Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Don’t bother coming in: Microsoft plans a freaky Friday

Published 12 February 2013 08:25, Updated 26 November 2013 18:35

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Don’t bother coming in: Microsoft plans a freaky Friday

Anywhere but here ... Microsoft MD Pip Marlow says she’d prefer employees to spend 80 per cent of their time out of the office. Photo: Fairfax Media

“Don’t bother coming in on Friday.” When the chief sends out a message like that, company-wide, it is generally regarded as very bad news. It could well be followed by locked front doors and repossession notices on Monday.

But not at Microsoft. On Friday, anyone stubborn enough to turn up for work at the offices of the software giant will find hectares of abandoned space, maybe a lone piece of A4 flipping gently among the workstations, carried along by the uninterrupted breath from the air conditioning.

Downstairs in the cafeteria, a lone barista may spend her time idly wiping the counters and lining up paper cups for the workers who never arrive.

Everyone is working from somewhere else.

Please go away. Really

Microsoft managing director Pip Marlow has asked her people to stay away for “The Summer’s Day Out” – an exercise designed to show clients that it is possible to do business effectively without being in the office.

This follows the recent launch of its Office 365 cloud service that allows users to work anywhere, on up to five different devices.

“I’d like to keep them out of the office every day, not just Friday,” she says. “What we’re doing on Friday is creating a day to show that an office in the modern world is not the traditional bricks and mortar we’ve seen for years.”

I’d like to keep them out of the office every day, not just Friday

Marlow says Microsoft already operates on an 80/20 principle, that employees should ideally be out of the office 80 per cent of the time with customers and partner organisations.

“That’s where we want them to be,” she says.

Reduced footprint

Encouraging people to avoid the office has been a good financial move for Microsoft. Since adopting activity-based working (where no one has their own desk and they are encouraged to telework) a couple of years ago, the Sydney head office managed to hand back an entire floor to the landlord – leading to significant savings in rent.

Microsoft has also reduced its footprint in Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane, by moving into new buildings, she says. Employees adapted faster than expected and employee engagement scores rose by an impressive five points.

“[In Sydney] we gave up 20 per cent of our space,” Marlow says. “If I had my time again, I’d have given up 40 per cent. I’d have given up another floor.”

Occupancy of the building – even with the reduction in floor space – runs at between 20 per cent and 50 per cent.

While the company enthusiastically endorses remote working, employees are not forced to do it.

“Nothing is mandated,” Marlow says. “We’re not trying to create a single set of rules. People need flexibility and choice and different things work for different people.

“I’m a working mum. I have two kids. Sometimes I work from home and sometimes I work from a customer’s office.”

On Friday, she will be at a customer’s site in the morning and then will fly to Melbourne in the afternoon to work at the Centre for Workplace Leadership. The marketing team will be brainstorming on Bondi Beach and HR director, Rose Clements, will be at a high-level executive meeting in a cafe restaurant in North Ryde.

Back in the office, there may be a few face-to-face meetings for people who cannot find a better place to link up. The switchboard operators and receptionists will still need to be there, but the office will be a lonely, slightly spooky place.

“I think it’ll be a bit of a ghost town,” Clements says.

“There are a whole variety of places where people can choose to do their work. We’re changing work from a noun to a verb.”

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