Days before the 2018 New Year, the brisk Amsterdam cold was settling into the city’s streets and canals and Ernst-Jan Stigter was beginning to wonder if he was about to make a major visionary move or take things too far.
As GM of Microsoft’s Netherlands subsidiary, he had been helping to steer, along with a group of involved employees, a full renovation of the organization’s office, a six-story glass edifice located on the outskirts of the city alongside the swooping planes of Schiphol Airport. But early on, Stigter and his team had decided that they would not simply rebuild the space. They would use the opportunity to take the next big step in a relentless experiment their organization had been conducting for more than a decade. Since 2005, Microsoft Netherlands has been obsessed with finding ever-new ways for employees to work and engage with customers, believing that if it harnessed the latest research in behavioral science and productivity, it could end up with happier, more innovative workers and stronger partner and customer relationships.
In short, the team was constantly trying to figure out not so much how to squeeze more into their days—more emails, more projects, more checkboxes checked—but how to get more out of their days—more focus, more balance, more relationship-building and collaboration. How, as they put it, to find “more life in a day.”
Against the backdrop of a broad transformation Microsoft embarked upon after CEO Satya Nadella came onboard in 2014, the Netherlands office was seeking to future-proof its workforce and accelerate success. It was a natural next step for the change-hungry team with a growth mindset, which had begun pioneering innovative office space and prioritizing work-life balance for employees before either was part of the mainstream business paradigm.
That culture of experimentation and customer obsession is how Stigter ended up feeling more than a little nervous as an important milestone loomed in January 2018. He and about 800 of his reports and other Microsoft employees were preparing for an almost unheard of exercise, one undertaken voluntarily as part of this new wave of transformation: while the Netherlands office was closed for 10 weeks of renovations, there would be no official temporary workspace.