Influencing Organizational Culture through Office Design How changes to a workspace create changes to a workplace

“I must be on the wrong floor.” When I walked into the new Vancouver office of Miller Thomson LLP, I thought I’d pressed the wrong elevator button and ended up in a high tech firm. Two receptionists were perched on barstools at a circular, high-top station, rather than behind a long desk. I could see past them into an open-office area where lawyers and staff were working side by side. The whole floor was filled with sunlight. To my relief, I spied the wall of bound legal texts and realized that I had indeed arrived at my destination.

Office design speaks volumes about firm culture and brand.

The reception area of Miller Thomson’s Vancouver office.

Employees, clients, business colleagues and anyone else visiting an office will interpret the signals sent by its design as indicators of firm culture. The symbolism isn’t much different from a dress code or logo.

Some spaces seem rigid and uninviting. Some make people feel comfortable the moment they arrive. And others, still, challenge notions of identity and image traditionally associated with a profession.

According to branding experts and business professors Majken Schultz and Mary Jo Hatch, “the added value of symbolism rests on a brand’s ability to create or avail itself of a common understanding among stakeholders and the opportunity it gives individuals to participate in sustaining or changing that understanding….it translates to economic value when stakeholders support the company because of the meaning the brand conveys.”

I hadn’t visited the previous Miller Thomson office, so I asked its managing partner, Mike Walker and his fellow partner, Karen Dickson, what they intended to achieve with the new design and how it is actually being used now that they’ve moved in.

Were you worried that lawyers would insist on having a traditional office? How do you accommodate different work styles?

Dickson: We tried to create options. More than 30 lawyers opted for offices. Everyone else opted for the open-space concept. We have different seating areas where people can take their laptops or phones. There are banquettes for people who’d like to have coffee and sit across from each other, an atrium that provides natural light and a “forum” space that is popular for reading and traditional desks.

What about privacy? There is a lot of open space and the common gathering spot seems to be in the middle of the floor plan.

Dickson: Glassed-in “quiet spaces” with doors are interspersed throughout the office. When we need to call someone or have a confidential conversation, we usually use those.

How does so much open space foster employee engagement?

The “forum” at Miller Thomson’s Vancouver office

Dickson: We wanted to reduce silos between people and practice areas. We also wanted to improve internal communication generally by getting lawyers out of their offices. People see each other more often now; the increase in transparency is literal, figurative and tangible.

Does the design relate to a firm-wide strategy?

Dickson: This type of design makes sense on the west coast. It fits the clientele of our office here and the way we work. That said, a lot of visitors from our other offices see the value in it. It’s also nice to see associates have opportunities to learn from partners just through the casual conversations that seem to happen more often now.

Walker: A lot of our clients are information workers. We visited their offices and tried to learn what worked for them and what was happening in their sectors. Innovation in firm culture or strategy doesn’t come naturally to a lot of lawyers; we had to find a way to innovate rapidly, because – let’s be honest – the pace of change in the practice of law is demanding that we get with the program sooner rather than later. We wanted clients, lawyers and staff to receive a clear signal that our firm is open to change and open to trying something different.

As I left the office, I was reminded of organizational psychologist Ron Friedman’s recommendations to increase employee engagement: “provide opportunities for them to experience autonomy, competence and relatedness on a daily basis. Autonomy can be grown by providing options on where to do their work…[competence can be fostered by creating] a workplace that provides them with immediate feedback…and [relatedness can be supported by] creating communal workspaces that allow coworkers to bond.”

Open office design rarely pleases everyone. Background noise distracts. Clients worry about privacy. Extroverts feel judged and introverts feel irritated. I suspect that more law firms will take the opportunity to move in this direction, despite resistance. It is encouraging to see the change.

(Full disclosure for the record: I do not consult to Miller Thomson LLP or any of its entities.)

'>To Succeed Where Others Fail Planning a strong start to your firm's transformation

Almost 70 percent of organizational change initiatives fail. At that rate, you might wonder why professional firms – which are notoriously change resistant – would try at all. But they do. And some even succeed, thanks to a disciplined design process.

