keynote talks on the digital future of work to senior executives at organizations such as Microsoft, Google, Adobe and Oxford University.

He is the author of “The Digital Workplace: How Technology is Liberating Work”, and his new book, “The Digital Renaissance of Work—Delivering digital workplaces fit for the future”, co-authored with Elizabeth Marsh, will be published by Gower in October 2014.

After an early career as a City editor and speechwriter, Paul published WAVE magazine, before founding the Intranet Benchmarking Forum (IBF), which went on to become DWG.

Paul is a keen tennis player and devoted yoga practitioner. He has two daughters and lives in London and the Cotswolds.

Connect with Paul on Twitter: @paulmillersaysor on Google +.

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