Creating a campus-like workplace to spur employee innovation can be a challenge in an urban environment like Singapore, but the model can be adapted, according to Microsoft’s director of real-estate strategy, William Lee.
That’s an approach Singapore wealth fund GIC is taking, COO Goh Kok Huat said at the Urban Land Institute Asia Pacific Summit in Singapore on Wednesday.
GIC, which manages Singapore’s reserves, does not reveal its portfolio size, but the amount has been reported to exceed $100 billion.
Speaking on the sidelines of the conference on Tuesday, Lee noted that there’s a “dichotomy of thought” at Microsoft about how to create a workplace that encourages interaction and creativity.
“Half the leaders believe that the campus needs to be much more open to the community for the company to survive for the next 50-100 years,” he said. “There’s another thought where tech companies have a lot of intellectual property and therefore, to protect that, you can’t have a free-flowing campus. A lot of the Microsoft campuses have a strong balance of both.”
But in an urban environment like Singapore’s, where land is scarce, the buildings become tall and “elevator-centric,” he noted.
“It’s not the type of culture you want to create,” he said. “You want to create a culture that’s much more enhancing, where people are able to talk on the way to the office, on the way to the meetings. So the tall buildings and the elevators, socially you’re supposed to be pretty silent.”
That can interrupt the flow of conversations, Lee noted.
Research shows that workplace culture can affect employees’ willingness to take risks and can foster a more collaborative environment — a vibrant ecosystem allows people with similar mindsets to discuss ideas and help each other.
Creating such cultures has been an aim for cities looking to become “innovation hubs,” which attract both talent and investment.
It’s become a key focus for Singapore’s government, which last year committed 19 billion Singapore dollars ($13.76 billion) to support research and development over the next five years.
Last year, a joint study from Cornell University, INSEAD and the World Intellectual Property Organization ranked Singapore as the sixth most innovative country in the world, behind the U.K. and the U.S.
Lee said that in urban areas, Microsoft has worked to spur more conversation by taking steps including “puncturing” floors to put in stairs, although he noted that beyond four stories, it doesn’t help much.
“People don’t want to walk beyond four stories,” he said, adding that he expected that, eventually, older buildings would be redeveloped to offer larger “floor plates” so fewer levels would be required.
GIC’s Goh noted that his fund has been incorporating some ideas about workspace innovation.
“Will the corner office allow conversation to flow as freely?” he asked. “We moved from closed offices to open offices awhile back after I’d seen some of [our] Australian partners’ space.”
He noted that most organizations use specialist groups.
“So technology people are investing in technology and real estate people are investing in real estate and very often it’s hard to make people share what they see in the marketplace,” Goh said.
“If they don’t talk, the information doesn’t flow and if the information doesn’t flow, you end up optimizing the respective bits rather than the sum of the parts,” he said. “So today, we have put in place processes, put in place the ability for people to talk.”