Lucy Trevelyan looks at recent trends in the use of office space in law firms and beyond – including agile working, shoring and activity-based working – and examines the drivers for change, plus the benefits and possible pitfalls
There is a quiet revolution going on in Britain’s workplace environments. Driven by ever-increasing commercial property costs, demand for flexibility and the need to lower costs while upping productivity, and facilitated by increasingly sophisticated technology, employers are coming up with ever more ingenious ways to maximise their use of office space and deploy their workforce. And law firms are no exception.
Cordless Consultants’ commercial director Steve Jarvis explains: ‘Law firms are facing significant financial forces and global competitive pressures; running prime space at sub-50 per cent occupancy is no longer a viable option in an increasingly competitive market. Outcome- or fixed price-based billings further exacerbate the need for legal teams to find new ways of leveraging resource within the practice. Working in multi-disciplinary teams across the organisation can help to quickly deliver creative and effective outputs.’
Law firms are also trying keep pace with changes within their clients’ businesses, he says. ‘The changing demographics of our workforce are bringing changes in learning styles and technological applications, and the future workplace must address these needs. The sector is realising that investment in technology in the workplace can enable law firms to deliver a superior service faster and at the lower cost now demanded, with a flexible approach.’
Olswang is the latest law firm to embrace ‘agile working’. The term means many things to many people, but is defined by the Agile Organisation (www.agile.org.uk) as being about ‘bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task. It is working within guidelines (of the task), but without boundaries (of how you achieve it).’
Alexander Low, head of legal sector services at property solutions firm JLL, says many businesses have gone through a process of reducing their property portfolio or ‘densification’, and have implemented hot-desking and flexible working as part of the solution. ‘Improving productivity and workplace effectiveness is now the goal for many corporate organisations. In workplaces that are set up to foster wellbeing, people tend to be more creative and more productive.’
Part of the agile working approach, he says, is to allow remote working, also known as teleworking, telecommuting or simply working from home. ‘Remote working has particular impact on saving time and money. Enhanced productivity, innovation and skill-utilisation are some of the performance benefits. It also allows for a better work-life balance, enabling people to meet their non-work responsibilities. For organisations, the ultimate benefit of remote working is a correlation between perceived innovative capacity and flexibility.’
There has been a big change in employer attitudes, Low remarks, and organisations are beginning to see their workplaces as a source of competitive advantage, not simply a cost burden.
‘People are asking for more choice and greater flexibility in where, when and how they work. They want the office to be a great destination, well located and a place where they can connect with their social networks. In an increasingly digital world, where the perception is that people tend to email / Facebook / WhatsApp one another as a default means of communication, they report an overwhelming need for face-to-face communication. Social infrastructure is important in the drive for better organisational performance.’
Businesses, Low says, are beginning to recognise the correlation between attracting and retaining the best talent and the office environment, in terms of providing the environment and the means for innovation and creativity to occur.
‘The design of the office is paramount in this respect. Studies have shown that high performance workforces rely on three things: ability, motivation and opportunity. Ability means hiring the best people and then training and developing that talent. Motivation involves providing the right work environment, choice of work style, a great experience, enlightened management and a suitable benefits and compensation mechanism. Opportunity reflects the chance to learn from others: to work with the best clients on the best assignments and to add value by being free to innovate.’
Uptake of agile working is growing fast within the legal sector, with Clifford Chance, Linklaters and Herbert Smith Freehills, among others, following early adopters Mishcon de Reya, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, Foot Anstey and DAC Beachcroft.
Olswang is in the early stages of its journey. The phased refitting of its London office has just begun and will be finished in 2017. Paul Stevens’ vision upon election to CEO in 2015 was to move Olswang to an agile working platform. This included upgrading smartphones last year, and the firm is currently moving to an assigned-desk, open-plan working environment, and upgrading its IT systems to a cloud-based platform for a more reliable, secure network connection that can be accessed by more mobile devices, including smartphones, tablets and laptops.
Stevens says: ‘My vision for how we work at Olswang departs from the traditional notion of “lawyers”, and sees us become more strategic advisers to our clients. Management consultants do this well: they often spend more time at their clients’ offices than they do their own, and are able to lend their expertise on more than just the matter at hand.’
Since becoming CEO, Stevens has moved out of the office he previously occupied in the firm’s intellectual property group and has been moving around the London office every few weeks, hot-desking in different areas of the firm and enjoying the benefits of agile working first-hand.
‘Our London office has also been piloting open plan since April 2015 with our real estate team, who have become passionate advocates of this collaborative way of working. Moving to an open, more agile working environment will put us better in line with the way our clients work. It will challenge the way we have historically operated, but ultimately I hope it will be demonstrable of the truly innovative, industry-leading work that we do every day.’
West Yorkshire firm Ramsdens Solicitors has expanded rapidly in recent years, growing by over 100 staff, to 250, with 25 partners, in just over five years. As the firm continues to grow, space is increasingly at a premium. Claire Richardson, HR manager, explains: ‘We have had to look at less personal space, creating smaller workstations. Staff have multiple screens to enhance computer-based and mobile productivity (generally using one for email and the other for work). We have 12 offices, and a lot of our staff are mobile across these offices, so we offer hot-desking across our business, and these are open, flexible, collaborative workspaces. More people are working remotely and not at their desks; we support staff with technology that allows them to work effectively wherever they are.’
She emphasises the importance of making sure staff are happy and engaged with the changes. ‘When staff are happy, they relay that to our clients, so ensuring that staff feel good and are comfortable in their space is important to us. We engage with employees on how the workplace can best support them. One size does not fit all, so it’s important we listen to staff.
