Creating and fostering a collaborative workplace culture

[Writer’s Note: This is the second piece in a series of articles about my experience as a content publishing intern at Microsoft, but also how this experience is influenced by my identity as a person of color. I hope that this will serve as an outlet for reflection and a reminder to bring all of myself to the table, while also providing a few helpful tidbits for anyone else doing an internship.]

I’m a firm believer that the interview process is indicative of the company, job, or workplace culture at large. I remember when I interviewed at Microsoft like it was yesterday — it was the only day all quarter that I missed my English class (even though we were allowed to skip up to 3), but I knew it’d be worth it. I donned a silver choker and a bold contour and highlight combo on my cheekbones so I could feel a little bit more confident, walked a mile to the recruiting building in the rain, and arrived 2.5 hours early for my first interview, hoping that all of this would boil down to a good first impression.

Fast forward to the interview itself — I first met with Doug Kim, a senior content manager at Microsoft (and my current manager!), and I led with the story of how I switched from being a Public Health and Biochemistry to my trajectory in Human Centered Design and Engineering. I used to think that this shift in long-term goals was indicative of a lack of focus but during this conversation, I shared every moment of imposter syndrome and how I made the choice to believe I could become an engineer every day. I remember when Doug commented on my self-awareness– in this moment, I realized that having my authentic struggles be validated was one reason I felt ready to take on an internship at Microsoft when I later received the offer– if people in this field could believe in my skills and abilities, not to mention my story, I could believe in myself.

Now, I see that the people I work with, and the values of the organization, are just as significant as the job title itself. Interviews like this as a reminder that workplace culture can create a sense of belonging, one where others can ask you, “how are you today?” and anticipate an honest answer. As a content publishing intern, and for the first time in my life, I finally have a designated corner of the room where I can put my things to rest.

During my time as an intern, I’ve realized that details as ostensibly minute as the room that we’re in can support collaborations across the company. My desk is in a giant chorale where everyone can bounce ideas off each other, which I vastly prefer to the separated cubicles that I associated with working in the tech industry. Now, we all get to contribute to each other’s conversations. For example, my mentor looped me into a brainstorming session, and several of us were able to contribute to the conversation and come up with different sets of text that would be appropriate for different scenarios. We all bounced ideas off each other and suggesting modifications that would create informative but fun phrases and thanks to the whiteboard walls in the commons area, ideating and recording our ideas was a breeze.

Even more than the physical space, I’ve realized that having a team that supports me in developing my skills in technical writing, engaging in research, and sharing my honest story means more than anything. First and foremost, I’m incredibly lucky that my supervisor and mentor support me in taking risks every day, which comes in the form of tagging along for customer home visits, sitting in on meetings on new features, and letting me trek to Bellevue so I can meet mentors and role models. They have also given me autonomy in my own work and trust me to complete my intern projects in addition to self-reflection about how my identity colors my perspective, which is why I get to write articles like this — and I honestly believe that my writing is the most authentic thing I can give to others.

Here are few things that I’ve learned about Microsoft company culture during my time here — and more broadly, the value of making connections with the people you work with:

Everyone deserves to be respected and appreciated for the hard work that they do — especially at a company like Microsoft. We all have stakes in conversations about how we can make our product more engaging for customers and meet their needs, and that includes everyone from the Shell Team who builds out the OS to the content team that writes the text accompanying the experience of using a product. As a company, we all try to embody this respect when working together and view everyone’s disciplines or prior experience as strengths.

Ask and you shall receive: in other words, reach out to your idols and request a 1:1 coffee chat or opportunity to learn more about their work. People like to know that someone is engaged with their work or identify with parts of it. Bring all of yourself to the table and ask important, engaging questions about what brought them to the company and their field of work, or how they define success. In the process, don’t be afraid to share a little bit of your own journey and the ways you want to grow through your internship or work toward a long-term career — they might be able to provide some sense of direction!

Making connections with your colleagues can go a long way: Go crabbing, visit the Farmer’s Market to try lavender or melted chocolate ice cream, eat leftover bagels and blueberry donuts in a nearby building, and talk with your co-workers about bus run-ins with old friends and amazing college teachers. Ultimately, these connections matter, not just from a professional development perspective that requires you to shake a certain number of people’s hands every day. At the end of the day, people have meaningful stories to tell about their motivations and what brought them to their current work, so take the time to listen.

In addition to experiencing this company culture, we all have stakes in creating a welcoming environment. I chatted with Nafisa Bhojawala, a studio chief and research manager at Microsoft Cloud Design, who has been at Microsoft for the last 16 years. During our conversation, I asked about how she created a supportive company culture for her team. Here are a few points that stood out to me:

Create a culture where people can move up and take chances: To help people feel like they can take risks and participate in tough leadership positions, there needs to be a path that people can take. If this path isn’t clear, whether it’s because people don’t know where to go to ask or because no one in these roles looks like them, you will lose people.

Encourage collaboration: Make it easy for people to see what other people are working on, which can be as simple as creating a shared folder when people can see each other’s work or quickly access one another’s resources. This encouraged collaboration across teams and departments, which can plant the seeds for really interesting partnerships!

Recognize that the measures for success are often multi-faceted: For example, at Microsoft, there was a shift from focusing on quality of products alone to creating an environment for everyone to thrive through resources and mentorship. When working on a team, you have to understand what motivates each member in tandem with larger goals of business success. With Satya Nadella on board as CEO, customer success at Microsoft is defined by our desire to give people products that they need, which aligns with principles of UX where the user is the center of the system. In this way, the company values and the tools we use to fulfill them, like UX research and design, align.

Ultimately, a successful workplace must empower people to create communities and find connections. This can be instrumental in talented people staying here or choosing to pursue opportunities elsewhere. I’m grateful to work at a company that focuses on empowering its employees to explore their own areas of interest while fostering meaningful relationships. I’m glad that I get to work somewhere that I’m proud to represent and talk to others about, which is all I could ever ask for.

What do you need to feel supported on a team, and how do you communicate these needs to your collaborators or supervisors? And if you’re in a leadership role, what kind of conversations are you trying to create? These are questions that I’m still trying to process, but I think we all play a role in creating a welcoming culture. Actions ranging from giving me a vase of flowers with a welcome note to sending me an email inquiring about my playlists have helped this company, and my organization, feel a little bit more like home. So, in what ways do you create a sense of belonging for others?

Writer at Microsoft | Human Centered Design and Engineering Alumna | Lifting as I climb | www.aleenahansari.com