The Office of the Future — Brought to You by Microsoft

Remember your high school gymnasium? Chances are it was a large hardwood space with the floor markings for half a dozen sports, all sealed under 14 layers of polyurethane. The bleachers were folded flat up against the wall for PE time and rolled out from all sides for the big game. Ropes hung from the ceiling and hoops folded up out of the way to accommodate volleyball.

The modern workplace is a little like that. Cubicles, offices, and meeting rooms are built not for one purpose, but for every imaginable office task. The problem is that offices don’t transform like the old gymnasium. Instead, you have to make do with the desk where it is, or that mahogany conference table in the middle of your meeting space, or the whiteboard that sits like a challenge at the head of the room.

Offices were built for work — not for workers. But Microsoft’s director of office envisioning, Anton Andrews, wants to flip that equation by answering what he calls his core question: “How do you get people to lean in and do their best work together and collaborate?”

It’s a question that Microsoft has been asking itself for years. The company focused on putting the world on Windows, the operating system it launched almost 35 years ago. Each new application — Office, Internet Explorer, Windows Mobile, just to name a few — was designed to pull the user closer to the core platform. Microsoft was not interested in playing well with others.

That eventually changed — initially by force, as the U.S. government in the 1990s sought to disentangle Windows from Internet Explorer and open the platform up to more third-party integrations. But under current Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s guidance, the company has proactively broken down barriers, focusing on putting Office on every possible platform and rewriting its own applications to run on Android and iOS as well as they do on Windows.

The spirit of barrier crushing has bled back into Microsoft’s own products, including its current Office software lineup. Andrews points out that when Microsoft radically updated the Office suite’s app icons, it “removed the box around icons, because we’re removing the border around the app.” It was a small cosmetic change, but one that Andrews says is a nod to a longer-term strategy of breaking down the barriers between these applications and “letting people work more organically.”

Andrews’ own work cuts across Microsoft’s many disciplines: hardware, software, engineering, design, and collaboration. He works with internal groups including those falling under Microsoft chief product officer Panos Panay and head of industrial design Ralf Groene, showing these groups how their Surface Pros, Surface Studios, and Surface Hub screens work in concept office spaces.

Fit and comfortably dressed in a silk-screened pullover and dark jeans, Andrews met with me in Microsoft’s New York City offices a few weeks ago to talk about the company’s future of work roadmap. I found him seated in a meeting room that — if I’m honest — didn’t quite live up to Andrews’ optimistic vision for the future of work. There was a round office table with a handful of comfy office chairs arranged around it, and blank blue and white walls.

Andrews described to me how, in the mid-1990s, he switched from a career in genetic engineering to one in design. He was following in his father’s footsteps to some extent: Andrews’ dad was an architectural anthropologist who studied nomads and their yurts. His own interests eventually shifted to systems and scales — concepts that play out in the modern workspace, as Andrews learned from his conversations with executives inside and outside of Microsoft.

Andrews recalled talking with retired four-star Army General Stanley McChrystal, who led special forces operations during the hottest years of the war in Iraq. The army’s rigid, hierarchical structure was not agile enough to compete with its insurgents on the ground. So McChrystal dismantled that communication hierarchy and installed a new communication protocol. Suddenly, there were daily meetings with thousands of military personal. McChrystal went from micromanaging decisions to overseeing teams that were more empowered to adapt to new situations.

For Andrews, this points to a larger truth about people working together. “It’s incredibly important to allow people to focus on intent instead of format,” he says. No one goes to work thinking about the Excel spreadsheet they’re going to make. Instead, they’re focused on the project and all the pieces that will help achieve that goal.

Microsoft doesn’t make furniture, but it is looking beyond its devices and software to develop a more holistic approach to breaking down corporate boundaries. For years, Andrews’ team has worked with office furniture manufacturer Steelcase to develop office layouts and furniture that break down traditional office tropes.

He showed me a concept image depicting an exploded, mini-geodesic dome that would serve as a circular conference room. Instead of chairs, there are “wobble stools,” where meeting participants could perch. The idea is to stay on task and avoid getting too comfortable. Rather than a single whiteboard, there are screens all over the walls that make it easy for anyone to reach over and add something.

Those screens, by the way, are not confined to a single purpose or platform. Microsoft envisions people adding everything from images to diagrams, text, drawings, and videos — content they can share directly from their Windows, Android, or iOS devices without inadvertently also sharing their full screens and personal content.

And the video conferencing leverages A.I., ideally so that those conferencing in feel completely connected to the host meeting. (Clearly, teleconferencing has a long way to go.) The new technology is smart enough to create automatic split screens for multiple participants and even blur out background images — including those doodles on your notepads.

What stands out about the meeting space Andrews is showing me, though, is not what it has, but what it lacks. There’s no table and, by design, no enforced central focus. More open spaces, without walls, supposedly encourage people to spontaneously start or even join ad-hoc meetings. The meeting room essentially begins as a blank space that can be molded as workers want.

It’s “digitally enabled and you hydrate with digital content just as you hydrate a sponge with water,” says Andrews.

In this vision, work is not supposed to be defined by space. Rather, the space becomes a container for the work of your choice and an active tool for getting that work and collaboration done. The office works for you, instead of the other way around.

While it might seem self-serving for Microsoft to promote future workspaces that, no surprise, include much of its own technology, at least one expert I spoke to agrees that a workplace shift close to what the tech giant anticipates is coming.

“The days of cubicles and offices will be gone as this workspace model isolates people and ideas and creates a sense of ‘silos’ or divisions rather than having an open and collaborative workspace,” says Cheryl Cran, future of work expert and founder of NextMapping. “A lot of traditional businesses are rethinking their workspace to match up with changing work styles and needs of the changing demographics of workers.”

In the meantime, Andrews and his team are pondering how to build a modern office that addresses the spectrum of space. They know that generalized spaces and the standard desktop are still important for some workers (coders, for example, need room for their three screens), but they’re focusing on building a work landscape that offers a variety of spaces types to accommodate different ways of working both together and alone.

Cran agrees that these spaces need the flexibility to accommodate a mix of full-timers and, increasingly, freelancers, all of whom demand more intelligent spaces with integrated apps and even voice controls. She says the shared spaces must be ready to support “global meetings, to host podcasts, to do ‘hub’-type work with teams. Trends are towards having workspaces that allow for remote workers to meet up, as needed, and to get work done in person, as required.”

The goal is to work better — not just faster. Andrews thinks his team and Microsoft can help people do that by protecting attention, encouraging collaboration, and connecting people in context. “The 21st century is defined by uncertainty,” says Andrews. “You can find yourself, very efficiently, doing the wrong thing.”

What Microsoft is developing is a solid vision for the immediate future of work. Andrews says the company will roll out some of these concepts over the next three to five years. In the meantime, the workers of the world will just have to make do with office spaces that are like an ill-equipped gymnasium, one where most of the equipment is broken and the painted lines no longer make sense.

The Office of the Future — Brought to You by Microsoft

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