Another look at bar association moves and remodels

Vol. 38 No. 6

By

Howard Ecker founded Howard Ecker + Company in 1975 as the first company in Chicago devoted exclusively to representing tenants. Howard works with business leaders to align office location thinking with the long-term fiscal and cultural needs of their business, connecting the worth of the company to its brand, culture, and environment.

Robert J. Derocher, a frequent Bar Leader contributor, is a freelance journalist based near Albany, N.Y.

(Editor’s note: For more information about what’s involved in moving to a new bar headquarters or renovating and staying put, please see “Welcome home: Bar headquarters move, renovate, refocus to meet member needs,” May-June 2014. Below, Howard Ecker offers some additional advice, in the section called “When relocating, think about culture and space differently,” and Robert J. Derocher shares a checklist courtesy of  the American Society of Association Executives, in “From ASAE: A checklist for association moves and remodels.”)

When relocating, think about culture and space differently

Law offices have changed dramatically over the past few years, with the elimination of traditional law libraries and mountains of paper files, and so have the offices of bar associations. Not only do recent advances in technology and communication make old offices obsolete, but law firms, bar associations, and other organizations are now looking at their new space as it relates to their culture.

Firms and associations that are doing it right not only lock in efficient space at economic terms that work for their business, but they also create work environments that reflect their culture, ethos, and values. As a result, they can work more productively and retain talent successfully.

So, how can you maximize the benefits of relocation, minimize the costs, and start thinking about your culture differently? This is a topic that I know very well due to my 40-plus years in the commercial real estate business. Over the years, we have advised law firms, associations, and other forward-thinking companies and organizations on how to create office space that positions them properly for the future.

While there is no master blueprint that works for everyone, below are some of the most important questions to ask.

Does our space reflect our culture?

The definition of “space” is changing. It is no longer valued strictly on a square-foot basis, but rather as a reflection of a company's brand, value, and culture. Organizational value and staff motivation are absolutely reflected in, and either enhanced or diminished by, your space. Space isn't a building, a plot of land, or cubicles—it is a place where collaboration occurs and best practices are identified. This is important for all organizations—including law firms and bar associations—to embrace.

Do we really need to move?

I always push clients to make sure they give adequate thought as to whether they can stay in their existing space. A relocation often costs more (and is more disruptive) to an organization than a simple upgrade or modification of the existing space. It is important for clients to fully assess what renovations can be done to their current space to meet the future needs of the business. A word of caution: Living through a renovation can be difficult on your ongoing operations, so make sure you factor this into your decision making.  

Are we following old assumptions and paradigms?

Advances in technology have dramatically changed how we occupy space. Companies across the country are shedding unnecessary spaces like libraries and large file rooms. They are also ditching the private offices, as a new culture of egalitarianism and equality has taken root. We are seeing per-person square footage continue to shrink, either by downsizing private offices and cubicles or by embracing flexible work strategies.

One such strategy is called “hoteling,” in which a workplace where a lot of employees telecommute asks that they reserve a workspace at times when they’re in the office, rather than having one permanently assigned and then left vacant much of the time.

When implementing these changes, it is important to provide both communal space, like additional conference rooms, and quiet space for focused work. Take time on the design component of a project. When done correctly, it will provide flexibility for future organizational changes and allow you to use your space more efficiently. 

Are we hedging the potential risk?

Because of the volatility of our economy, any firm or association signing a new office lease should seek to hedge three potential types of risk: 1) building risk (changes to your building’s infrastructure or ownership that could impact your occupancy), 2) market risk (events in the global marketplace that trickle through to real estate and have an impact on rents that tenants pay), and 3) business risk (the inherent risks within your own business that impact profitability).

So, how do you mitigate these risks in your new office lease? Before you sign your lease, you must clearly understand your ability (or lack thereof) to expand or contract your space over the course of that lease. This is especially important if you are considering a long-term, 5- or even 10-year lease.

In negotiations, push to have as much lease flexibility as you can, with layers of options to expand, contract, and terminate. In many instances, landlords are initially resistant to providing these rights, but you should push for these options and even consider paying a premium for this added flexibility.

Does the location support our employees?

Your staff works long hours. If your office space is ultimately a recruitment and retention tool, wouldn't understanding the commuting habits of your present and prospective employees be paramount? For this reason, seek to find an office location that is convenient for your staff—and not just convenient for the directors and management team.

Remember, too, that convenience is about more than just commute times. Consider the surrounding amenities that will help support your employees’ work-life balance, such as restaurants, day care, fitness centers, bike rooms, and even pet-friendly environments.

Does my advisor have a conflict of interest?

One final point: I always recommend finding an experienced commercial real estate broker who does not have the typical conflicts of interest commonly found in the industry.

How do you know if your broker has a potential conflict? Ask if his or her company also represents the building landlord in this or other transactions. Even if a broker says the company keeps a "wall" between its tenant and landlord representation divisions, it ultimately may not have your best interest at heart. A law firm wouldn’t represent both sides of a negotiation, so why would you pick a brokerage firm that does?

With the proper planning and strategy, a relocation can infuse your association with newfound energy and enthusiasm. Better yet, it can improve the performance of all of your employees, your bottom line, and your service to members—and create a space that reflects the individual and wonderful culture behind your entire organization.

From ASAE: A checklist for association moves and remodels

A good place to begin the space assessment process for any association is to develop a checklist of key needs and other issues related to office moves or redesigns, according to Robert Skelton, chief administrative officer of the American Society of Association Executives. Top checklist items include:

  • Ask, “Do we need to be in this particular space/location?”
  • Prepare a financial analysis to develop cost options and to get a better handle on just what the association can afford. This will also likely include a thorough review of renting vs. owning.
  • Consider hiring an independent commercial real estate broker who is fully aware of your needs and resources and is an expert on local real estate trends and costs. A good broker can give you honest observations, as well as effectively negotiate a lease or purchase with your interests in mind.
  • Carefully analyze expenses and potential costly delays associated with moving, and balance that against staying in the same place.
  • Consider bringing in a design consultant to develop cost-effective floor plans (leasing corporations and real estate brokers often have in-house consultants).
  • Make sure modern technology needs—such as wireless Internet, teleconferencing, and internal computing demands—are adequately covered for both current and future use.
  •  Address safety and security needs.

 

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