Workspace of the Future: Is Writing on the Wall?


The article below is reposted with permission from MicroNews, which is Microsoft’s internal news publication. This is a key example of how teams across Microsoft have begun to embrace Agile software development methodologies, as well as the fact that more and more teams at Microsoft are using Visual Studio Team System which helps them implement and enforce such methodologies.


The focus of the article is on the partnership that some of Microsoft's development teams have established with the Real Estate and Facilities group to begin building facilities which complement these methodologies and work styles. I visited this facility and it’s incredible – I wish I worked there! This is one of four such pilot facilities at Microsoft, and the longer-term plan is to continue to build out such facilities across campus. I’m going to try to get a Channel 9 video produced so you can see it for yourself! Stay tuned...


Special thanks to Aaron Halabe, Steve Elston, and Brian Donahue who graciously agreed to let me repost this article on my blog. Be sure to check out the patterns & practices site to see the great guidance which comes from the team profiled below.


Brian Keller
Technical Evangelist
Visual Studio Team System




Workspace of the Future: Is Writing on the Wall?

By Aaron Halabe
July 21, 2006


Picture, in your mind's eye, the innards of Microsoft’s prototypical building: In Redmond, at least, the image is simple and repetitive: long, hushed corridors, office doors closed, and behind them, employees gazing deeply into multiple monitors.


For the past few years, though, Microsoft has experimented with the "next-generation workplace" – so-called by the Real Estate and Facilities (RE&F) Workplace Advantage team. One such next-gen scenario replaces traditional offices with moveable walls and converts some hard wall spaces to an open work area designed to foster interaction.








Edward Jezierski and Per Vonge Nielsen display 

curtain partitions that change the acoustic properties of the team’s workspace.  

These are augmented by sliding, telescoping walls. Photos by Peter Lewinsohn


Edward Jezierski and Per Vonge Nielsen display curtain partitions that change the acoustic properties of the team’s workspace. These are augmented by sliding, telescoping walls. Photos by Peter Lewinsohn


The approach aligns with a software-production method called agile development, which emphasizes functional software as the primary measure of progress, and stresses face-to-face communication between a development team and its customers.


The open-work-area approach doesn’t reflect a corporate mandate; it simply explores one option that might be appropriate for certain groups. If it sounds antithetical to Microsoft, you might be surprised to learn that a number of teams have asked Workplace Advantage to design new spaces for them, including Ray Ozzie’s Core group, Bungie Studios, the MSN Customer Design Center and the Mobile and Embedded Devices group.


Sea of Changes in Space and Light


Visual Studio’s patterns & practices (p&p) team is the latest to roll out an agile workspace, which Workplace Advantage designed and funded.


The p&p team left multiple cramped conference rooms and moved into their new digs in May, after two months of construction and after beating out another team in an RE&F qualifications process.


On a second-floor wing of Building 5, the 7,920-square-foot space unites up to 66 developers, testers, architects, systems analysts, tech writers, managers, contingent staff and sometimes even customers into a collaborative area that can be reconfigured into five large spaces.


Team members sit together on a raised floor and are surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glass walls, some clear and some opaque, on which team members write notes with markers. The movable walls and plentiful glass allow natural light to flow in through 19 offices on the perimeter.


Everything moves – including power receptacles, network connections and desks on casters. Even the carpet, which is comprised of square tiles that bolt in place, can be rearranged.


Splashes of chocolate brown, caramel, camel, rust and red brighten the space.








On an opaque glass wall beside a group of 

co-workers (out of picture), Chris Tavares maps out ideas with Alejandro Jack, an 

advisor from SouthWorks.


On an opaque glass wall beside a group of co-workers (out of picture), Chris Tavares maps out ideas with Alejandro Jack, an advisor from SouthWorks.


Why the Team Likes It


"It’s so different from the boring straight lines of offices you see and get lost in," said program manager Sanjeev Garg. "The biggest thing is the amount of light that comes in. It’s also a much more open way of communicating," added Garg, who often abandons his private office and sits in the collaborative space with teammates.


"The traditional Microsoft approach has developers working in separate offices," said developer marketing director Steve Elston. "They receive parts of the spec, code it, put it into the build engine then test it. You end up in a cycle in which you build something and then something changes … and you have to rebuild it again. Because of the isolation, the developers have no way to communicate the changes as rapidly as they happen. The cascading changes can cause the project to slow down or fail."


