7 ways Microsoft builds esprit de corps at a distant campus

Fargo is 1,400 miles from Microsoft’s Seattle-area headquarters. But the campus manages to build a strong sense of local culture—and connection to the company itself.

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Microsoft regional communicator Katie Hasbargen was visiting the company’s corporate headquarters in Redmond, Wash., when the chief financial officer strode by.

Hasbargen—who is based at Microsoft’s Fargo, N.D., campus—said, “Oh, that’s [CFO] Peter Klein.”

Her companion said, “It is?”

It was an eye-opening moment, Hasbargen says in a Ragan video titled, “It starts on day one: Creating and maintaining a happy, engaged work force.” Despite being based 1,400 miles away, Hasbargen was more familiar with company bigwigs than someone who worked among them.

“On the corporate campus, where you have 40,000 people, they don’t get in the same room with these executives,” Hasbargen says.

Employees at distant offices needn’t be isolated, Hasbargen says in a session that was part of a Ragan conference on “The Role of Communications in Creating Best Places to Work.” But it’s up the branch offices—and their communicators—to create connections that go beyond organizational standards.

Back in Redmond, employees have all kinds of amenities, such as an on-campus mall featuring a ski shop and an optometrist’s office. But the company finds ways to engage and reward employees on smaller campuses, starting with Fargo’s gourmet dining center.

Here are some ways Microsoft boosts the esprit de corps in Fargo:

Rope visiting executives into town hall meetings

More than half (50,000) of Microsoft’s 94,000 employees work off the main campus, and 870 of them are in Fargo, Hasbargen says. Fargo asks every visiting executive to participate in a town hall. Employees can pose questions, and the bigwigs get feedback from the field.

Fargo also hosts an annual all-employee meeting off-campus, and executives fly in to talk. Once a top poobah agrees to come, others from Redmond hurry to come along, among them managers who oversee teams in Fargo. Employees do presentations, and the Redmond crowd gets to know the bosses better than many back at headquarters do.

Make virtual meetings a communal event

When a company meeting is held, Fargo opens a conference room where staffers can plug in a laptop and work while keeping an eye on the event. The company provides food and beverages, creating a communal atmosphere.

“It’s one place to all come together and watch the meetings that we aren’t able to be actually present at,” Hasbargen says.

This in turn has increased attendance and improved knowledge of the company.

Let them eat cake

From picnics to volleyball, the Fargo office tries to make things fun on occasion. Borrowing an idea from Copenhagen, Fargo decided to host a monthly “Cake Thursday,” setting out goodies for staffers.

Communicators send out an email that reads, “Cake Thursday has begun.” Sugar-deprived staffers stampede to the cafeteria—and a feast begins.

Involve all staffers in trying out the products

One of Microsoft’s values is self-criticism, Hasbargen says. This means the company requires everyone—even the folks out in Fargo—to beta-test its software before they are released to the public.

“We are the most critical group you will ever see when it comes to evaluating a software product,” she said. “These people just rip it to shreds.”

Welcome new staffers

At Fargo, the orientation goes beyond the global standard. Communicators announce the new kids’ arrival, with their faces appearing on welcome screens. The company even arranges to announce the hiring in the local newspaper, if the employee wishes. Oh, and each newcomer gets a campus sweatshirt.

Create site-specific newsletters

Fargo creates communications that go beyond corporate emails. A newsletter spotlights a staffer in every issue. It also discusses business events, volunteer opportunities, employee and family celebrations, and diversity group chapters.

Reward volunteerism

When a staffer volunteers at a charity, Microsoft pays the nonprofit $16 for every hour the employee works, up to $12,000 per year. Fargo’s employees donated a total of $1.65 million in cash and software—”which goes a long way toward making people feel pretty good about where they’re working,” Hasbargen says.

When severe flooding on the Red River closed campus for two weeks, communications created a SharePoint site where people could tell about where they were, and what they were doing to sandbag their homes or volunteer elsewhere.

All this helps build esprit de corps in ways that never would happened with mere directives from the home office.


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