Guest Post by Michael Shelton, MBA, PMP, Director of Real Estate – Eastern US & Canada, Microsoft

Nothing is more important to my team than providing the right fit for the people who work in the Microsoft spaces we deliver. Whether they work in marketing or operations or product development, their success is our success.

The process would be simple if our occupants could “try on” workspaces like they try on suits. We could keep grabbing new ones off the rack until we found the right fit.

But in real estate we usually get only one chance to get it right.

Recently, we worked closely with the leaders and employees of the Microsoft Research group to understand how to build new spaces in Montreal and New York City that would meet the unique needs of their research teams.

Our Research group employs only a few hundred people at seven sites around the world. But this relatively small band of scientists and engineers thinks the deep thoughts that produce the big ideas that lead us into the future.

Our challenge was to understand how to deliver spaces that help our researchers in Montreal and New York think creatively about complex problems and help Microsoft recruit and retain some of the best minds in the world.

Seeking an edge by choice of location

We knew one thing about these spaces from the get-go. They needed to give Microsoft an edge over academia in the competition for top talent.

Most of our researchers hail from universities, where they have tenure and the freedom to explore their passions in an intellectually stimulating setting. Our new spaces needed to match the collegial and contemplative atmosphere of a university, while also making the most efficient use of each square foot.

We kept these priorities front and center when we located the new research spaces in vibrant hot spots for artificial intelligence (AI) research.

The 31,000 square-foot Montreal site is in the Mile Ex neighborhood. This eclectic urban village is near the Montreal Institute of Learning Algorithms and McGill University, which are leaders in AI research.

The 63,000 square-foot New York site is in the SoHo submarket of Manhattan. It’s convenient to mass transit, has a cool “creator” vibe, and is close to universities and research competitors within the city’s AI corridor.

Respect and rethink expectations

In terms of design, we were able to both respect and rethink expectations based in part on brand new data from a workplace study aimed at defining the optimal environment for research throughout Microsoft.

Take personal offices, for example. While they are typically an expectation in academia, we determined through study, data and our conversations with the Research group that they are somewhat underutilized. We formulated an alternative vision for Montreal and New York City that uses space more efficiently while still providing the environment researchers said they required.

Based on what we learned about how our researchers work, we emphasized variety: an additional number of private spaces for the focused work they would otherwise do in a personal office, team spaces for ad hoc collaboration, and comfortable nooks to read and reflect because many researchers still prefer to print out papers rather than view materials on a screen.

Each new location also has a reimagined employee refreshment area called a “Tea Room”—a nod to a hallowed academic tradition of providing an informal gathering place for researchers to exchange ideas and enjoy one another’s company around refreshments.

One of the most striking features of our new spaces is the expansive outdoor deck on the sixth floor along with other “green” terraces connected to workplace neighborhoods of the New York building. Filled with greenery and warmed by a fireplace, it’s a great place to relax and recharge while enjoying the sweeping SoHo view.

Although the New York space is not yet occupied due to COVID, the feedback from the Montreal site has been very positive, and we can’t wait to see the brilliant ideas that will flow from these two spaces. Both sites are great examples of how to provide the right fit by fully understanding what is important to clients.

Michael Shelton, MBA, PMP, is Director of Real Estate – Eastern US & Canada, at Microsoft.