In the new space, individuals eschew e-mail, instead quickly getting answers to questions from teammates who might ordinarily be a hallway away. They jot notes on the glass walls for all to see and evaluate; and they use new Dell monitors that rotate between landscape and portrait orientation and swivel on articulating arms. Some monitors feature dual screens that allow architects and dev leads to sit together for pair programming.


"The space makes you feel much more integrated with the team," said technical writer Tim Osborn. "You get exposed to a lot of the whys, whats and hows beyond just looking at what they’ve done. As a writer, instead of being the tail of the dog you feel like you’re actually influencing the whole process – something that’s not possible when you’re isolated in an office."








Close working spaces yield regular collaboration 

opportunities. From left, Jason Hogg troubleshoots with Juan Wajnerman of Clarius 

Consulting and Paul Slater of WadeWare.


Close working spaces yield regular collaboration opportunities. From left, Jason Hogg troubleshoots with Juan Wajnerman of Clarius Consulting and Paul Slater of WadeWare.


How Agile Development Came to Building 5


RE&F director Kevin Williams’ team began looking into the approach two years ago by visiting IBM, Cisco Systems and Google facilities, and by conducting surveys and focus groups at 23 Microsoft locations worldwide.


RE&F held a series of meetings with p&p staffers to come up with the design plan. "The space [reflects] what they said they needed to increase their productivity," said Paul Egger, who managed the project for RE&F.


Some productivity requests included dedicated high-definition projection units for ad hoc code reviews, built-in speakers and other design elements, like curtain walls that change the acoustic properties of the space. Movable office partitions and sliding glass walls expand or contract the area, which also incorporates traditional conference rooms for private discussions.


"In the end they built this fabulous area that has a series of large, reconfigurable and highly functional collaboration spaces that we can easily modify as staffing or project requirements change," Elston said.


"People have been chomping at the bit to get in this space," added Vicky Titus, who was p&p’s group admin at the project’s inception. "We were all standing like kids outside a candy store, just waiting to get in."


"It’s amazing this place," said developer Pablo Galiano. "I love how everything is positioned. …If someone has a problem we can discuss it with all the team or write on the whiteboard (walls), and everyone helps you. It’s more efficient being all together, and each of the shared spaces is isolated from the other so the noise is minimized."








Compared with the new space, patterns & 

practice's old lab space, a poorly-lit tangle of electrical extension cords, seems 

light-years away. Photo courtesy of Steve Elston


Compared with the new space, patterns & practice's old lab space, a poorly-lit tangle of electrical extension cords, seems light-years away. Photo courtesy of Steve Elston


Customers Will Make Regular Visits to the Space, Too


"…We want them to know how we do what we do," said product unit manager Michael Kropp. "We tell them how we use (Visual Studio) Team System – our enterprise software development platform – and ‘agile’ as our development methodology. We’ve tailored the space toward agile development. And we’re going to get a lot of external visibility."


Recently, a large investment banking customer visited p&p and wanted to know about one of their scheduled deliverables. During the visit, the customer outlined a number of new feature requests. Team members and customers discussed the requests to pinpoint specific needs.


"The next day the customer came back and we had one of the features up and running," said Kropp, who – along with development manager Peter Provost – drove the design of the p&p space. The customer said ‘Oh my gosh, how did you do that?’ They were quite impressed. We’ll do more customer connection engineering where we’re listening as we’re engineering, so we can iteratively tune and hit our targets better."


What We Know, What We Hope to Learn


Workflow and productivity efficiencies that can result from agile development are more than theoretical. Gartner Group research suggests that organizations that successfully define and implement a high-performance workplace strategy "will lay the foundation for maximizing their long-term competitiveness and productivity."


Microsoft will deploy the next generation workplace approach "on a full-building scale," in new Buildings 7 and 99, RE&F’s Williams said.


"Those internal and external surveys told us that we need a lot more collaborative space, and that Microsoft employees only spend about 30 to 50 percent of their time in their offices," he added.


He acknowledged that construction costs are higher for small-scale pilot projects, but expects that constructing entire floors or buildings will ultimately save money though efficiencies such as purchasing agreements.


RE&F will conduct a post-occupancy survey to spotlight p&p’s productivity improvements that can be attributed to the new space, and to identify the pros and cons of various design elements.


"Right now," Elston notes, "all I can say is so far, so great."

Comments (2)

  1. This week there was a great article in Microsoft’s internal newsletter (MicroNews). The article profiled…

  2. Beyhan Trock says:

    I’m an architect and am working on an office environment that has glass and whiteboard walls. Your office space seems to have much of what I’m trying to create. Can you tell me how you made glass walls? Was there a manufacturer or are you using a metal stud framing system, or something else all together?

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