In July 2019 – in our Modern workplace supplement – Briefing took a look at the state of the legal workplace and what the future might hold. We found firms were expecting a world of open plan offices, collaboration spaces and a smattering of flexible working options, facilitated by hotdesking and new-fangled video chat and messaging tools.
Little more than six months later, the world was turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic, forcing firms to ‘send their staff home’ – but ‘home’, of course, no longer means ‘not at work’.
After 18 months of on-and-off exile from the office, the landscape has changed – lawyers are now treating “wfh” as a hard-won right. So, where does that leave the physical office? And were firms already engaged in major premises projects prepared for such a sudden shift?
“If we had known there was a pandemic coming, I don’t think we’d have done much differently,” says Linda Woolley, managing partner at Kingsley Napley. An increased airflow rate throughout the building, more touchless bathroom fixtures and investment in additional audio-visual (AV) technology in meeting rooms are among the few changes to the office plan directly impacted by the pandemic.
She explains that the firm’s new offices on Bonhill street, which opened this summer but were leased in 2018, had already been designed around open-plan, activity-based working principles, which include collaboration areas, sound-proofed furniture, private working rooms, phone booth pods and various sizes of meeting rooms. “Calls, focus tasks, informal meetings, they all used to happen at a single desk. It’s much better for everybody to use different rooms based on their activity type, as well as their personal preferences,” she adds.
With ‘home’ added to that list of spaces, largely for focus-heavy tasks, being ‘at work’ doesn’t have to mean being in the office, or even at a specific desk. And lawyers definitely want to see their list of workspace options permanently expanded, with 63% expressing a preference for flexible working of some kind – compared to 22% pre-pandemic – according to Thomson Reuters’ Stellar Performance Report 2021.
So, does the traditional office desk still have a place? Hotdesking has been on the agenda for years, and with so many people likely to work from home, it seems a tempting option to save on space. Barbara Mendler, managing director of strategic projects and operations at CMS, says her firm will be embracing a range of working spaces such as booths, standing desks and casual workspaces in addition to the traditional, fixed desk – but not complete hotdesking. Instead, workplace ‘neighbourhoods’, based around teams, are being piloted in some areas and are already in place for business services staff.
“Calls, focus tasks, informal meetings, they all used to happen at a single desk. It’s much better for everybody to use different rooms based on their activity type, as well as their personal preferences.”
Linda Woolley, managing partner, Kingsley Napley
Nikki Caplin, head of change and transformation at the firm, explains how it works in her team: “I have a bank of six desks in the business support area for eight people, and we manage those desks how we want. I can give three people in my team a fixed desk, for instance, and the other three desks are flexible for the other five people. But there will always be a place for someone to work when they’re in the office.”
More-people-than-desks isn’t a new policy – Briefing has tracked it in Legal IT landscapes for many years – but there’s never been a large-scale remote-working trial like the last 18 months. Precisely how firms will adapt to fewer people in the office is key. At RPC, COO Alistair Johnson says ensuring teams stick together for collaboration and cohesion will guide developments: “We’re zoning parts of the office, so people know where they’re going and can sit with their colleagues. That’s not radically changing how those things worked before, but it is guided by clear principles around letting people make decisions for themselves about when they’re in the office – while still supporting each other.”
The spice of working life
Of course, much of how offices are used will depend on firms’ post-pandemic flexible working policies. Slater and Gordon, for instance, made headlines in May 2020 for announcing that it would not be seeking to replace its London office – the lease for which expired in September 2020 – with like-for-like floorspace, and would expect its people to work from home much more often, both during the interim and once a new office was found. The firm has developed a “Connected Working” hybrid model to facilitate this, according to a spokesperson for the firm.
“We’re asking everyone to look after each other and work in cohesion. Some will choose to be in the office most of the time, others not – as long as they can perform their role it’s absolutely fine.”
Alistair Johnson, COO, RPC
They added though that the firm will keep a foothold: “We’re committed to our London presence and, as we emerge from the pandemic, are searching for an office that will meet our evolving requirements”.
Other firms are fitting their policies around existing facilities. At CMS, rather than being prescriptive, broad guidelines will govern office days, determined on a team-by-team basis. Mendler says activities traditionally expected to require concentration at a desk will probably happen at home – though there is a recognition that it may not be that simple: “We will need a mix of spaces for people’s needs, so we’ll have some enclosed, private areas that people can drop into – something like a business class seat on a plane.”
These focus areas have benefited from advancements in office furniture soundproofing since Briefing last spoke to CMS about its office programme in 2019: “Furniture solutions have come a long way in terms of the ability to break off into two- and three-person rooms, or even your own room and telephone booths.” One challenge that remains, however, is getting visibility around who’s coming into the office at any given time, and the firm is looking at options around desk-booking solutions.
At RPC, flexible working is also completely non-prescriptive, with power over when to come in resting entirely in the hands of staff. Johnson predicts no serious calendar mishaps however, saying faith in people’s maturity and planning ability has worked well so far. “We’re asking everyone to look after each other and work in cohesion. Some will choose to be in the office most of the time, others not – as long as they can perform their role it’s absolutely fine.”
At TLT, the focus is also on enabling flexible work, including a recently announced, multi-million-pound investment aimed at improving environment, technology and leadership. Helen Hodgkinson, chief people officer at the firm, highlights the importance of thinking about how people will interact with the “TLT world”. That’s the physical and the virtual “estate” that comprises the firm, which includes fitting out people’s homes with TLT-issued screens, desks and hardware, but also the range of physical and virtual touchpoints they can choose between. “People have enjoyed the ability to manage their home and work lives – but ‘one-size-fits-all’ isn’t the way to go. It’s about making sure our people and our clients feel connected with TLT wherever they’re working,” she says.
