Physical space in vogue as firms ponder future of offices

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Strategy & Leadership,Uncategorized] December 24, 2018

With open-plan offices coming under scrutiny within many law firms, the potential benefits of using new space for collaboration, culture and psychological wellbeing are considerable, writes Mark Andrews.

In the past 12 months, my firm has done some interesting things with physical space in Australia and in other parts of the world such as Jakarta, Yangon and Madrid.

My firm is, of course, not alone, with a number of firms having moved premises in the past few years and changing their physical environments. It seems that at least in Australia we are past the tipping point on how large law firm offices function and appear. There is change afoot in other parts of the world, too, although some markets remain fairly static, with correlations of office size and seniority being common. In this article, I explore physical space trends, collaboration, culture and something to which I think we need to pay more attention – psychological wellbeing.

Physical space and collaboration

Many claims are made about the impact that open-plan offices have on collaboration, but to me this is not the key thing to consider – it is what you do with all of the other spaces (the spaces in between if you like) that can really have an impact on collaboration. It is also about how far you push open plan versus hybrid space (i.e. the mix of open plan, offices, collaboration spaces etc) that has an impact on collaboration.

In my firm’s Sydney office, where a hybrid workspace has been adopted, the collaboration I see is not so much when people are at their desks, but in the chance meetings, the informal breakouts, the huddles in one of the many meeting rooms, the meetings on the interconnecting open stairway, or the flow of staff and clients through the café area. It has only been 12 months since the shift to the new space and I think there is a considerable way to go in terms of embracing all the features that the new space brings, but what is clear is that collaboration is now visible and this, I think, is infectious.

A more traditional approach to offices can be found in my firm’s Jakarta office, but what brings collaboration alive in that office is the extensive use of glass and the way space is created. In that office, collaboration comes from having greater awareness of what people are doing as they are more visible. With this awareness comes the ability to know when someone is focused on work and when they are more open to collaborate and discuss issues. Collaboration also happens in the shared offices.

In 2018, certainly in Australian law firm office design, the level of maturity and sophistication has increased so that more of the design conversations are about the spaces in between and not so much the percentage of open-plan offices. We really are getting to the point where space does encourage collaboration.

Interestingly, I see two other trends that have emerged clearly this year and they seem somewhat contradictory. We, as a profession in some parts of the world, have become far more comfortable with the idea of flexible work (although this still does not always translate into comfort with actually working flexibly), yet at the same time we are designing office space that is calling out to be occupied, used and enjoyed. For me, this contradiction is an exciting one as it shows a strong recognition of the power of good design – yes, you can work flexibly from home, but you actually want to be in the office enjoying the facilities.

Are we on a path to table tennis tables in breakout areas? No. But are we on a path where office space has aesthetic appeal and creates visible collaboration opportunities? Absolutely.

Culture – what grows here

Culture is sometimes described as the ‘way we do things around here’, but I like to think of it as ‘what grows here’. On this point, physical space is emerging as a stronger force than it has been in the past. If we are all given different physical spaces (in terms of the amount of space we have, the nature of the space, whether the space receives a reasonable share of natural light etc) then what grows is not consistent. Our experiences of the physical space do not match. If, on the other hand, most of the aspects of physical space can be experienced equally, then physical space is no longer an incubator of different culture; it is a common ground for growing consistent culture.

It is, of course, not just about our individual physical spaces but all of the shared space and what is tolerated in terms of acceptable use of this space. Is some of the space limited to client meetings, or is all of the space open to use as required? Is there any other space besides work areas and client meeting rooms? Are there places for informal meetings, places to sit and think, places to get energised or clear the mind to be able to better focus on a challenging issue?

The main question to ask in terms of culture is whether your physical space is a consistent representation of the culture you have grown (or are trying to grow). To illustrate this, if adaptability is a key part of your culture, how many walls/partitions/doors can you easily move or remove from the physical space? If you value trust and transparency, how much glass do you have? If innovation is a key part of your culture, what can be found in the physical space to signify this?

The trend of physical space as a cultural incubator is clearly emerging. Pleasingly, we seem to better realise that just by moving to a different space we won’t, as an example, instantly become the collaborators we never were, but we can start incubating that culture. Physical space is becoming more of a culture prerequisite, rather than a cultural fix.

Our psychological wellbeing

The legal profession is known to have a higher incidence of psychological issues, such as depression and anxiety, than many other professions and industries. To date, it has been slow to recognise the impact that physical space has on psychological wellbeing. This is changing, however, and whether by accident or through good planning, an emerging trend is the workplace that promotes psychological wellbeing.

In thinking about our physical workplaces, it is revealing to reflect on the mood they put us in. Are they comfortable, energising, calming, boring, dark, a little rundown, interesting, bright, or a range of other descriptors? Do we have a physical or biological reaction to our space? Are we proud of our space (i.e. do we want to show people outside our firm)? Feeling good about our physical space has significant psychological wellbeing benefits and should not be underestimated.

In a world of agility and working anywhere, having a physical work environment that makes use feel good is like an insurance policy for psychological wellbeing.

Leveraging the opportunities

If you have changed physical space in your firm in the past 12 months, then in 2019 your focus needs to shift to leveraging the space. Conduct a very rough survey of your current space and discover the areas that are not well used. Make it a priority to use the unused spaces. It does not matter what role you have in your firm, as this is not just an issue for leadership but one for all staff. So why not be the space explorer for your firm?

A trend I have seen in 2018 is a scenario whereby design is ahead of culture, but not so far ahead that the culture cannot grow to fit the space. This is my point about being a space explorer in your firm. Being the person who uses space differently is a very noticeable and physical thing to do and one that will have a transformative impact on culture.

 Are we there yet?

In some parts of the world summer is upon us and this can involve family road trips and the inevitable question of ‘Are we there yet’ – and it is not always reserved for the under-10 travellers. How law firms want their physical space designed is an evolving issue, but there is no question that the trends this year put physical space in a far more central position to facilitate collaboration, grow culture and improve psychological wellbeing. I am watching the global side of things with great interest and think we are in for some good developments in 2019 and beyond.

If new physical space is on the agenda for your firm in 2019, take the opportunity to really consider what the space can do for collaboration, culture and psychological wellbeing. Don’t be sold on a single rigid design philosophy; go for a well-thought-out design that provides opportunities to work in the ways you need to work, as well as the ways you want to work in the future.

Mark Andrews is Director – Global IT Service Delivery at Baker McKenzie. He has a varied background, including time in the public and private sectors, along with considerable professional services experience. He has held roles ranging from HR to management consulting and has previously been a guest lecturer as part of University of Technology, Sydney’s Executive MBA program.