At Microsoft, retaining a happy, productive staff starts on day one

1,300 miles from corporate HQ, leaders at the technology giant’s Fargo campus use communication, celebrations, and volunteerism to foster a culture that engages and motivates employees.

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan’s new distance-learning portal, The site contains more than 200 hours of case studies, video presentations, and interactive courses. Click here for more on this Microsoft session.

From the moment new employees arrive for their first day at Microsoft’s 81-acre campus in Fargo, N.D., the efforts begin toward keeping them happy, motivated, and challenged.

That’s a top priority for the leadership team in Fargo, where almost 1,700 employees and vendors work, and at Microsoft facilities around the world, said Katie Hasbargen, senior communications manager at the North Dakota campus in this Ragan training session, “It starts on day one: Create and maintain a happy, engaged workforce at Microsoft.”

“At the end of the day, it is all about the people,” said Hasbargen, speaking at a Ragan conference on The Role of Communications in Creating Best Places to Work.

“As long as your people are happy, they are going to be more productive, they’ll be better at customer service, you’ll have a better name in the community, an easier time recruiting…the list goes on and on.”

The actions are noticed. The Great Place to Work Institute named Microsoft the No. 1 Global Workplace for 2011. The Fargo facility was recognized in 2011 and 2012 as the Best Large Company to Work For in the Red River Valley.

As an “intellectual property” company, Microsoft is built on the brainpower of its 94,000 employees. Retaining that talent is important.

“We focus on what’s between people’s ears,” Hasbargen said. “We really don’t want that walking out the door. We want to keep people happy.”

Hasbargen said Fargo employees enjoy terrific teammates, great benefits, a gourmet dining center, Cake Thursdays, holiday parties, a casual dress code, awards, clubs, family events and a culture of giving back to the community through volunteerism and financial support.

New employees spend one day in an orientation that is standard across the company. They are introduced to their Fargo teammates through the campus newsletter, digital welcome screens, and local newspaper announcements.

A breakfast for new employees is “one of the favorite things we do,” Hasbargen said. In fact, the new hires have two breakfasts in their first year, attended by 30-40 people, including their supervisors and local executives who share information about company initiatives.

The new employees leave the breakfast “officially all duded up” in a new campus sweatshirt given to all workers, Hasbargen said. “We want them to feel welcome. We want them to feel prepared and do well on campus.”

A five-person Site Team, which includes Hasbargen, the site leader, the community affairs manager, the executive briefing center manager and a team coordinator, is “artificially responsible for everybody on campus,” she said.

The Site Team oversees the Leadership Council, made up of representatives from the company’s business units. The Council meets every six weeks for 90 minutes and is briefed on upcoming initiatives, executive visits and team needs.

The Council also discusses “hot jobs and hot people”—identifying employment opportunities and up-and-comers at the Fargo facility. Job advancement might be harder to come by for the 876 full-time Microsoft employees working in Fargo when compared with opportunities at the corporate headquarters in Redmond, Wash., with its 40,000 jobs. That’s why keeping top performers top of mind is so important, Hasbargen said.

Maintaining high employee morale is “the biggest piece of what we do,” she said. The annual Microsoft Poll surveys all employees across the company. The Site Team and other managers go over the results “with a fine-tooth comb” to assess the mood of the workforce and identify areas of concern.

Good communication can boost morale, which is why Microsoft provides employees many ways to stay informed of developments at their Fargo campus and across the company. Employees read email, a local newsletter, a SharePoint site, and digital screens around campus to know what’s going on.

In the newsletter, employees will see the weekly Spotlight Relay, which features a colleague who shares information about his background, interests, family and fun experiences. That employee chooses the next featured worker, who will continue the weekly relay.

There is an all-campus meeting each spring, a half-day event held off site. It is “an exciting, festive day” that gets employees away from their desks and phones, Hasbargen said. A senior Microsoft executive presents a keynote speech and other top officials provide corporate perspectives. Local leaders present a Fargo viewpoint. The meeting helps spread knowledge across all teams, she said.

Four awards—for Citizenship, Impact, Leadership and Customer Service—are presented to employees by top executives at the end of the meeting. Nominations for the awards come from employees in an “incredibly competitive” process, Hasbargen said.

“It is a really a nice way to end this meeting.”

This is excerpted from the Ragan Training video titled “It starts on day one: Create and maintain a happy, engaged workforce from day one” from Microsoft’s Katie Hasbargen.

Attendance is up for the corporation’s virtual meetings that are now presented at viewing parties on campus. When top executives visit Fargo, they frequently answer questions in a town hall gathering with employees.

Many morale-building events take place on campus. The 4:01 parties encourage employees to gather and socialize on company time before the end of the work day. Spouses and children are welcome. Once a month, Cake Thursday features a tasty treat for employees: popcorn, cake, caramel apples, and the like.

“People swarm to the cafeteria,” Hasbargen said, joking that a Cake Thursday featuring raw veggies and dip didn’t go over real well.

A holiday celebration features food and beverages at an off-campus venue. The party’s talent show has music and skits (with scripts approved by Human Resources) and is a big draw, she said.

“Family is huge. Some employees say their family would never let them quit.” There are zoo days, hockey days, baseball days, summer picnics—you get the idea.

Microsoft embraces a culture of volunteerism and community giving. The company will match up to $12,000 per year per employee in charitable gifts and matches time volunteered at $16 an hour. In 2012, the Fargo campus donated $1.65 million in cash and software to regional nonprofit organizations.

“That goes a long way to making people feel pretty good about where they are working,” Hasbargen said.

The company co-sponsors several events in the Fargo area, including a three-day technology camp for girls from 8th to 11th grade that draws 100 volunteers. Employees staff a water station for the Fargo Marathon, and several Microsoft teams are deployed across the community on the United Way’s annual Day of Caring.

During the severe flooding across the region in 2009, the Fargo campus was closed for two weeks to allow employees to protect their homes or to volunteer. The company created a SharePoint site to help in the relief effort.

Strong communication. Great benefits. Employee recognition. Volunteer opportunities. An engaged workforce. Family celebrations. They are all part of Microsoft’s culture, Hasbargen said.

“Retention, retention, retention. We want people to like working at Microsoft. It only helps that their family likes that they work at Microsoft.”

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