Workspace of the Month: BMO’s New Toronto HQ Is Inside a Converted Department Store

The office spans four floors of the Eaton Centre for the 3,000 employees working across personal and business banking
(Photograph: Jenna Marie Wakani)

In 2016, George Della Rocca, BMO’s global head of corporate real estate, proposed to the bank’s executive team an unexpected location for its next downtown Toronto office: Ontario’s largest shopping mall, the Eaton Centre. Four floors, spanning 32,516-square-metres, in the mall had been vacated by the department store Sears, which closed its doors in 2014. 

Della Rocca thought the space could be turned into the new headquarters for the 3,000 BMO employees working in personal and business banking. These departments were spread out between buildings all over Toronto’s core, and some leases were expiring. The spot appealed to Della Rocca since, unlike traditional office spaces, BMO would be able to “co-design” it with Cadillac Fairview, which operates the building. BMO could make significant changes, like adding an atrium, to suit its needs. Plus, with two subway stations in the mall, its location was close to public transit. 

Related: Can Your Boss Actually Demand You Return to the Office?

BMO partnered with Cadillac Fairview to reimagine the space into a place where employees could collaborate across teams. They hired Neil Schneider from Interior Architects—whose projects include McDonald’s corporate office in Chicago and Dyson’s Illinois HQ—to work with Rebecca Lovelace from BMO’s internal design team to bring the vision to life.

Construction began in 2019. Tera Oswald, the head of global portfolio strategy and workplace evolution at BMO, who helped manage the process, says that their designs changed very little, despite the upheaval of Covid. They added more touchless fixtures, like automated doors, but most of the desks were already optimized for hybrid working, with unassigned seating and a combination of bookable and first-come-first-serve spots.

The result is BMO Place, comprised of a series of “neighbourhoods” where different lines of business—technology, operations, finance and marketing teams—work together. There are “focus spaces” and dedicated quiet zones on each floor, along with informal, open-meeting spaces with flexible furniture and whiteboard walls. BMO employees are currently in-office three days a week but when there are more people in at a given time, the space can adapt. “We can easily change an L-shaped desk to a harvest-table style to create more work space,” says Oswald.

Related: How to Encourage Employees to Return to the Office

The company’s commitment to create a more inclusive working environment inspired the addition of spaces like a smudging room and a wellness centre for prayer, nursing or meditation.

Phase 1, consisting of two floors of the new office, officially opened on April 3. The remaining two floors plus an outdoor terrace will follow in 2024.

Here’s a look inside Phase 1 of the new BMO Place:

Inside BMO's new Toronto headquarters are two workers sitting at a white table near the window and talking
These exterior walls were previously windowless, but 12-foot glass was installed to let more natural light in. On the south side of the office, another 12-foot-window wall overlooks the Eaton Centre. Interior lighting operates on a “harvesting” system for sustainability. “At times of the day, the lighting will lower down when there’s more light coming in from outside to save on electricity,” says Della Rocca.(Photograph: Jenna Marie Wakani)
A seating area inside BMO's Toronto office in front of a kitchen
The welcome atrium, on the fourth floor, greets staff in English, Bangla, Anishinaabemowin, Arabic, French, Chinese, Hindi and Spanish, to illustrate the mosaic of languages spoken by BMO employees. Behind the slatted wall is a “Connection Café” where staff heat up packed lunches, as well as buy snacks from vending machines. There are four cafés currently open and two more will be added in 2024. “We placed these cafés specifically at the bottom of the escalators so that when people are travelling throughout the building, they’re running into each other,” says Della Rocca. (Photograph: Jenna Marie Wakani)
The atrium of BMO Toronto. People are seated on blue and grey chairs and working at white tables
These open seating spaces, near the elevators in the central atrium, are flexible for a variety of work styles. “We’ve seen people work here independently or have two-to-three-person meetings,” says Oswald. BMO’s primary logo colours were used for the upholstery fabric. (Photograph: Jenna Marie Wakani)
Escalators inside the atrium area of BMO's Toronto office with people sitting at chairs and tables
Here’s another view of the central atrium. There are five major works of art in the space, including this mural on the sides of the escalators called “Ring True” by Panya Clark Espinal, an artist based in Toronto and Temagami, Ont. “She employed the technique of anamorphosis,” says Oswald. “It’s a distorted drawing that appears normal when viewed from a particular point.” The rings are derived from a small graphic detail that appear on the Canadian $10 bill. (Photograph: Jenna Marie Wakani)
A foosball table inside BMO Toronto's office with workers playing
This recreation room, with tiered seating, and foosball and ping pong tables, was designed for employees to unwind together. “This is where you’re getting creativity and innovation out of employees by putting them in a different type of setting,” says Oswald. There are also tech-enabled screens on the central pillar to conduct meetings and a variety of working sessions, during which the foosball and ping pong tables can easily be moved out of the way. (Photograph: Jenna Marie Wakani)
A cafe and seated area in BMO Toronto's office with workers sitting down and eating and working
Eschewing the traditional drop ceiling was a deliberate design choice for BMO Place. “It was a sustainability decision not to put a whole bunch of material into the ceiling, but it also allows for better airflow,” says Della Rocca. Higher ceilings also improve the acoustics of the space, since there is less noise spread between different areas of the office. The ceilings were sprayed with K-13 insulation—an absorptive, fire-proof material for further sound reduction. (Photograph: Jenna Marie Wakani)
Andrea Yu
Andrea Yu
Andrea Yu is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. She writes about life, culture, real estate, business and health with a focus on human-interest stories.