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Emptied by pandemic and overtaken by cranes, Microsoft HQ is a symbol of the changing world

REDMOND, Wash. — The heart of Microsoft’s headquarters campus was full of noise and activity on a recent weekday afternoon, as crews worked beneath a sky full of cranes to keep the tech giant’s on track.

But beyond the construction fences, it was the high-tech equivalent of a ghost town.

Streets and sidewalks, normally bustling with activity, were practically deserted.

On the other side of the highway, deep beneath the company’s West Campus, one of the largest underground parking garages in the Western Hemisphere was also one of the emptiest.

And on the surface above, the rushing stream of a water feature was the only sound to be heard on the vacant walkways of the Microsoft Commons complex.

Nine months after most of Microsoft’s employees started working from home, the eerie scene they left behind symbolizes the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on day-to-day life, and the very different world that awaits on the other side.

First announced in 2017, the redevelopment project, including the ground where Bill Gates and colleagues turned the company into an industry giant after moving to Redmond in the 1980s. The timeline calls for the new buildings to open in 2022 and 2023.

Microsoft says it remains committed to the redevelopment project. That belief in the continued value of in-person interactions is significant, coming from a company that has seen usage of its communication and collaboration products skyrocket due to the pandemic.

At the same time, even as the company prepares for employees to return, it’s adjusting all of its future workplace designs, including furniture configurations, occupancy plans and other aspects of the workplace to reflect social distancing requirements.

In the meantime, numbers from King County Metro show just how much life has changed on campus. Ridership on a sample of seven routes in the Microsoft campus area has dropped 71%-88% compared to last year, a spokesperson for the transit agency said. Systemwide, there has been a decline of 63% in Metro ridership compared to last year.

There were some signs of activity on the Redmond campus when we visited. The lights were on and a few people were visible on the top floor of the main Microsoft headquarters building, where the company’s top executives work. A few parking lots contained cars, and a few employees were walking around some parts of campus.

But the only sounds were the beeping of trucks and the rumble of construction equipment, signaling slow but steady progress toward a new era ahead.

Walking around the HQ campus this week was like being transported to an alien landscape: a construction zone surrounded by a ghost town. Pictures here:

— toddbishop (@toddbishop)

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