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.)