As remote and flexible working become more common, Microsoft has developed a set of new products to cater to this trend. Ryan Asdourian, Windows and Surface BG lead at Microsoft, tells Stephen Hall how his company aims to facilitate the life of today’s chief executive and help free workers from a desk-bound life.
In the 18th century, the poet and essayist Charles Lamb wrote, while working as an office clerk, “30 years have I served the philistines, and my neck is not subdued to the yoke. You don’t know how wearisome it is to breathe the air of four pent walls, without relief, day after day.”
Many of today’s workers could empathise with this statement. When computers first entered our lives, IBM economist Joseph Froomkin predicted an upcoming future of Hellenic leisure and 20-hour work weeks thanks to technology. Decades later, high-rise office blocks dominate the skylines of every major city. Within identikit cubicles, thousands of staff type furiously at keyboards. As populations rapidly increase, the commute to work is becoming increasingly chaotic; people jostle for position on packed subway trains to spend time within four walls for approximately 60% of their week. Meanwhile, many CEOs battle with the problem of how to keep their employees satisfied and how to retain key personnel.
The contemporary phenomenon of workplace life is slowly evolving, however, as computer work no longer needs to be conducted within a rigid, unchanging space.
The arrival of the internet enabled the world to access the power of a vast reservoir of information at their fingertips. Wi-Fi empowered us to be more mobile and free from cables, but huddling at a cafe or standing in the rain at the nearest public hotspot while worrying about security has limitations.
As industry 4.0 picks up pace, making connectivity ubiquitous, creativity will become a more important asset than ever. But imagination-boosting behaviours such as getting outside, freedom from distractions and time spent in solitude can be hard to come by in a conventional office environment.
Ryan Asdourian is Microsoft’s Windows and Surface BG lead and is thus charged with spreading the word regarding a range of the company’s products that aim to bring about change within the workforce.
“It’s really about asking: what is the culture of the workforce that you’re trying to develop; are you trying to build what’s next?” he says.
“The CEO has to be aware of what’s going on today, as well as what trends are going to happen; I think it’s really about how you enable the cultural transformation, then looking at the hardware. You must think about how the equipment empowers it.”
Advancements such as long-term evolution (LTE) could provide a solution to empower continent-hopping chief executives and their workforce. LTE enables high-speed access to the internet anywhere, without wireless login, with coverage across vast swathes of the globe.
The Microsoft Surface Pro is an LTEenabled device, and the makers claim it allows CEOs and workers to do their most creative work. Taking advantage of the latest biometric technology, it allows the user to login via facial recognition. It’s lightweight and features a long battery life, making it convenient for CEOs on the move.
“When we think about C-suite executives on the road, travelling a lot, always needing to be connected, the Surface Pro is the ultimate work companion,” he says. “It’s able to be used in a multitude of ways. If I think about the way you use Surface Pro in general, Surface Pro LTE adds an extra flavour to that – whether it’s with the pen, with the dial or with the different modes you can use. It’s about making people more productive and unlocking their creativity in everything they do.”
When one thinks of the most prominent CEOs currently influencing the business world, the imaginative exploits of people such as Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson may come to mind. In order to foster a similar sense of ingenuity, it’s essential to work in the right environment.
Celebrated children’s author Roald Dahl sequestered himself in his shed at the bottom of his garden, armed only with a pen and mountains of paper. And director Quentin Tarantino claims to write all of his scripts in longhand. In a recent study, University of Washington psychologist Virginia Berninger found that students generate more ideas and retain more information when writing by hand.
Mightier than the sword
The Surface range aims to enable workers to combine the connectivity and processing efficiency of a computer with the cognitive-boosting advantages of pen on paper, alongside the portability of a tablet.
The pen is one of the popular features of the LTE device. It has 4,096 pressure points and features tilt functionality, which gives it the look of ink coming out on to a piece of paper.
“I think it’s really powerful for a modern CEO to be able to set the tone of cultural transformation and use the device as one of the levers that enables people to perform at their best,” Asdourian says.
