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Originally published November 11, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 11, 2007 at 2:05 AM

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Microsoft strategy throws open the doors

So much for rows of closed-in offices. The company is trying open, flexible spaces that do whatever workers need.

Seattle Times technology reporter

For most of Microsoft's existence, a perk has been a personal office, maybe with a window to a patch of green.

With the expansion of its Redmond campus and sites around the world, Microsoft, like many companies, is rethinking its interiors to help recruit and retain employees, among other goals.

The company is not abandoning private offices, but when it does build them, it's using modular furniture and sliding-glass doors that let daylight into interior offices and corridors. And in some cases the private office is being replaced with open floor plans or large team work rooms.

The idea is to make flexible space customized to what each of Microsoft's myriad business groups needs and as a way to foster more face-to-face collaboration.

The Workplace Advantage strategy, as Microsoft calls it, is also another reflection of the company's changing character.

"The buildings and the facilities had a great deal to do with the attitude and the environment at Microsoft," says Linda Criddle, a Kirkland online child-safety expert who left the company last November after 13 years. "In the early days, a lot of those guys slept in their offices. The offices became quite a statement of their personalities and the individualism that the company fostered."

Martha Clarkson, Microsoft's workplace-design manager, says no group will be forced into a particular kind of space.

"We know one size doesn't fit all. ... We still will have businesses that come back and say, 'The kind of work we do, we need a private office to do that,' " Clarkson says.

After studying its workers around the world, the company is implementing a variety of concepts on a large scale in its new buildings, including major leased spaces in Bellevue such as Lincoln Square. Executives will decide later this year how quickly to retrofit the company's existing buildings.

Peter Provost's team was one of the first to get a space makeover as part of a pilot project Microsoft conducted to test new ideas.

Provost's group had been commandeering conference rooms in Building 5, one of the oldest on campus, so members could work together in a single open space for days or weeks at a time.

"When people uncover bugs or challenges or other things they need to work on, they've got everybody there," Provost says. "We've got developers, testers, program managers, architects all living together."

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The team received open rooms surrounded by a ring of glass-walled individual offices for managers and small "focus rooms" for private meetings. Power supplies and other wiring were built into a raised floor, allowing the rooms to be easily reconfigured when different teams move in.

Having everyone together saves the team from endless strings of e-mail or setting a meeting to discuss an issue later in the day and hoping everyone who needs to be there is available, Provost says.

"They'll just stand up, grab whoever they need to grab, go over to the white board and start figuring it out," he says.

The team's software-development work puts it in contact with other groups from around the company. Not everyone who has seen the space has loved it.

"They come over, and they look at this, and they're like, 'Oh, this is weird. No, I'm going back to my office,' " Provost says. "They want to close their door, and our people don't want to close their door. They want to sit together. There's a little bit of a cultural tension there."

Experts who study workplace design say resistance to this kind of change is normal, particularly when a private office has been a reward.

"Once they reach a certain salary level, then that's a really important perk," says Peter Lawrence, founder and chairman of the Corporate Design Foundation. But to achieve the unstructured communication and idea-sharing that these new office concepts are designed for, "you've got to open it up."

Many companies are experimenting with the open-office concept, including Washington Mutual, which designed only 19 private offices in its new 42-story Seattle headquarters.

Intel is "trying some radical changes in office design" after years of "Dilbert-style cubicles," spokesman Bill MacKenzie said in an e-mail. The company plans to test the concepts, similar to those Microsoft is using, at sites in California, Arizona and Hillsboro, Ore.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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