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Creating an island: Microsoft Place by Gensler

In bringing 2000 Microsoft staff into a single location, Gensler has deconstructed the typical working model. Taking its client into unchartered territories, the design team envisaged a new working landscape that moves beyond the corporate norms to embrace ‘island’ life.

Measuring over 30,500 square metres, One Microsoft Place in Ireland ran the risk of becoming an unfathomable mega-campus. The project – which reinforces the tech company’s focus on unification – consolidates over 2000 staff from three buildings into one Dublin location. Treating the workforce like a community, the designers at Gensler – the outfit responsible for the interior – wanted to “unearth a way of connecting everyone and everything”, says Amanda Baldwin, senior associate at Gensler. “How did we do it? We call it ‘deconstructing’. First we abandoned all preconceived rules and ideas about typical workplace buildings. When you eliminate the electrical and mechanical systems, the windows and doors, the roof, the bricks and mortar, the foundations . . . what’s left? Just the land. Or, an island. And so, the idea of the Microsoft Island was born.”

Conceived in close collaboration with the Microsoft team, Gensler’s concept translates “typical island components” into a functional office. The ‘harbour’ is the arrival point; the ‘beach’ is a social space; the ‘lake’ is for reflection, contemplation and gathering; the ‘mountain’ is for learning and discovery; and the ‘grasslands’ is the open-plan workspace, where teams work in ‘neighbourhoods’. Each section is connected by the ‘trail’, a traditional corridor reimagined as a functional working environment.

Radically, there are no designated offices. Bosses sit alongside interns; data scientists and software developers mingle with sales and marketing staff. “Microsoft wanted to shift its employee workspaces from ownership to membership,” says Gensler associate Stuart Templeton. “Instead of having a fixed desk, employees become part of a neighbourhood. This change creates a sense of belonging that triggers collaboration and aids productivity.” To make it work, Gensler had to understand how employees work.

“We spent a lot of time discussing and observing how and with whom staff members fulfil their respective roles. This information helped to drive the make-up of the neighbourhoods.” By assessing all the activities in which various groups are engaged, Gensler could provide optimal settings for collaboration, concentration and connection.

Baldwin notes that the evolution of the neighbourhood (in the traditional sense of the word) and its migration from home life to the office reflects the changing needs of today’s workforce. “Employees want a space that inspires them, connects them to nature, is designed with their individual needs in mind, and offers a community-like atmosphere. The neighbourhood concept aligns with the progression of Microsoft’s interior design: its spaces are becoming more relaxed, warm and intimate – less corporate.”

The concept also makes strategic sense: “neighbourhoods” allow companies to creatively save square metres, cutting back on the number of individual desks based on how teams use the alternative areas. “You can be more efficient with space without having a negative impact on the productivity or effectiveness of that team.”

An international powerhouse such as Microsoft invariably welcomes diversity. With employees from various nationalities, the company sought to reflect cultural differences within its community-oriented neighbourhoods. “We undertook a great number of workshops and visioning sessions to really understand Microsoft’s employees, vision, motivation and key business drivers,” says Baldwin, “to anticipate and understand the central needs of their human behaviour. This helped us to go above and beyond to provide improvements that employees didn’t even know they wanted or needed.” These included utilisable circulation in the atrium across all floors; variation in the ground-floor plate; and an enlivened welcoming atrium that serves as a gathering place.

A community does more than only work, of course. As we move towards an increasingly 24/7 culture, says Baldwin, it’s imperative that workplaces facilitate how we want to live. To Gensler, this means catering to mixed uses; providing a variety of physical environments that encourage social vitality; and creating an inclusive and stimulating space that supports productivity and lifestyle aspirations.

The office includes other traditionally off-the-clock amenities, such as an on-site gym, massage treatment rooms, yoga studio, music room and podcast studio. To make sure the added extras are benefits rather than gimmicks, Gensler conducted open discussions with staff and assessed what falls within Microsoft’s wellness agenda.

“Holistic wellbeing is becoming a key metric for higher-performing workplaces,” says Templeton. “Implementing programmes that encourage mental health, fitness and outdoor access decreases sick days and boosts happiness and productivity.”

One Microsoft Place is surrounded by lush greenery, which inspired Gensler to ‘landscape’ the interior. “The setting allowed us to manifest the story of the island for the spatial concept,” says Baldwin. “More importantly, it provides a seamless transition from interior to exterior so that people are encouraged to get out and physically interact with nature.”

Photography by Gareth Gardener.

This article originally appeared in issue #76 of Indesign, the “Workplace Evolution” issue. For weekly doses of design inspiration, join our mailing list.

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