This article was originally published by Metropolis Magazine as “The Big Ideas Behind Microsoft’s New ‘Design Language.’“
Microsoft is undertaking an ambitious overhaul of its 800 offices around the world and uncovering great insights about the intersections of technology and workplace design in the process. The technology giant’s global director of workplace strategies, Riku Pentikäinen, speaks to Metropolis’s Avinash Rajagopal about the company’s new workplaces, collaborating with designers and furniture manufacturers, and how his team takes a data-driven approach to office design.
Avinash Rajagopal: You recently opened a number of new workplaces, and there’s a broader strategy around workplace design in place at Microsoft. What drove that?
Riku Pentikäinen: Going back a couple of years, I saw Microsoft doing a lot of cool spaces from a design perspective, but they didn’t have a whole lot in common. Two years ago, we started a project to establish a design language for Microsoft. It’s very tricky to do—everybody will have a view, and most times it’s not aligned, so how do you establish that for a company? What should Microsoft look and feel like?
As a result of a ton of work, we established what is now the Microsoft design language. Today, many of our new offices are reflective of the design language. We use that as guidance to architects on our aspirational direction, design-wise. But that’s what it is—a direction. We did not want to be prescriptive in terms of color, carpet. It’s about setting a direction that is welcoming, warm, homely, residential.
Quite honestly, I’ve been blown away by the reception we’ve gotten for our design language. You would think that architects would feel that we’re taking something away from them, but they’ve been really appreciative that we’re clear on what we’re expecting. Therefore, we’re seeing less iteration and it does increase speed. I’ll take Milan, for example. Italians are known for their design, and I was certain that they wouldn’t align with our design language, because they’d want to do their own thing. But they loved it and they embraced it, and that site [Microsoft House in Milan] is one of the best examples of our design language.
AR: You bring up a very interesting point about your relationship with architects and designers who design your spaces. Can you talk a little bit more about that? What does a typical process look like?
RP: First and foremost, we want to attract architects who want to work with us. If I think about our workplace programs, where we get into trouble, time and again, is when the architects’ view is not aligned with ours in terms of program. While we welcome the challenge, we know our end users best. I have a team of people working together, whether it’s our sales or our engineering side, purely understanding how they work.
The regional workplace strategists are the first spoke, in terms of contact with the architects. They give design direction and support to the architects, and it’s a very strong dialogue with the architects on the direction that we want to take. But at the same time, I can’t stress enough the importance of challenging [every idea], and out of that I see us getting the best design outcomes.
AR: To get into the technology angle a little bit more, I know that the Milan and London offices had a data-driven approach to design. Can you talk about your space-utilization technology and how you used it for those projects?
RP: A couple years back, we changed the fundamentals of how we design space. We used to do the industry practice of square feet per head; however, we really wanted to go toward utilization-based planning. In the end, we connected with our data science team and we developed what we call our PAA, which is our peak average attendance. In essence, it takes the badge files in and, through machine learning, learns to associate those badge files with a wireless or wired connection that is activated. Which then, on the hind side, gives us exit times, which gives us actual utilization of space at any given point of time in any of our buildings.
That has then enabled us, on a global level, to reduce our footprint significantly. I think one of the biggest benefits in this area is that Microsoft is a super data-driven company. When you have the data—when you’re able to show that for the last six months, this is how much use, or lack of use, your site saw—we don’t need to use as much of our time and energy trying to convince customers. It has quite fundamentally changed the way we work with our end users.
AR: You’re talking about taking data and using it to inform, say, square footage or space allocation. But do you foresee a future where it might be able to inform design decisions?
RP: We have in a pilot phase the ability to use a wireless LAN to triangulate positioning and then create heat maps, which tell us what kinds of spaces are being used. That’s something we will launch in due course. We are bringing in the data feed on how space is being utilized.
We are also bringing in MyAnalytics, which is this whole host of data about how and with whom the individual collaborates. That then can be elevated to data sets on how business groups and units work with one another. As a very classic example, we can see how much engineering collaborates with sales. From a physical-environment perspective, we can support driving that collaboration. That’s another data feed that we’re bringing into our space programming.
Beyond that, we are looking at data feeds like HR data. We’re bringing in survey data, in terms of personal preferences of people. So on a broader trend, I see our space programming becoming more complex, because we’re bringing in more and more data feeds, but it will enable creating environments that will maximize productivity.
AR: Some of this data comes from people with experience providing input. Design has that experiential dimension as well.
RP: Getting input is not blindly looking at a data source. You need to have the subjective and the objective to form a holistic view of how space is performing. We’re looking to do it in a manner where we’re easily able to configure the space to bring in another team, and the space they’re given adjusts itself.
That’s an area where we work with the likes of Steelcase, Herman Miller, Knoll, and Haworth to push them to bring us more solutions that enable that adaptation. We also work with the likes of Orange Books and Framery to bring that flexibility into the space. Ultimately, we’re seeking a flexibility such that the end users themselves can do the changes, and the space transforms itself for a new team, or for more concentration or collaboration. That’s something that we are super focused on: giving more flexibility to the end users.
AR: Could you talk about some of the pieces of the puzzle that you’re still figuring out in workplace design and technology?
RP: One of the questions I want to get to the bottom of is how the expectation of the future workforce will change, and how we can adjust our space to meet that. We’re getting insight into what that expectation might look like. We are not yet at the phase of translating that into a physical layout, so that is still an unknown for me. I’ve seen a lot of the input that we get from what I would call the future workforce on different levels, because we look further than university: kids starting elementary school, how they work, and how they will expect to work. That to me is still an unknown.
And another part of the research program is about understanding how some of the disruptions that we’re seeing today impact the workplace. What is the impact of 3D printing of furniture on the workplace? What is the impact of the gig economy, and what does that mean for the physical environment? The list of unknowns is very long, but what gives me confidence is that we’ve established a top-notch team, combining people from within and outside Microsoft.
AR: As technology and culture change, do you foresee the Microsoft language being a sort of living, flexible framework? Will it change over time?
RP: One of the first criteria for our design language was that it needs to be timeless with distinction. So our design language will remain. I’d say that a space we will build ten years from now will have some of the same feel to it as Milan. However, we will continue to evolve. It will continue to take the future workforce into account. We will not throw the design language out and go, “Now we need to start fresh.” That was one of the key criteria for the design language when we were creating it: that it needs to be timeless with distinction, and it needs to be founded on the new Microsoft culture. I think that will ensure that it will be relevant in the future.