- Office design is a tool law firm leaders can use to reinforce cultural changes that incorporate new priorities.
The COVID-19 pandemic proved that professionals could work productively from anywhere and at any time. This experience upended the Industrial Revolution’s assembly line–based work structure that was replicated in professional service firms.
Working from home also led employees to rethink their in-office experience. Millennials and Generation Xers found they preferred the flexibility that allowed them to incorporate work into their full life schedule, overturning the previous assumption that nonwork activities revolved around one’s work schedule.
Office design is a tool law firm leaders can use to reinforce cultural changes that incorporate new priorities. Whether it be rows of desks, cubicles or office size as an indicator of status, office design reinforces workplace norms. Today, as law firm leaders look to create a productive hybrid office work environment, office design will again be used to reinforce management decisions by embodying a firm’s culture and values.
In this column, we look at three aspects of office design that support the new emphasis on employee wellness, health, productivity and satisfaction. Office design provides the physical alternatives necessary for realization of values such as respect, flexibility, transparency and equality.
Furniture makes a difference. Workers want to return to an attractive, comfortable setting that incorporates the flexibility of working at home. Law firm offices are moving away from expensive furniture and opulent finishes toward a variety of informal settings such as high-top tables or lounge areas where colleagues can gather and arrange the furniture to suit their needs.
Conference rooms will have modular furniture and fewer seating options to accommodate varied uses and promote healthy spacing. All conference rooms will include large, high-resolution screens, wide-angle cameras and microphones that allow everyone to hear everyone else. These technologies can also be used for individuals’ marketing activities, such as podcasts and videos.
To mitigate differences between the meeting effectiveness of in-office and remote workers, conference rooms will use new meeting software that creates interactive virtual rooms. Artificial intelligence–enhanced software will enable deeper connections between lawyers and their clients.
When people work at home, they often move around and work in different spaces within their home. To make coming into the office less stressful and help younger workers feel more comfortable, modern offices will also provide a variety of workspaces. These may include:
An important trend is the move to single-size offices that create a visual signal that the firm’s leaders want to foster across-the board participation regardless of seniority. Removal of the symbols of hierarchy also signal a firm’s commitment to equality. At the same time, single size enables firms to save money by reducing their real estate footprint.
Single occupant offices will have glass walls. The transparency of glass indicates the firm’s interest in a culture of transparency. By infusing the whole office with natural light, glass walls become indicators of the firm’s interest in wellness and attorney comfort. Some firms are going one step further and moving individual offices to the center of their space, leaving the perimeter for a variety of attractive private work and collaborative environments.
The changes are designed to enhance employee productivity, well-being and motivation. Happy environment = happy workers. Younger workers seeking mentorship and upskilling opportunities are attracted to firms offering multiple opportunities for informal interactions. Office designs that incorporate such opportunities are important assets in the competition to attract and retain younger workers.
The new design reflects leaders’ interest in demonstrating their success to clients by inviting them into a modern, technologically up-to-date, collegial environment. Law firms have learned that clients care about their total experience with the firm, so every touchpoint matters. For example, clients today want quick responses and immediate access—demands that can be met using technology-enabled office design.
Changes in office configurations assume modern technology will enable the connections and collaborations the physical design intends to encourage. For example, to manage the density within the office, and to give people more flexibility, room occupancy will be managed by room scheduling systems. Using a phone app, individuals can reserve specific work areas on specific days for a specific amount of time. The scheduling app lets them know how the room is configured, what technology is available and what additional supplies they need to request.
Other phone apps alert them when mail has arrived, enable them to change room temperature and lighting settings, etc. Lawyers can also use an app to request specific furniture, such as standing desks or custom seating areas.
Modern offices will entice workers with the flexibility of their physical settings; the focus on relationships, conversations and collaboration; and the creativity embedded in the furnishings. Think less “nose to the grindstone” and more “Starbucks coffee bar comfort.”
Successful hybrid offices will offer bookable office space, multifunctional shared spaces and technologically enabled options, which, taken together, create a fluid, flexible, comfortable work environment that accepts and values today’s workforce.