MAY 4, 2017
SAN JOSE, CA—Curious about how to maintain a distinct personality with the ever-changing workplace transformation and technological innovations currently taking place? Robin Weckesser, president of a3 Workplace Strategies takes a closer look at the subject in this EXCLUSIVE commentary.
SAN JOSE, CA—Workplace transformation and technological innovation continue to characterize today’s new live-work-play dynamic. Those thoughts are according to Robin Weckesser, president and founder of a3 Workplace Strategies, a workplace consulting group based in San Jose and serving companies throughout the US and worldwide. In the exclusive commentary below, she talks about how law firms have been one of the last to adopt sweeping changes to workspace changes.
The views expressed below are Weckesser’s own.
In the Bay Area and beyond, “one size doesn’t fit all” is a concept that applies to workplace solutions in all industry sectors. On one end of the spectrum, technology companies are increasingly embracing open office environments; on the other end, law firms, one of the last bastions of a more conservative and traditional culture, have been slow to adopt sweeping changes, in part because private space is paramount. But a closer look reveals that the legal industry is becoming more aligned with the move toward creative workplace design alternatives, as reflected by the desires of many clients as well as younger professional employees.
First, let’s look at common characteristics among law firms and other industries, including economics, demographics, recruitment, amenities, collaboration, and remote workforce.
Joining the Pack
Economics. New workplaces are typically associated with a more efficient use of space, and an economic reality shared by all industries today is the need to cut costs. A recent report reveals that law firms typically occupy two to three times as much space per employee as technology, financial, and insurance companies. Accordingly, law firms appreciate the significant savings that can result with a reduced footprint, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in the balance. This is especially significant since real estate remains the second biggest expense for organizations, following payroll, and more good news for the bottom-line is that technological advances can facilitate space efficiency.
Demographics. Today’s workplace is typically multi-generational, with Baby Boomers, Millennials, and Gen Z working side by side. Making the right office choices involves being sensitive to the different skills, styles, and attitudes of each group. In general, Baby Boomers are more resistant to change and less tech-savvy than their younger counterparts. While the older guard is giving way to the younger guard, many older executives hold key management positions, and they need to be respected.
Recruitment and retention. Competition for top talent is fierce among law firms, as it is with the technology sector. This includes firms with specializations in corporate, real estate, healthcare, intellectual property, and government relations. In this environment, it is vital to establish a competitive edge that enhances employee engagement, reinforces the brand and culture, boosts productivity, and promotes a balanced live-work-play reality. Alternative workplace strategies can make this happen.
Amenities. Recruiting staff is enhanced with the offering of amenities that workers increasingly demand at law venues and elsewhere. These include fully integrated connectivity, cafes, break areas, wellness and fitness benefits, natural lighting, ergonomic considerations, and pleasant outdoor areas for relaxing and stretching.
Collaboration. A trademark of the office of the future is collaboration as a means to promote creativity and productivity. While perhaps not as prevalent in law firms as in other industries, alternative settings allow principals, associates, and para-legals the opportunity to connect and innovate. This is as much an art as a science, and digitalization allows attorneys to work in a variety of settings.
Virtual workers. While most legal administrators are expected to work on-site, as part of an overall industry trend, employees including senior executives are increasingly spending more time working from home. Space planning should factor in off-site technology tools as well as dedicated on-site seats and desk sharing, which can help reduce the amount of leased space. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that, ultimately, all staff will need to return to a comfortable “home away from home.”
Apart from the Pack
Having established the commonalities between law firms and other industries, we should look at how law firms have distinct office requirements. These include the following:
Private space. There is certainly a need for common, collaborative areas, but a pure open office floorplan isn’t the right model for law firms, where client confidentiality is paramount. Attorneys need to focus without distractions and interruptions—and therefore, private space is a prerequisite. Having said this, it is important to note the flipside: studies have shown that heads-down work at a desktop for more than two hours without a break is not healthy or productive. Also noteworthy is the fact that while private offices won’t be eliminated, they will be downsized. Law practices that may have dedicated 150 SF-200 SF per office in the past are now realizing that a smaller footprint can be as effective and less costly; law firms are also recognizing that future generations will be more comfortable in non-traditional settings.
Reception/lobby. For most organizations, perhaps the most important design element that sets the tone for the brand and culture is the reception area. Making a statement here is perhaps even more significant for law firms, which greet clients, professional colleagues, as well as opposing attorneys, and they need to make a strong first impression, communicating a sense of sophistication, permanence, professionalism, and thoughtfulness. The lobby should reflect integrated technology, innovation, and security. When this is executed tastefully, it promotes a high level of trust for the firm.
Conference rooms. For strategic reasons, primary conference space is typically located directly off the lobby, since you don’t want opposing lawyers roaming the halls through your private space on the way to a meeting. Additional conference areas for staff will reside beyond the lobby and inside the secure perimeter.
Law library. A physical library may still exist, but its size and function will be dramatically different. Once the bastion of mahogany shelves, stately tables, and padded leather chairs, the law library of the 21st century will be more of a digitized cloud, with encrypted and secured material that can be accessed from anywhere.
File storage. As with the library, minimally active file cabinets may still have a place, but file digitalization and the coming of artificial intelligence will minimize the need for high-density file storage on and off-site. This is also another example of how firms can save space and cut costs.
Image. The tone set by the fit, finish, proportions, and layout are as critical to a law firm as they are to any other company. They reflect the image of the firm, speak to the culture, and reflect the firm’s brand externally and internally. Quality, detailing, and materials are key considerations.
Looking ahead, the legal industry will always maintain its distinct personality. At the same time, law firms along with all industry sectors are subject to evolving dynamics and demographics, and alternative workplace solutions will continue to gain traction. So, the ability to be open-minded and adapt is critical.
Overall, the workplace matters because it reflects who you are and what you stand for. As such, you should strive for customized and balanced solutions that reinforce your brand and culture. Of course, with so many variables, the stakes involved with workplace transformation are high. To help you make the right choices, an experienced project manager, with the ability to think holistically and provide change management strategies, can help you raise the bar.
– Initially develop goals and objectives for your project.
– With the help of a design professional and experienced project manager, evaluate your current office work process.
– Assure that the basic design blueprint addresses opportunities for branding, collaboration, circulation, team adjacencies, and security.
– Look at alternative workplace and hybrid settings.
– Consider ergonomics and develop healthy workspaces that encourage employees to get up, walk around, and recharge.
– Assure that the layout maximizes day light into the space.
– Consider your guests and create a thoughtful hospitality experience.
– Address acoustic issues throughout the space.
– Consider lighting systems and controls, air conditioning & heating control.
– Communicate who you are, where you’re coming from, and where you’re going.
– Gain partner alignment.
– Overall, remember that one size does not fit all.
a3 Workplace Strategies is a workplace consulting group based in San Jose and serving companies throughout the United States and worldwide. The firm provides a full range of project management and facilities management services, including strategic planning; change management; site selection; design, construction, and relocation oversight; space programming; and open office/collaborative environments. For more information, visit www.a3workplacestrategies.com.