Influencing Organizational Culture Through Office Design

Author:Natasha Chetty
Date:July 12, 2017

“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?

Dixon: 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.

Dixon: Glassed-in “quiet spaces” with doors are interspersed throughout the office. When we...

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