Let’s admit it – space efficacy was never a legal firm office’s strength. Ask any law firm partner and you will know 800 to 1000 square per attorney isn’t entirely uncommon. To put the numbers in context – corporates provide less than half of that to most of their employees. However, thanks to recent research, we know it’s all rapidly changing. Many law firms are now busy adapting hybrid workplaces for better efficiency than before.
Research by McKinsey says the time people spend in law firm offices will decrease by 12%. It could lead to a 15 to 25% decline in space required. That said, the large sprawling offices were underutilized even before the pandemic. We know how busy most attorneys are; they hardly visit their office every day.
Even as they remained empty for 40% of the day, let’s try and understand why it made perfect sense to invest in these large spaces.
Office size attributed status to its occupant – more in the law/legal industry than others. Apart from the status declaration, the office space is a reward and marker of success. In turn, it also served as a means to attract bright talent. The office space was, hence, a crucial component of the brand identity of a law firm.
Bonus Read: Optimizing the Real-estate
The humungous square feet also served a couple of functional purposes. First is the need for space for quiet contemplation, and second is confidentiality – both stemming from the nature of the law firm business. The space requirement based on practice got standardized in an unwritten code.
Knoll Inc., in a 2009 research, found that in-office space allocation and distribution differed by practice:
The pandemic changed all of it. It’s now clear that most attorneys do not require that kind of space. Working from home, they did just fine. Moreover, switching to a hybrid workplace model has left large office spaces to remain emptier than ever.
Apart from confidentiality, quiet space for thinking and several amenities, a law firm office needs to facilitate casual interaction, networking, and upselling between the firm and its clients. At the same time, it needs to enable knowledge-sharing and build trust among its employees. It should also improve mentorship opportunities for the fresh crop. Thence, a modern law firm office needs to deliver on the needs of a multigenerational workforce.
While redesigning a physical space to meet the above requirements would have been relatively easy, the hybrid workforce adds a dimension of complexity. The good news is that remote work isn’t entirely new to the legal profession. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, telecommute in the legal profession was on the rise since 2012.
Also Read: How to Design a Hybrid Workplace
A recent survey by CBRE reflects the change in the mindset. About 72% of respondents say that all attorneys and staff will have a degree of remote working flexibility. So, we find it very likely that law firms will invest in technology beyond video conferencing to make a hybrid workplace a more sustainable option.
Building flexibility into office design and workflow is a must. It helps account for the fact that an office means different things to different people. For example, partners in the law firm may need the office for occasional meetings with high-value clients, whereas associates require it for learning on the job. Consequently, their abilities and response to remote work also vary. Experienced partners can handle a higher degree of remote work as compared to a fresh associate. By providing flexibility, the law firms can allow each legal worker to calibrate her office utility based on the individual need.
Such flexibility at scale is possible only using technology and a host of hybrid workplace tools. Say, if an attorney chooses not to visit the office for a day, her space needs to be opened for others to use. We have seen several law firms have already introduced policies to use underutilized offices. Freshfields has introduced an office release system to that effect. “If you’re not there, you give your office up,” said London managing partner Claire Wills of the office-wide rule.
Using a desk booking application, the employees can book one in advance when visiting the office. However, the implementation of such systems needs supporting policies and protocols. For instance, allowing people to leave papers or memorabilia on the desk could make housekeeping impossible. Hence, a clean desk policy becomes a must as several people use it in a day or a week.
We all know, even with fewer people on the floor, the risk of infection doesn’t go away completely. Thus, putting physical infrastructure in place is necessary. Investing in touch-free equipment - say for punching-in or coffee machines - is a good starting point.
Also Read: WHO Office Sanitization Guidelines
Also, air conditioning systems that allow a greater volume of fresh air and easy access to the outdoors can help a great deal. Additionally, simple interventions such as plexiglasses, indoor plants, and other biophilic elements may help employee wellbeing.
COVID 19 forced a slew of changes, and quite a few of them are likely to stay. It has led us to a world where workspaces need to tread a path that doesn’t inconvenience workers on either side of the change. Therefore, we need to relegate rigid workspace rules, theories, and assumptions to history. Workspace policies, like for all other streams of work, need to incorporate flexibility into them.
For instance, now that remote working is a proven possibility, many attorneys and other legal workers are open to it. However, a significant number of people might not entirely be in favor of it for very valid reasons. A hybrid workplace allows for such different approaches to coexist.
Switching to hybrid workplaces involves uncertainty and experimentation. So, the partners need to embrace this uncertainty to find a sustainable solution. An ideal solution would enable seamless collaboration, promote employee wellbeing, and be cost-effective. Above everything else, it would help propagate the culture and brand of the firm without obstructing it in any way.
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