Approach Microsoft’s Fargo campus from the east and you can’t miss the tree, an imposing three-story cottonwood with a railroad spike driven into the base.
The spike, once a benchmark for surveyors, is at least 60 years old; the tree is north of 100.
The cottonwood isn’t quite the centerpiece of the complex. After all, as one of the project’s planners said, “There’s a danger in getting too married to one tree.” Still, it enjoys landmark status, down to its manicured base and lightning protection. The address of Microsoft’s corporate headquarters in Redmond is One Microsoft Way; the address of the Fargo site is One Lone Tree Road.
Like most everything else on campus, it’s a touch that bears that hallmark of a leadership team that wanted every inch of the complex to reflect the company’s heritage and personality.
Chief executive Doug Burgum and Jodi Uecker-Rust, Great Plains’ de facto culture guru, “were interested in creating an environment that supported the culture of the company,” said Matt Torgerson, the campus facilities manager. “Every little detail of that building was thought of.”
When ground broke in 1997 on Horizon, the first building on campus, the company was scattered across a hodgepodge of office parks and dingy locations. “I swear my desk came from a garage sale,” said Katie Hasbargen, Microsoft Fargo’s senior communications manager.
That atmosphere changed dramatically into a sparkling new space, complete with skylight turrets, sweeping views of the surrounding farmland (at the time, the southwest Fargo site was an island in the prairie), and an elegant wooden board room that was never actually used as such – the Microsoft deal was done before the Great Plains board ever convened there.
Video: Inside Horizon
The company outgrew Horizon before construction was complete. It’s added two more buildings since then to accommodate a little less than 900 Microsoft employees and about 700 outside vendors on campus.
The latest building, Vision, is the product of extensive feedback from employees on how to minimize distractions. The noisiest areas of the building – like meeting areas – are clustered near the center, while workstations – particularly those for employees who need tranquility for writing and cutting code – are dispersed on the outskirts.
Managers are strategically situated to drive foot traffic away from those quiet areas, and all cubicles are the same size to take politics out of workspace assignments.
The building is also a monument to environmentally friendly engineering and artwork – geothermal heating and cooling, tables from reclaimed barn wood, a sculpture of butterflies in the lobby fashioned from recycled beer cans.
Video: Inside Vista
Video: Inside Vision
When Microsoft acquired Great Plains, the former was more interested in acquiring art as investment property than fostering workplace ambiance. Torgerson broke with that mindset, instead targeting accessible pieces with regional ties. Across from the butterflies, there’s a painting from Minot-based artist Walter Piehl.
“We work pretty hard to try to make the art pretty accessible, pretty local, pretty real,” he said. “The employees have reacted to that very well.” To him, the art program is a perk – “the chocolate on the sundae,” he says.
Other campus perks espouse that toothsome theme in a more literal sense. In keeping with companywide policy, soda and beverages are all free. Skim milk and Mountain Dew, a curious one-two punch, are the most popular. So is coffee, dispensed from sleek Starbucks digital baristas.
The company store offers deep discounts on Microsoft merchandise, like brand-new video games at half price. The employee rec rooms look like they fell straight from man-cave heaven, with air hockey tables, high-definition televisions and gaming chairs with built-in speakers. There’s a thriving employee-run foosball league on campus, complete with point systems and prizes.
And then there’s the cafeteria. For a restaurant that serves a bit more than 800 people a day, it may be the tastiest place where most of Fargo has never dined. The selection ranges from southern barbecue (there’s an on-site smoker) to brick-oven pizza to Asian stir-fry. Prices are driven down by Microsoft’s buying power (it’s nearly impossible to find an entrée that costs more than $8).
It’s the only Green Restaurant Association eatery in North Dakota, and the only Microsoft restaurant that serves all its food on china rather than disposable plates – a cost-saving measure that’s been a success to date.
Torgerson isn’t shy about calling the restaurant “the best café at Microsoft.” The numbers back him up: It’s the highest-rated cafeteria in the company, regularly garnering satisfaction scores around 96 percent.
Those metrics are part of the company’s broader efforts to manage morale. The idea is to attract and retain top talent, said Don Morton, the site team leader in Fargo. Keeping a pulse on employee happiness, from checking up on food service to monitoring satisfaction with managers, is one way to do so.
Not every endeavor to brighten the working environment goes smoothly, though.
In the company’s first year at the site, $30,000 in landscaping materials fell victim to rabbits. The annual flag football game, in the spirit of a competitive company, sometimes produces blown-out knees and busted collarbones. The company has learned to keep an ambulance on hand.
And sometimes even the best laid architectural plans misfire. The company had to ditch most of the original furniture for its second building, Vista (the name is unrelated to the operating system), after a combination of improperly tinted windows and ill-advised Plexiglas cubicle trappings turned the main workspace into a glare-riddled oven.
But on balance, the results have been encouraging: Each building campus ranks high in company satisfaction scores, and Horizon, the original of the three, is still among the top 10 buildings across Microsoft worldwide. Vision, the newest addition, is the highest rated building in the entire company.
Map: Microsoft campus in Fargo
Of course, if it hadn’t panned out, Burgum had an escape route built in – a not-so-secret passage out the back of his office bathroom.
The suite has fallen partly into disuse in his absence – part conference space, part storage – but it still offers a spectacular view befitting its namesake: the Lone Tree Room.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502