“The ultimate goal of the technology is for it to become evermore invisible. It’s the way that you don’t have to think about a password – you look at the screen and you login. It’s the way that you pick up the pen and you don’t have to think about going into a different mode – you start writing. It’s about that aimlessness and that quickness of the technology blending behind the scenes that enables the cultural transformation of the company.”
To enhance this sense of seamlessness, Microsoft has integrated more advanced versions of familiar apps into the LTE. AI-powered assistants have become a familiar feature of many living rooms.
In the world of the busy CEO – who is exposed to a deluge of emails – Cortana gives users voice reminders to follow up on correspondences. And while PowerPoint presentations often get a bad rap, the latest AI-driven version suggests good layouts based on content, freeing executives to work on the substance of a presentation.
“All of it is wrapped up in the magic of hardware and software,” Asdourian says. “Software changes the video experience when you’re having a team conversation, or the way in which people collaborate using a pen and a whiteboard versus sending emails back and forth. We’re looking to have the innovation to be user-led and category creation-led.”
The catalyst for the conception of the Surface range was driven by Microsoft’s observation of the changing nature of work. Over half of companies worldwide offer employees some flexible, remote working, and the number of employees demanding this option from their employers has increased.
The pervasiveness of these preferences, coupled with the rising popularity of portable, LTE-enabled computers, means that one day in the not-too-distant future, the ultra-mobile CEO liaising with colleagues at the top of a volcano, or sitting by a beach while writing a report, could become a common phenomenon.
Ryan Asdourian on creativity in the workplace
Workplace cultures that stifle innovation are putting businesses at risk; Ryan Asdourian explains the importance of creative thinking and problem solving in the contemporary economy and what can be done to boost these capabilities.
“Doing business has always been tough,” he says. “You have to deal with everything from currency fluctuations to disrupters entering your market and changing how your whole industry operates at a moment’s notice.
“Talented staff, their creativity and their ability to think innovatively are vital for businesses to meet challenges head-on and drive growth. Workforce creativity, and an organisation’s ability to tap into it, can therefore be the difference between success and failure. The World Economic Forum even cites creativity as one of the top three skills workers will need by 2020 – as well as complex problem-solving and critical thinking – if they are to thrive in the digital workplace of tomorrow.
“The future of work has been a hot topic for every organisation I’ve worked with. Business leaders today are regularly challenged on whether they’re doing enough to empower their employees’ creative thinking and capacity to innovate.
“However, reimagining the workplace and fostering creativity is no easy feat, and some recent Microsoft research suggests that UK businesses haven’t quite got this right – yet. Worryingly, 40% of staff say creativity and innovation are not rewarded within their workplace. Also, 75% say they have not been offered relevant training within the past two years, despite 49% believing this would help them be more effective.
“The study, which examined the views of more than 1,100 UK workers, also found that our workplaces and working practices are not set up to spark creativity. Half of all workers report feeling least creative when tired, while 45% say feeling stressed is the biggest creativity-killer. Uninspiring workplaces (41%), a stressful atmosphere (34%) and a lack of appropriate space to focus and think (28%) are all reported as being significant obstacles for people trying to unleash their creativity.
“So what can business leaders do to encourage creativity?
“Firstly, set your people free. Being trapped within the four walls of an office and ‘chained to a desk’ between 9am and 5pm should be a thing of the past. Research shows that workers are most able to exercise creativity and problem-solving when they’re alone (42%), taking a walk (26%) or outdoors (21%).
“Organisations can and should do more to consider what their optimal working conditions would be. Genuinely supporting a positive worklife balance and eradicating harmful ‘always-on’ cultures, which lead to tiredness and stress, can give staff the headspace they need for creativity – as well as the ability to work when and where they need in order to get their best work done. Employees given the freedom to be creative are found to have a much greater positive impact on their business across many different areas – whether that’s product quality, culture or business strategy.
“Technology has a powerful role to play in enabling this creativity and innovation. When staff are provided with devices that allow them to be flexible and mobile, they become free to work from locations that spark their creativity and give them the headspace they need to think differently – while still collaborating effectively with colleagues.
“With the right encouragement from business leaders, the right technology and the right working environment, UK businesses and our economy would reap the benefits of a more creative workforce.”