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

Executing real estate strategy while business plans are still in development.

Recently, our real estate team delivered Microsoft’s new site near Raleigh, NC, and it couldn’t be more fitting for a new business group developing technologies and designing silicon for the company. It also showcased the nimble thinking our team had to apply to provide the right temporary and permanent sites for a fast-growing group that was still developing its business strategies and needs.

Thanks to long-proven planning and close collaboration with the business leads, we managed to onboard almost 100 new employees in several months, and had the first phase of their permanent space outfitted within a year, despite a mid-project design pivot.

Lift and shift

In December 2018, Microsoft decided to tap into a newly available talent pool of engineers in the Raleigh area to create a technology and silicon design team that would support our hardware business.

But even as we quickly sought a temporary workplace for up to 150 people, the new business group was growing faster than expected. What started as a need for a temporary place for the original tranche of business leaders and engineers quickly became a search to accommodate more than 350 employees. At the same time, we were also scouting out a permanent location to renovate for a future workforce of up to 500. And we had only 12 weeks to find both sites.

Four leases later…

Raleigh is part of a densely populated hub of technological innovation, and there was limited space in a tight leasing market. We lost our first-choice lease to another company at the last minute, forcing us to go through two other leases to accommodate increasingly larger headcounts.

Ironically, by the time the group had grown to 350 employees, the best temporary space available turned out to be their former Raleigh offices. That’s where all 350 people eventually continued to work while we began renovating their new permanent location: a five-story, 186,000 sf structure in Morrisville, a suburb of Raleigh, NC.

The big pivot: “We need five labs”

We wanted to get people into the new building as soon as possible, so construction also had to move quickly. We set up an aggressive four-phase approach that would allow us to get all 350 people into floors 4 and 5 within a year. The other phases would be completed from the top-down, working from floor 3 to floor 1, to accommodate the group’s projected growth through 2021. 

As usual, we were closely involved in helping the new team define their requirements. However, this was the first time we had worked with this team, and we were still discovering what they needed in terms of productivity.

At first the teams focused only on employee count and desks, but they realized after several months that they also needed some very large, very specific labs to support the designing of silicon products. Each lab—such as an emulator lab, chip testing lab, and system bench labs—required its own heating, cooling, power, and data configurations, as well as additional chillers on the roof. The business needed five labs total, and three were to be delivered in the first phase of the project.

The challenge was how to provide these three new requirements while still accommodating the targeted 350-person headcount for the two floors. We didn’t want to sacrifice daylight space for labs, so we worked closely with the architect to place them in the interior of the building.

We eventually took the project down two design paths—one for employee workspaces and one for labs. We continued to apply this two-part program through the rest of the project. Even with the late-stage pivot, we were able to complete the first phase on schedule by March 2020.

Listen deeply, move thoughtfully

Moving this quickly on a real estate project isn’t our first choice, but we were able to do it by engaging with the business at each stage of the search for temporary and permanent spaces.

Maintaining consistent connections with a business this way is imperative, especially if their needs are evolving fast. Our mutual focus on delivering productive workspaces helped us move the timeline along at a pace that kept up with the business’ needs and made the most of their final space.

Raleigh and the challenges it presented are an example of how agile and attentive thinking can create a solid alignment between the physical space available and a business’ requirements and strategy.

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