Collaborating Across Microsoft

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The costs of creating the studio were relatively restrained in large part because Microsoft re-purposed space it already was leasing. The SoMa location was the former office of Powerset, a promising search technology start-up that Microsoft acquired in 2008. After Powerset and its workers were absorbed into the Bing search operation, Microsoft decided to re-boot the space into the studio.

While tech companies typically pay $100 to $150 a square foot to build out new space from scratch, the construction costs were about half of that, said J. Edgar “Ned” Fennie Jr. of Fennie + Mehl Architects, the San Francisco firm that designed the studio. Furniture expenses ran about $15 to $20 a square foot, compared with the more typical $25 a square foot. So far, Microsoft has remodeled 10,000 of the 18,000 square feet, enough for two Studio 415 clients at a time. The space can accommodate four clients in all. Microsoft will refurbish more as it signs up additional customers.

Turner & Townsend plc served as project managers, and DPR Construction as the general contractor.

Inspired by the “design thinking” movement, the studio aims to foster teamwork among people across disciplines. Initially, about 35 full-time Microsoft employees will be assigned to the San Francisco studio, including Web marketers, software engineers, product designers and data scientists. A corporate client might send marketers, engineers or designers to attend workshops, or assign them to months-long stints at the studio. Microsoft would help the client identify its digital marketing needs and opportunities and would cooperate on brainstorming, developing, prototyping, testing and delivering on the ideas. “Great ideas come from accidental collisions,” Chavez said. At the same time, he said, “you need to engineer for collisions.”

From the moment a visitor steps off the elevator into the third-floor reception area, it’s clear “you’re not at a corporate headquarters,” said Fennie. There is an abundance of exposed wiring, ductwork, fabric drapes and panels of Douglas fir and corrugated sheet metal. Carpeting, walls and furniture provide generous accents of chartreuse, blue and brown throughout the workshop.

Fennie said designers wanted to create “a place to hang out” that would suit tech companies’ skunkworks-type projects. Often, strangers from out of town will be thrown together on short-term assignments in the studio. “They won’t know how to behave when they come here. We wanted a space that was warm, welcoming and friendly,” said Fennie, whose firm has worked on projects for leading emerging-tech companies, such as’s headquarters in Los Altos, Silicon Valley Bank and Western Union Digital Ventures in San Francisco’s China Basin.

Studio 415 can accommodate four work pods, each with 16 people to 18 people at workbenches (no cubicles, please) arranged in the shape of barbells. Workbenches only five feet long were chosen to create a “shoulder-to-shoulder feel,” Fennie said. Chartreuse and olive-colored sofas between the benching systems allow people to gather in front of an “idea wall” or whiteboard. “We wanted to create clusters of space that felt team-like, that supported a fluid, collaborative environment,” Fennie said.

The furniture, which can be easily moved, is strikingly geometric—from the hexagonal, felt-covered sofas to the cylindrical cork footrests. It evokes “borrowed furniture from an old frat house,” Fennie said. “Casual is OK. The best ideas float to the top when you’re not stressed.”

Silvery drapes, hung from ceiling tracks, can be drawn around a pod, creating a homey but intriguing feel. In the alley between the pods, gallery panels can display work and lounge chairs create quiet space. A dozen glassed-in offices and meeting rooms line the studio periphery. Microsoft wanted the space to be open for collaboration but also allow for privacy and long workdays. “We want it to be creative, but not crazy. Creativity is actually very disciplined,” Chavez said.

Microsoft has additional offices elsewhere in San Francisco and a large campus in Mountain View, but the company believed that the SoMa site was ideal for an entrepreneurial venture and for attracting the talent needed for design and digital media.

“The city has become a center of design and marketing thinking and capability. There is this real cool hub of activity right around South Park. We wanted to be relevant, current and engaged with some of those companies,” Chavez said. “It made a lot of sense.”

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