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Microsoft Looks at Workplace Design Trends in the Coming Year

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Seattle, Microsoft, workplace design, inclusion and accessibility initiatives, Diversity and Inclusion, Experience Design program
Wheelchair accessible staircase. Image courtesy of Microsoft

By Jack Stubbs

A couple months into the new year, companies across the region in different sectors are trying to keep a pulse on industry trends that might come to the forefront in the year ahead.

We recently spoke with Martha Clarkson, global workplace strategist at Microsoft, about trends that might impact companies’ decisions around workplace design in the next 12 to 18 months, as well as how inclusion and accessibility initiatives will play a role in the year ahead.

Martha began in her role as workplace design strategist at Microsoft in 1997. She manages the Experience Design program in the corporate real estate group and also conducts research on the workplace and change management. She also produces videos and story-telling collateral and frequently tells these stories at industry engagements and with Microsoft customers.

Microsoft has its pulse on the goings-on in this rapidly expanding region. What were some of the broader trends in workplace design that characterized the market in 2017? Which sectors (i.e. commercial, residential, hospitality) came to the forefront?

A broader trend from 2017 was to make work environments have a non-corporate look and feel. Everyone is striving for this, because we all know [that] when there is more variety, environments feel better.

Take your house for example, [in which] most likely each room doesn’t look alike, as in corporations having 25 standard conference rooms. Hotels knew this some 15 years ago: in the hospitality industry, they have an even bigger responsibility than work environments, because a hotel is being asked to make someone as comfortable as [they are in] their home.

Now, there is no magic assurance of that, but this is why you now see hotel lobbies welcoming the co-working environment and serving better food and drinks. I’m being facetious, but 15 years ago, every hotel room looked the same, and they were very devoid of texture, interest and accessories.

It’s important to provide choice. The caution is that you still have to put function first. In the hotel example, it does not look good if the curtain in the room looks cool if it doesn’t provide a blackout option for people who have insomnia. It does no good to provide 10 couches as work-points if someone has neck pain and needs an ergonomic setup.

What trends and factors do you think will come to the forefront in 2018? Specifically, what will be the importance of collaboration moving forward? How will companies work to reinforce this ethos of collaboration in the workplace?

Going forward, I think companies will realize they have under provisioned acoustics. Not enough attention is paid to this important element. You may have seen this in many of today’s restaurants, with concrete floors, drywall and hard ceilings.

Sometimes it’s a budget issue, sometimes aesthetic, but either way, diners in a popular restaurants end up shouting at each other to make conversation and eventually do not come back. The experience has not been thought through enough.

The startup co-working spaces are famous for this, building environments based on glass demountable partitions sitting on concrete floors. If you’ve ever done a conference call in one of these spaces, you can wind up with a headache. Companies who have designed big swaths of desk areas, (everyone in one room! Open sightlines!) will soon realize the best work gets done in smaller teams and those teams need separation from overhearing other teams.

Another coming trend will be environments focused on services. Yeah, you can have a “living room,” or meet in an Airstream trailer, but what will really help productivity?

What are some of the challenges involved in quantifying something like “workplace experience”? To what degree is achieving a positive “company culture” always a moving target?

Don’t we wish for the silver bullet that would allow a metric saying “you have a perfectly effective workplace.” But when you are not making widgets on a factory line, you can’t quantify it that way. The best effectiveness measure is the stories of occupant teams. [For example] if a group says “I know we have less bugs. I don’t know how many, but I know we have less.”

A manager I worked with years ago moved from private offices to agile team room and said he no longer used up time in the employees’ one-to-one [meetings] by talking about the work they were doing, and this allowed time to devote to career planning.

These are the impactful stories. Yes, company cultures morph and grow. But they are underpinned, or should be, by a core set of values. Designing to foundational values that have been interpreted consistently to architects will create a substantial base on which evolution of cultural norms can come over top without being disparate.

Microsoft has various inclusion and accessibility initiatives that it implements in its hiring and workplace strategies. What can you tell me about some of these initiatives, and how do you think they will evolve in 2018? How are these strategies and initiatives reflective of larger trends in the industry?

One of Satya Nadella’s [CEO of Microsoft] core culture attributes is Diversity and Inclusion. To this end, we work to make sure our products are inclusive. As for physical environments, we now have standards that go beyond any local codes for accessibility. Many of these things are free, but they take thought by designers.

And it is not (mostly) in designers’ nature to focus on designing for people with disabilities. I recently talked an architect who has a brand new office about why the reception desk is not per code, with a lowered section for someone in a wheelchair. They spent a long email telling me how canny they were going around the code. I think they missed my point: is it that you don’t care? You’re not inclusive?

We should be trying to elude things that help all, we should be embracing. Aesthetics never need be sacrificed for function – function for all.

How do you think the narrative around inclusion and accessibility will change over the next 12 to 18 months, and how will companies seek to address these concerns moving forward?

Companies will soon realize that their hiring pool needs to include all [and] that it is not only good for the community to consider all candidates, but necessary, as the available workforce shrinks and competition increases.

If companies can embrace this, then they need to provide for all kinds of disabilities being able to function in their spaces. At the start of my work in this arena, a manager said to me, “but first, how many blind people do we have on campus?” It doesn’t matter! Changing people’s mindsets has been a big part of this initiative’s journey. We also need to remember that many people have temporary disabilities and hundreds have invisible disabilities. We will never know how many people we help when we design universally.

How has the conversation around inclusion and accessibility changes over the last few years, and what are some of the challenges involved in making progress in this area? What could companies could be improving upon when it comes to inclusion and accessibility in the workplace?

Microsoft is lucky to have this as a core value, so it’s not hard to push initiatives. What is hard is watching the slowness of the world’s companies coming around. I asked one accessibility consultant if he had any learnings he could share and his answer was “no, most of my clients just want to see what is the least they can do.”

In our increasingly connected and diverse world—where individuals from unique backgrounds, countries and cultures merge and collaborate—different perspectives are always being brought to the table. How does workplace strategy contribute to this broader discussion?

Culture and diverse points of view are needed because they represent the world we live in. In the future we will see more people indirectly related to a business problem brought in to help work on projects, like having a set designer on your project team, or an anthropologist.