While one would be cautious in ascribing praise to such an insidious killer, Covid-19 has begun a chain of events which is changing habits and practices more profoundly and more rapidly than any other period in history.
It's undeniable that in many ways the law sector is slow moving: the arcane rituals of the courts, the reliance on historical evidence and past case law, not to mention the rigid and accepted hierarchy of silks, solicitors, paralegals and clerical grades. Consequently, current law firm design models itself on a format which has been in existence for almost 100 years, and while there has been some change and an embrace of new technology, reforms have been incremental rather than sweeping.
Then comes the pandemic…
With 15% of all legal practices already having to make redundancies and 66% of all mid to large practices furloughing staff, we are almost certainly not through the economic storm yet.
The abrupt shift in March ’20 accelerated change in many law firms for the better:
None of these are ground-breaking in themselves, or indeed new and untested. In fact, many companies had already trialed these activities, though the majority had reverted to the tried and tested ‘office-first’ model. So, what made March ’20 different, and perhaps more importantly, what will happen next?
Remote Working in the Legal Sector
The pandemic created a level of mass synchronisation, alignment of purpose and appetite for adaptation and change on a global scale. Almost overnight, many customs and behaviours have become almost redundant.
Perhaps the most profound shift has been the democratisation of remote meetings and collaboration. Whereas in the past it would have been regarded as inferior to an in-person meeting, Zoom/Teams/Meet interaction is now universally accepted (even preferred) for clients, staff and other stakeholders. And because the whole world embraced this simultaneously across all grades of seniority it has become the new paradigm.
And, when considered together with remote working, it comes with manifold benefits:
Covid has done in a seemingly impossible length of time, what generations of futurists and change managers have only dreamed of. So, where do we go from here?
No more offices for Law Firms?
Unlikely, to be frank. While some of the digital leviathans like Facebook and Twitter have shown their cards in this area, the virtual landscape does not yet fully address one of the basic needs illustrated in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – belonging.
This trait, along with esteem, is mainly eventuated in a face-to-face environment. Consequently, the office will continue to play a role in the legal sector, but in a different way – and this may be the next wave of change; the physical space requires altering to accommodate the shift in digital practice. An example is demand for increased variety of meeting spaces; two-person rooms and small acoustic spaces for virtual meetings.
Zoom is here to stay, and one key inadequacy in many legal offices is the shortage of tech in meeting rooms. Furthermore, the technology that is there often translates as a few large rooms with large screens at one end – far from ideal for single person meetings. This shortage may need to be one of the first to address.
Short stay occupancy will not require as much desk footprint (but an entirely ‘hot-desk’ approach could prove unpalatable).
The hybrid, multi-location mode of working is likely to make an assigned desk policy feel very outmoded. Early reports from returning office workers suggests that a depleted staff cohort surrounded by empty desks can understandably impact morale and engagement.
This is where ingrained habits of the legal profession may prove more of a barrier to change. Graduates and younger members have demonstrated an ease about open plan working and shared desks which the older staff cohort are less ready to embrace. The solution could be found in implementing a booking system; whereby the individual can be assured of a desk (or even a small room) prior to their arrival. In either event, the actual number of desks will likely decrease – and this will make space for the next requirement: More open social space in office design.
Historically regarded with distain as space which could be utilised to house more fee-earners, open space in the office now has to be legislated for. Social distancing has put an abrupt halt on Dickensian crowding. Furthermore, most fee-earners have an adequate provision away from the office so this is no longer a significant factor. Open space in the law firm of today serves a number of different purposes; somewhere to host events and talks , a place for staff to use during the day as an alternative to working at a desk, and the place where the team congregate to relax/celebrate/discuss – the crucible of the belonging and esteem needs identified earlier. These multi-use spaces are often the piece of your real estate playing the most critical part in attracting the right clients and talent (both of utmost importance currently).
In the words of one of our happy clients...
“We wanted to upgrade our workplaces and create an environment where we could build teams by having our employees in the office, while also empowering them to work in the ways that suit them.
Our social space means business – it’s a place where we’re proud to take clients and where they are met with the unexpected when they first open the door. It could be used for a networking event one evening, then for a team celebration the following day.
Above all, it’s a place where people want to be – where they can work in different ways, whether that’s on a sofa in a quiet area or as a group in booth seating. Our investment in Surface Pros means work can be done in a more agile way and people don’t have to just work at their desks.
We are delighted with the finished look. The new office reflects our personality, as well as our aspirations and professionalism.”
So What Now for Office Design in the Legal Sector?
We have witnessed the desire to reconnect, often at the expense of caution and personal safety.
The office is in the process of pivoting from being a maligned and necessary evil, to becoming an uplifting gathering point. This shift presents a key opportunity; align the physical and digital tools that your team rely on and you could give your practice a tactical advantage. Develop the brand and culture – articulate what makes you exceptional with your office décor, and start attracting the customers and staff that will make the future of your company.
There is so much unknown at present, and a growing cloud of negativity. You owe it to your team to create a positive, inclusive workplace, able to adapt to the challenges which the pandemic has brought on us - communicating a message of excellence and resilience to staff and customers alike.
For more information on how to fit out your office for future success, click here.