On the day I met Brett Ostrum, in a conference room in Redmond, Wash., he was wearing a black leather jacket and a neat goatee, and his laptop was covered with stickers that made it appear you could glimpse its electronic innards. That was logical enough, because those circuits were his responsibility: He was the corporate vice president at Microsoft in charge of the company’s computing devices, most notably Xbox and the Surface line of laptops and tablets.
It was early 2018, and things were going pretty well for him. Despite Microsoft’s lineage as a software company, and as a brand not exactly synonymous with good design, it was making the most of its late start in the hardware business. Mr. Ostrum and his team were winning market share and high marks from critics.
But he saw a problem on the horizon. It came in the form of extensive surveys Microsoft used to monitor employees’ attitudes. Mr. Ostrum’s business unit scored average or above average on most measures — except one. Employees reported being much less satisfied with their work-life balance than their counterparts elsewhere at the company.