Change can evoke pain, loss and uncertainty. All too often, change initiatives are communicated in a way that causes people to feel defensive, rather than inspired.

Perhaps it’s a matter of taxonomy; “transformation” or “evolution” might be better descriptions of the adjustments that many firms need to undertake to improve performance and profit.

Regardless of how your initiatives are labelled, Linda Ackerman Anderson and Dean Anderson, authors of The Change Leaders Roadmap, say that true breakthroughs require attention to three critical and interdependent areas:

  1. Content: clarifying what must change in your firm in terms of strategy, business structures, etc.
  2. People: understanding the human dynamics of resistance to change, mindsets, politics, motivational factors, skills training, culture, etc.
  3. Process: how the change is governed, designed, paced and course-corrected.”

Most of us spend too much on focused on content and not enough on people or process, which sets good ideas up for failure (Anderson et. al., 2010).

It’s much less messy to plot out a flow chart of an improved staffing strategy or software implementation, than it is to engage people in conversations about adjusting attitudes and letting go of long-held beliefs.

All stakeholders should be involved in designing and implementing changes, albeit at different levels.

Don’t fool yourself into presenting your brilliant vision at a staff meeting and thinking that it will be meaningful to people hearing it for the first time. They won’t execute a plan just because it looks good on paper.

Principles for a successful transformation strategy:

  • Design a disciplined process that checks assumptions and engages potential resisters right from the start so they can avoid the victim’s narrative of being cut out of the discussions.
  • Bring in a cross section of associates, staff, administrative leaders, clients and others as you design your initiative. They might not have power within the traditional sense of firm politics, but they are on the front lines. They know things partners don’t know.
  • Map out the consequences on your operating structure, systems and relationships. Create scenario models and validate them with the people who would be involved, adjusting your process according to their feedback.
  • Create a compelling rationale that appeals to emotion and logic. If it doesn’t resonate with every individual from the mailroom to the managing partner, reframe it or reconsider it.
  • Acknowledge anxiety. Your soothsayer powers are limited when it comes to determining how clients, regulators, courts and financial markets will evolve in the next year. People will be nervous about what lies ahead and mournful of the past, but they will also provide insight if you give them a chance.
  • Walk the talk. Ask what you need to do in order to be seen as credible in your leadership of the initiative, even though the answer could be scary.
  • Implement a strong communications plan. Change initiatives require leaders to receive at least as much as they transmit, to publicize successes and failures and to help people learn to make the most of the transformation.
  • Re-examine incentives. Are you compensating people for taking smart risks acquiring skills and persevering, or are you compensating them for doing the same old thing?

Successful transformations ask people to think differently and behave differently. It isn’t enough to say that you’re open to change; you have to actually experiment with it and coach your team through the steps. There is no other way to prompt innovation. Done well, change initiatives can energize your firm and propel it forward. You might never look back, except to say “what took us so long?”.

Why Face Time Matters More than Ever

No, not the Face Time app on your iPhone, “face time” as in one-on-one meetings with direct reports and others in your organization.

As firms relentlessly pursue efficiency by automating processes, collecting loads of data and creating “lean” teams, more of us are deliberately disengaging from our work.

And we often blame management when things don’t improve. Bad management, to be exact. A 2014 Gallup poll shows that companies fail to hire proper management 82% of the time. Ouch.

What exactly makes a “good” manager? Harvard Business Review recently published a summary of research done in studies of knowledge-based businesses. The researchers found that effective managers:

  • Lead by example when it comes to working hours
  • Ensure even allocation of work among team members
  • Maintain large networks across the firm
  • Prioritize one-on-one meetings with direct reports
  • Are engaged with their own work

Of all these practices, more frequent one-on-one meetings with direct reports could be the easiest way to improve management. They are time consuming and relatively expensive, but they could also be the most rewarding.

Whether you’re a managing partner, practice group leader or administrator responsible for getting work done through others, you can find creative ways to prioritize conversations with direct reports. Schedule meetings with standing agendas. Connect the agendas to operational plans and firm values. Gather feedback and listen for what your reports are and aren’t saying.

This is what will help you make the most out of data and process improvements (including automation).  Facilitate conversations to uncover and connect  insights, and then leverage them into value that you can communicate to clients and propel your team forward. It cannot be done any other way in a professional firm.

