The low-tech secret of Microsoft’s new Vancouver office

Every room in the software giant’s new Vancouver development office features floor-to-ceiling whiteboards to promote handwriting

 
Interior of Microsoft Canada’s new Vancouver development centre.
(Microsoft Canada)

Every meeting space in Microsoft’s new downtown Vancouver development centre—and there are many, of various sizes and configurations—features a floor-to-ceiling whiteboard. You might expect the computing behemoth, which just bought career app LinkedIn for $26.2 billion, to opt for something higher-tech, but no.

“The hand and writing things—that’s just human nature,” says Edoardo de Martin, director of the Microsoft Canada Excellence Centre, which in February set up shop on two sprawling floors covering 3.5 acres of the former Eaton’s and Sears flagship. (Today Nordstrom occupies the lower three floors.) He notes how Microsoft has differentiated its Surface tablet from the iPad by including a writing function. “Studies show the human mind can retain more using a pen. It’s just the way humans work.”

Teams at Microsoft hold frequent short, stand-up meetings where members can sketch out their ideas or list priorities on those whiteboards. The open-plan space is grouped into “neighbourhoods” where teams working on the company’s BigPark live gaming apps, MSN service, OneNote web client, Skype for Business and Visual Studio spend their days. Many are just part of larger “V teams” (the V is for virtual), that periodically convene by videoconference from offices in China and Redmond, Wash.

“We have about 470 bums in seats now and we have capacity for 730-750, depending on the configuration, de Martin says. “Our intent is to grow to capacity. Based on our growth over the last five years, we’ll get there for sure.”

When the development centre was announced in 2014 it was characterized as a way for Microsoft to get around U.S. immigration laws that made it hard to place some international talent at the company’s headquarters in suburban Seattle, just three hours’ drive to the south. But these days more than three-quarters of the 568 employees based in Vancouver (there remains a video-game team at the company’s old digs on Beatty Street) are Canadian citizens or permanent residents, says de Martin, who himself hails from the Fraser Valley.

That fact, like the landmark office in the heart of the city itself, suggests the software giant is here to stay. In a tribute to Pacific Northwest environmental esthetics, the old department-store escalator has been turned into a wood-paneled tree trunk, with blue and green colour schemes overhead and earth tones down below. The transit-accessible central location, and its collaborative layout, is meant to appeal to young coders, de Martin says. But the look and feel of the place is meant to embody corporate values under CEO Satya Nadella, too. “Openness offers transparency and with that comes clarity of vision, and that leads to a leaner organization,” he says. No longer can useless projects and processes be hidden away in corners and behind doors. Every person, and everything they’re working on, should matter.

More photos of Microsoft’s new Vancouver office:

Interior of Microsoft Canada’s new Vancouver development centre.
(Microsoft Canada)
Interior of Microsoft Canada’s new Vancouver development centre.
(Microsoft Canada)
Interior of Microsoft Canada’s new Vancouver development centre.
(Microsoft Canada)
Interior of Microsoft Canada’s new Vancouver development centre.
(Microsoft Canada)
Interior of Microsoft Canada’s new Vancouver development centre.
(Microsoft Canada)
Interior of Microsoft Canada’s new Vancouver development centre.
(Microsoft Canada)
(Microsoft Canada)
(Microsoft Canada)
Interior of Microsoft Canada’s new Vancouver development centre.
(Microsoft Canada)
Interior of Microsoft Canada’s new Vancouver development centre.
(Microsoft Canada)

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