“In our personal lives, we constantly consume knowledge and information digitally. Professionally, people want to do that in-person – to be able to push a chair back and talk to the person behind you, see what you’re working on together.”
Helen Hodgkinson, chief people officer, TLT
By contrast, Simpson Thacher and Bartlett’s policy focuses on having people in its London office on ‘core days’ between Tuesday and Thursday, says office manager Kirsty Pappin. The office is undergoing a complete refit and expansion to accommodate the firm’s growth in London, and everyone will have their own desk, with the goal of keeping practice areas sat together, which assists with learning and development: “As a junior lawyer, drafting a document, for example, is easier when sat with your supervising partner or senior associate. A lot is learnt via osmosis; just by being near others. Our lawyers are some of the highest-calibre legal talent in the city and we invest a lot in recruiting them – we want to make sure they have what they need to progress their careers,” says Pappin.
However, both see learning as a prime reason to keep people coming into the office. Hodgkinson observes: “In our personal lives, we constantly consume knowledge and information digitally. Professionally, people want to do that in-person – to be able to push a chair back and talk to the person behind you, see what you’re working on together.” As September rolls on, Hodgkinson will be keeping a close eye on who returns more frequently to the office, and suspects it may be lawyers at the start of their careers.
Meetings and greetings
Though seemingly a relatively minor tweak, the growth of AV tech across many firms signals a shift towards expecting that staff and clients will participate in meetings virtually. Johnson says RPC’s pre-existing plans to refurbish its London office have evolved to reflect this new priority: “Previously, we simply wanted to refresh the space. Now, the key driver is making the office a more collaborative and client-focused experience. We’ve also enhanced the AV in our boardrooms and event spaces to allow seamless livestreaming – it’s very much ‘plug and play’, so it makes no difference whatsoever where people physically are now.”
The shift to a more digitally-enabled relationship with clients represents an evolution, Johnson says, though not a total abandonment of face-to-face meetings. “Say 20 or 30 years ago, a lot of business development work was done at lunch in the city. In the last 18 months, firms have had to engage with clients in other ways, including webinars and digital events. But we can’t underestimate the importance of face-to-face contact with clients. We’re considering the right mix of digital and in-person events to successfully maintain client relationships for the future.”
“There was nowhere purpose-built for us all to gather in the old office – now we have the perfect space. What we’ve all gone through in the last 18 months has encouraged us to share and bring your ‘whole self’ to work.”
Linda Woolley, managing partner, Kingsley Napley
At CMS, Mendler says overall office space is unlikely to shrink due to the need to host clients: “Many are having their own meeting spaces reduced, so they’re expecting their accountants and lawyers to be providing space. That’s the big unknown that will impact the amount of space we continue to use beyond simply seating our own people.”
Making sure staff feel connected to their community is also a priority across the firms we interviewed this month – though the approaches vary. The second half of the AV push at RPC revolves around maintaining a feeling of cohesion among staff: “We don’t want to alienate people working at home – it’s really important everyone can integrate and interact in meetings in a meaningful way.”
He adds that the firm is enhancing its café and kitchen spaces to make the office an inviting place. “They’re very much ‘destination spaces’ for people to grab a coffee and have an informal catch up with a colleague, or take a private phone call. We want to offer that level of flexibility,” he says.
RPC isn’t the only firm highlighting the need for informal social spaces – which often coincides with the need for caffeine. Woolley mentions Kingsley Napley’s new café, Lennie’s – named in honour of Lennie Williams, the firm’s first black employee, who retired in 2020 – which can hold 150 people at once. She sees the space as a chance for people to continue the open, collaborative communication the firm championed during the pandemic – facilitated then by regular emails from Woolley and Stephen Parkinson, the firm’s senior partner. “There was nowhere purpose-built for us all to gather in the old office – now we have the perfect space. What we’ve all gone through in the last 18 months has encouraged us to share and bring your ‘whole self’ to work. Spaces like Lennie’s will allow for a continuation of important social exchanges and personal connections.”
Café culture is nothing new, but bringing it inside the office space is one of the goals at TLT, Hodgkinson says. “We’re trying to create environments in the office where that social connection can happen – good stuff happens when you have coffee with people.” She adds that, in future, reasons to come to the office will be to get those things people have missed over the last 18 months: “connection, collaboration and communication.”
Pappin says spaces like Simpson Thacher and Bartlett’s newly fitted Café 20 can be used for multiple purposes, such as firm gatherings, informal meetings and, hopefully soon, hosting client events. She adds that it’s an increasingly important part of the overall package to encourage people to come into the office – particularly the new lawyers brought in as part of the firm’s recent London expansion. “Collegiality is a key priority for Simpson Thacher in London. It’s part of making sure our people are integrated and feel valued – people need to be in an environment that makes them feel energised, especially with everything that’s happened in the past 18 months.”
Out of space?
Keeping hold of a physical office space is still, it would seem, important to many firms, and the physical office needs to be there to provide a sense of belonging. “You can’t keep firm culture going if you never see each other,” Woolley says, adding that the “centre of gravity” of the firm will continue to be the office. Johnson agrees, adding that the digital world has only added to the number of environments in which people can co-exist: “The office is absolutely vital to for collaborating, learning, teaching and providing service. It’s a different physical space now than before or during the pandemic – but there’s a need for a virtual environment now, too.”
So, while the office has evolved from where it was in 2019, many trends have been accelerated, not turned on their heads. And one such trend is the move towards a greater variety of workplaces and work styles – some of which may, of course, be at home.