Some corporate clients now refuse to pay outside counsel for time spent in conversation with firm colleagues regarding their legal matters. And some lawyers are using this as an excuse to bow out of important internal conversations.

On a simplistic level, this might be a mistake. It doesn’t just inhibit strong firm management; it inhibits strong matter management by limiting growth of the collective intellectual capital that comprises a firm’s competitive advantage (presumably why the firm is hired to begin with). It it doesn’t encourage delegation where appropriate, either, which often costs clients more in the end.

Prioritizing one-on-one or in person meetings is a good idea, regardless of whether your clients will compensate you directly for it or whether you’ll receive any external recognition for it.  It could also make your firm management happier too:  visible leaders are often perceived as more credible leaders. When your firm is ready to launch development initiatives, you’ll have an easier time convincing people to cooperate.

An abbreviated version of this post was published on the Canadian legal blog slaw.ca on December 28, 2016.

Keepin’ it Real: Implementing a Firm-Wide LPM Initiative, Part 2

Last week, Carl Herstein, Chief Value Partner at Honigman LLP discussed his experience in developing and implementing a firm-wide legal project management (LPM) program at his firm. The conversation continues with a candid discussion of the pricing of legal services, how it relates to project management and what clients really think of firm initiatives in this regard.

Q. How would you describe the relationship between pricing, collections, AFAs and LPM at your firm? Read more

Keepin’ it Real: Implementing a Firm-Wide LPM Program, Part 1

Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, a 300-lawyer business law firm in the U.S. mid-west launched a firm-wide legal project management (LPM) initiative in 2011. They deliberately chose not to publicize the program – until recently.

Carl W. Herstein is Honigman’s Detroit-based Chief Value Partner. In this two-part blog series, Carl discusses the decision to “keep it real”. His experience exemplifies the commitment, forethought and resources required as law firms consider similar programs. Read more

The Bellwether Interview: Three Questions for Derek Lacroix, QC

Derek Lacroix, QC has been at the helm of the Lawyers Assistance Program of British Columbia (LAPBC) since December, 1996. LAPBC provides confidential outreach, education, support and referrals to distressed members of the bar. Their clients and volunteers include judges, lawyers, articling students, paralegals, legal assistants, support staff and other members of the legal community.

  1. How have the stresses, issues or crises that LAPBC assists with changed in recent years?

Read more

Highlights from the 2016 LMA P3 Conference

The Legal Marketing Association recently hosted its annual conference on project management, process improvement and pricing (P3) in Chicago. Billed as a forum where innovative practice management approaches are shared, the event continues to showcase progressive ideas and practical experiences from firms transforming how they do business.

It’s wise to take any presentation of best practices with a proverbial grain of salt; no firm wants to reveal its daily struggles. But you also have to give credit to those who proactively invest in new ideas and risk failure. That’s something we don’t see enough of in law.

Here are some of the ideas heard at this year’s P3 conference.

The Chicken or the Egg?

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How to Master Complex, Unfamiliar Tasks

If you’re about to tackle a complex issue or task in an unfamiliar area, how should you prioritize your first steps? New research shows that you’ll be off to a better start if you focus on learning rather than results. This is especially true if the matter context is unpredictable or dynamic.Dr. Meredith Woodwark

I interviewed Dr. Meredith Woodwark – whose research uncovered these findings – to learn more. Woodwark teaches organizational behavior and leadership at the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her research focuses on motivation, learning goals and employee engagement.

Q. How is your research relevant to professionals?

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Women, Wisdom & Wall Street

What’s it like to be the only woman in the room during corporate board meetings? Or the first woman to chair a financial regulation authority in the midst of an economic crisis? Last week, I  attended a panel discussion where three groundbreaking leaders – all lawyers by training – talk about their experiences as women affecting change in a male dominated industry.

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Delegating to Part-Time Employees: Special Considerations

Professional firms increasingly rely on part-time and temporary personnel to complete administrative tasks. While this is a cost-effective way to manage business, it can inadvertently create complications in working relationships.

Unique challenges of delegating to part-time administrative staff

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