Law firms, like most high-performing companies, want people back in the office. A recent Gensler Research survey found that people in high-performing workplaces do want to come back to the office more frequently, but only if the workplace offers the right experience.
One of the top reasons to come into the office is to focus on work and maximize individual productivity—a shift from data collected during the pandemic that placed greater emphasis on working in-person with colleagues. Other top reasons to return to the office center around intention-based activities such as scheduled meetings and access to technology, specific spaces, materials and resources.
Generation Z seeks to be in the office more often than other generations, primarily to take advantage of pent-up demand for learning and career development opportunities. Workers crave—actually expect—a diverse mix of workspaces, from work cafes to boutique hotel-like spaces. Welldesigned, high-performing workplaces contribute to personal well-being, career advancement and job satisfaction. Besides being a critical tool for talent attraction and retention, a great space entices people to work in the office more regularly.
During the pandemic, firms realized that lawyers can be productive no matter where they work. They now also recognize the importance of physical interaction to build culture and grow business. Defining real estate needs to support culture involves the complex analysis of determining who will be in the office, how frequently and, more importantly, for what purpose. The resulting road map will influence not only the physical footprint but also the firm’s culture and performance, attorney and staff engagement, and, of course, the bottom line.
Legal industry workers want a residential yet professional atmosphere. Consistently, ideal work environment descriptors include comfortable, bright and collaborative, with acoustically private spaces to work.
Adopting New Ways of Working
People miss the social aspect of being in the office. Firms need to develop planned activities and programs that connect people and build culture and camaraderie, supported by the right types of spaces.
Law firms have long recognized the need for spaces where undistracted, individually focused work can occur but not the companion need for collaborative settings. A 2019 Gensler Research survey found that the most effective workplaces balance focus and collaboration, and this still holds true.
As incentives including slicker technology, schedule flexibility, challenging work, bonus compensation and well-appointed workspaces replace the importance of “the big corner office,” firms are leveraging smaller, universal-sized offices for all attorneys. With less space dedicated to private offices, the opportunity arises for greater allocation of shared spaces that help people connect. Alternative work settings give employees a choice of spaces for different activities and accommodate peak utilization days. An approach to planning that stresses flexibility and the use of spaces for multiple purposes is key. Aside from working from home, employees should also be able to work anywhere in the office. Flexibility coupled with the success of remote work has resulted in some firms moving support functions to less expensive real estate or encouraging fully remote positions. The advantage is that firms can cast a wider net to find the best talent.
IT solutions that support remote work and mobility and deliver a seamless and robust work experience both on- and offsite are essential to good design and allow firms to maximize the ways space is used.
The Role of Firm Culture
To encourage connection, firms should incorporate residential comfort and hospitality design elements, providing the opportunities for casual interaction, networking, cross-selling and building trust that are so critical in a partnership.
The office needs to support interactions that do not work well remotely. By providing open spaces with fewer walls dividing the workplace, the opportunity for impromptu learning, mentoring and socializing improves. Collaboration and interaction allow employees to connect and put faces to names and build relationships. Glass-fronted offices and open workspaces convey a greater sense of accessibility than long corridors with solid walls and closed doors. People get energized and inspired seeing their colleagues working and clients meeting.
The passions and concerns of firm leaders and employees drive culture. Climate and the environment, equality and diversity, and health and well-being are now all elements of thoughtful workplace design. They are manifested in physical amenities like accessible and inclusive design, sustainable environments sourcing local products with net-zero carbon emissions, and spaces that invite community ngagement. Complementing the physical are policies such as anti-bias initiatives and the freedom to work where and when you are most productive.
The accelerated focus on health and wellness in the workplace has expanded to incorporate quiet or mindfulness rooms, gender-neutral restrooms, air quality improvements, access to outdoor spaces and biophilic design elements like green walls and plants that create a connection to nature. Beyond the private office, social spaces, lounges and outdoor terraces are an extension of the workplace that encourage casual collisions and knit people together.
Private offices are not going away. Legal industry workers still spend more time at their desk and more time working alone, and trend toward assigned seating, as compared to the U.S. average.
Tips For Rethinking the Office
Isn’t hybrid work just the next iteration of telecommuting for an increasingly mobile, tech-enabled workforce? With client and team meetings, vacations, sick days, and taking kids to the doctor or soccer, you might discover that the number of empty seats in 2019 was not that different from today’s statistics.
Develop a strategic approach. Identify what the firm wants to accomplish as a business entity and how its real estate investment could support those goals. Engage attorneys and staff in the process of conceiving and designing the future space. Use surveys, focus groups and town hall meetings to uncover:
- compelling trends in the legal industry that may impact your work process and workspaces;
- primary business objectives, opportunities and challenges;
- organizational priorities and directions for the future; and
- success measures.