The focus is no longer on control and attendance, but on trust and output

Microsoft’s New Way of Working

How do you get people to work without going to the office? A few years ago, Microsoft Netherlands started giving its 800 employees a greater scope in their jobs. The new office building in Amsterdam, which the company moved into in May, was the catalyst for its New Way of Working. Veldhoen + Company came up with the design and its Activity Based Working philosophy.

An interview with Theo Rinsema, CEO of Microsoft Netherlands:

Why did Microsoft Netherlands want to adopt a new way of working?

For two reasons. First of all, we wanted to use our technology to improve our organisation’s productivity. Second, we wanted to see more vitality in our employees. They had given our organisation a score of “unsatisfactory” when it came to promoting a good work/life balance. Microsoft employs a lot of young and ambitious people who find it hard to leave their work at the office. Telecommuting, which we’d already introduced earlier, only makes that more difficult for them. Employees are always available at home and are constantly being pushed by the technology to continue working. So the question is how to give them the scope to organise the work themselves so that they can cope with that responsibility. I don’t see what’s so bad about working on Saturday if you then take Tuesday afternoon off to see a movie. But that requires throwing a behavioural switch.

How do you get more than 800 employees to throw a behavioural switch?

Many of our employees are knowledge workers. They have a profound need to be free to decide for themselves when and where they are going to be. They are deeply committed to their work. It’s important for the success of the organisation that they’re available. How do you get the most out of them as a team? By making sure that they understand themselves and their colleagues better, and by making agreements as to how they’re going to work together, for example. We went very far in this direction by putting both our individual employees and our teams through MBTIs (personality tests – Ed.). It was important to take enough time for the change process. It took three years, and we tried to make the process as organic as possible.


The Management Team started by questioning its own leadership style. We wanted to emphasise trust rather than control, and output rather than attendance. The MT then presented its “dream” to all our employees: we want to grow into an environment in which everyone is better able to achieve a good work/life balance and at the same time increase productivity. We asked employee volunteers to join us on this journey. About twenty employees signed up. They set up internal blogs and scheduled sessions for the rest of the organisation, planting the seeds of change in the minds of their colleagues.
What did you then do to actually introduce the New Way of Working?
A lot of people in this company are inclined to always seek cooperation in the virtual environment. That’s fine, but it sometimes leads to problems. For example, if seven of us are in a meeting and two people take part through video-conferencing, they can easily be regarded as an interruption. So all of our teams established a physical minimum: how often they have physical meetings, work in the same physical location, etc. That’s a good basis for deciding precisely how you’re going to meet, and it helps break through some conventional ways of thinking. We’ve also developed scenarios, preferred working methods, in which we consistently combine technology and workstyle arrangements. For example, basic communication in the company is Instant Messaging. For longer exchanges, people can switch from our IM program Office Communicator to the telephone, with or without webcam. That’s how we’ve pushed the human-technology interface to a higher level. It’s good both for the organisation’s productivity and our employees’ vitality.

Microsoft has taken activity-based working very far: employees no longer have assigned offices or desks. Was there any resistance to this?

Not really. People were already used to it. And the emphasis wasn’t on whether or not we had an office or desk. What was much more important was how people could be more self-managing. How does an individual learn to strike a better balance between work and private life? That’s the essence of what we’re trying to do. We support that with dialogue sessions about the New Way of Working, internal workshops, training, buddies, and so on. That’s precisely the point that Dutch businesses often underestimate: how do people decide when and when not to work when flexible working practices are introduced? How do they learn to do this and at the same time optimise cooperation with their colleagues?

Is a lot of maintenance required, now that the New Way of Working has been introduced?

Yes, for three reasons. The scenarios describing the preferred working methods need to be updated continuously, because we see that things aren’t always ideal down on the ground. We also have new employees just coming into the process. And we have to keep looking closely at social cohesion. In the beginning, the teams had a tendency to focus too much on the virtual environment. Sometimes they really just needed to get together in the same place. In plain language: we don’t believe that teamwork can be based on virtual contact alone. So the entire process still feels like a journey, one in which we’re not travellers but ramblers. A traveller goes somewhere because he’s been promised sunshine there. A rambler keeps moving because it’s raining where he is. But he doesn’t know whether the sun is shining at his destination.

Emphasising trust rather than control, and output rather than attendance: that has major implications for leadership style.

Absolutely. That’s why changing our leadership style was the second part of the change process, along with getting the most out of our employees as a team. As leaders, we have to learn to let go more, to facilitate rather than steer. Facilitatory rather than paternalistic leadership, although I’m not crazy about the expression. Basically, it means keeping the tendency to control or prescribe to a minimum. The point is: with so many clever people working here, why should I limit myself to my own intelligence when taking decisions? It’s a journey for me too, a search for the leadership style that suits me and suits the company.
But how do you do emphasise output in a knowledge-driven company like Microsoft Netherlands?
We’re still struggling with that, and it’s particularly hard in the case of a part-time employee. What does part time mean when people are available all the time? That would require defining a unit of work that our employees have to complete. It’s very hard to do that. So we’re looking for good ways of defining a 24-hour contract in which people only work if their children are at school. If we succeed, we’ll be an appealing employer for all those dual-earner couples who prefer not to work when their children are at home.

How important is the new building for the new way of working?

The building is a small link in the New Way of Working system, but it was a tremendous catalyst. After all, what we decided was that if we were successful in introducing the New Way of Working, the new building would function as our key meeting place. So that’s how it was designed. The new building’s interior design had to express three values: space, transparency and connectivity. If that works well, we expect that occupancy levels – at the moment, an average of about 40 to 50% of our employees work in the building – will increase. That is entirely the opposite of how many other companies use the New Way of Working. But our point is not to promote telecommuting, but flexible working practices. Avoid the traffic jams and decide what the best place is for each activity you undertake.

Microsoft Netherlands has called in Veldhoen + Company to design the interior of the new office building. Why?

We chose Veldhoen + Company because of its good reputation and the projects it’s carried out elsewhere. They analysed the number of workspaces that we needed and produced a basic design based on that figure. They then continued as our consultant. Besides Veldhoen + Company, we called in an interior designer. Veldhoen + Company is very good at developing new office concepts based on analyses and figures. We also wanted someone who focused on things like feeling, colour combinations, style and standards of quality. By deliberately confronting these two sides, we were able to get the best of both worlds. That’s why our project with Veldhoen + Company differs from their other projects. I think we did more ourselves.

Finally, what would you say was Veldhoen + Company’s added value in this specific project?

Because it has carried out so many projects, Veldhoen + Company has an enormous amount of basic knowledge about what works in the New Way of Working and where the pitfalls are. We have tried to combine that knowledge with a kind of open-mindedness. The point is that every experience limits what we do in the future. The more you fall back on what you know, the fewer risks you take. That’s why we need to be open-minded. That’s when it’s good to have a partner like Veldhoen + Company ask you “Have you gone mad?”.  And it’s equally good to be able to reply “Yes, but we’re going ahead with this anyway”. It’s a well-know fact that experts see limitations and novices see opportunities. The trick is to find the right balance between the two.

Another article about Microsoft’s New Way of Working;

Louis Lhoest Veldhoen + Company
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