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Innovation. A simple idea.

A few weeks ago we were in Vienna for the Masters, continuing to explore that trendy set of words ‘social innovation’. As part of the week long intensive we spent a day at the Microsoft office and at the end of the day we were given a tour.

So what you may think? An X-Box is an X-Box isn’t it? Well whether you like their products or not, consider them as part of a global multinational threat, or simply use excel everyday without thinking about any of that kind of stuff, their office tour reminded us of an article that suggested the best innovations are incredibly simple . . . a slight readjustment of the accepted ways of doing things to achieve an amazing outcome.

Microsoft has made a significant but simple shift from the usual open plan work-space that in turn reflects a simple shift in the mindset of all the Microsoft staff.

The number of work-spaces has been reduced and the number of meeting rooms has increased, each with a different theme. One is filled with leggo, one has rainbow colored walls, one has Arabian style couches and lamps, and our favorite – a simple white room with a huge circular table where chairs have been replaced with fitness balls (that’s the one the Executive Team meet in).

Throughout the office there are ‘living walls’ – whole walls covered in real plants. There are nooks and crannies specifically designed to facilitate collaboration. The Executive Team sit in the open plan office with everyone else. And the best bit – the second floor is linked to the first floor by a giant slide (we had to give that a try!).

There are no ‘normal’ working hours. The building is available 24 hours a day seven days a week and staff can choose to work when they like and from wherever they like. Almost nobody has a work-space. Everyone hot-desks. All meeting rooms are fitted with 360 degree video cameras allowing people to dial in from wherever they happen to be working from that day.

This is not a ‘you can work at home one day a week’ kind of thing, or a ‘if you get in at 8am you can leave at 4pm’ thing. The setup means you can work anywhere you want at any time you want. Literally! No big boss checking when you’re in the office. No traditional 9 to 5. No sick leave required because if you are sick on Wednesday you can work any other day to make it up – as long as you meet all your expected key performance requirements and deliver on time.

And the results? One year in, productivity and employee satisfaction has increased dramatically.

So why aren’t more businesses following suit? Sure Microsoft has the technology to support virtual meetings and working away from the office, but that wasn’t the real issue for them. Technology is a tool. Humans are not technology.

Central to this successful innovation are two simple principles – user involvement in design, and trust.

To implement the change the leadership team collaborated with employees over a year to design the new approach to office and work. The employees designed the spaces themselves. And now it’s in place, staff are empowered to work autonomously. They are trusted to get on with their jobs, wherever they are, and meet their targets. Basically, they’re treated like adults. And guess what – the job is still getting done.

Perhaps then there is something in the argument that the best innovations are incredibly simple . . . a slight readjustment of the accepted ways of doing things to achieve an amazing outcome.

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