‘In our newer offices, we have created designated lounge areas to make working more enjoyable. Lighting matters: you need to ensure lighting is comfortable on the eye. We have got rid of big private offices and opted for an open-plan environment where we can allow natural conversations and collaboration between employees.’
The trend for moving to a shared environment – one in which people no longer own individual workstations but instead share a range of settings with their colleagues – is one of the biggest ongoing shifts in the workplace environment, say Low.
‘Activity-based working can trace its roots back 20 years, but now, with the convergence of IT and operational technology, it is becoming increasingly well enabled. Wireless technologies and cloud computing have increasingly made working time and place independent of each other. Elements include seamless document-sharing and -management; robust Wi-Fi, and discarding hard-wired telephones and replacing them with standardised web and audio options at desks and in conference rooms, supported by consistent set-up in every space and location. People can choose the right type of workplace for their work, and change locations several times a day when they begin a different activity.’
Low echoes the comments of others, though, in emphasising that people’s acceptance of the solutions chosen is paramount to achieving the potential benefits in terms of productivity.
‘Frequent desk relocations, noise, and lack of enclosed spaces that support concentrated work can increase distraction, mental workload, fatigue and stress, all of which can negatively impact on productivity. Interruptions inhibit creativity, and some employees need space to concentrate without distractions. Some organisations are now creating larger quiet zones which tend not to have desk phones, and prohibit impromptu meetings and noise distractions.
‘Planning is key for any law firm considering a move to a more agile working environment. Different aspects of how legal advice is delivered will dictate the nature of the working environment that is suitable to that particular practice; it’s certainly not one size fits all. What works well for one firm could be a disaster for another.’
The arguments for and against the approach can be complex, Low points out.
‘One of the most common concerns is that, if a partner is not sitting with their team, or indeed in an office with an associate, they will not be able to overhear conversations they are having with their clients, therefore there is a risk that incorrect advice could be given. However, there are counter-arguments to this: that in an agile working environment, the associates and partners will mix with their colleagues more often, thereby getting a richer mix of input and collaboration across clients.’
Keystone Law has taken an interesting approach to the ‘human question’ around agile working: to allow its lawyers to choose between a range of options. The firm describes itself as a legal revolutionary, combining the best in technology with a business model that places human relationships front and centre. Its lawyers can opt to base themselves at the firm’s own office spaces, in-house with a client, or from home – all while being supported by a dedicated central office team.
The firm’s operations director, William Robins, explains the system. ‘We ask our lawyers how they work, and facilitate what they need. Most want a blend of meeting room space, home-working and hot-desking.’ But younger lawyers, he says, are more likely to opt for activity-based space: areas for quiet study, conference calls or meetings, for example. ‘They move to the right area depending on what task they are doing,’ he explains.
The firm has embedded this approach across the business and how it does things. ‘Isolation can be a problem for those of the wrong mindset; to address this, we don’t hire such people. There can also be difficulties in supervising; to address this, we require our junior lawyers to work in the way their supervisors work.’
Firms that find themselves short of office space or want to save costs, he suggests, should look at how staff want to work, what the clients want from their firm, and how technology can increase co-working without the need to share an office.
What impact does this new approach – ranging from hot-desking to remote working, outsourcing or even entirely virtual law firms – have on firms’ cybersecurity resilience? Timothy Hill, technology policy adviser at the Law Society, says it carries risk, but the process of looking at and mitigating that risk can bring its own benefits.
‘Any significant change in working practices should, ideally, be accompanied by undertaking a “privacy by design” exercise, including a privacy impact assessment. Such exercises support firms to think through the security risks arising from the new way of working and the interrelationship with existing ways of working (which may highlight existing security weaknesses). In general, the kinds of risks that arise from remote or virtual working can often be mitigated by strong access and authentication protocols – but it’s impossible to generalise. The attraction of privacy – and security – by design is that it takes a systematic and holistic approach.’
Cloud computing, Hill says, can also represent an opportunity and a threat. Knowing who is storing your data and where is the key security and data protection compliance issue.
‘The supply chains and relationships that underpin the service you buy can be complex and need to be understood. The Law Society’s practice note on cloud computing (tinyurl.com/lawsoccloud) provides some guidance on this. It also provides guidance on how to select a cloud supplier and ensure you have the right contractual terms in place to comply with relevant legal and regulatory obligations. This can be tricky, as most cloud providers offer their services on a ‘take it or leave it’ contractual basis. That said, if you sign up to the right supplier on the right terms, the chances are good that their security arrangements will be stronger than your own. That’s another reason to undertake that privacy by design exercise and privacy impact assessment if you’re thinking of making the move to the cloud.’
To save space, law firms have traditionally focused on moving back-office functions to other locations within the UK (known as shoring), says Jarvis. ‘For example, Allen & Overy and Herbert Smith Freehills moved back-office operations to Belfast to free up prime real estate; Ashurst has made a similar move in Glasgow; Linklaters moved its IT functions to Colchester. This reduces real estate costs and leaves the primary space focused on client interaction and front-of-house delivery. The drawbacks, however, can be that recruitment in diverse places is more challenging, and the company culture can become fragmented. There can also be increased facilities management costs in managing multiple sites.’
For firms which want to cut costs and maximise office space, says Jason Downes, general manager at Powwownow, outsourcing will also become a more viable option, allowing businesses to save on space and staff costs, while connecting with specialists that contribute to your business.
‘Outsourcing allows you to bring in specialists for certain functions of the business, giving you the ability to focus on your core operations. Instead of hiring a team for every part of your business, you can use specialist services that will help reduce overheads and save time. Your time and money can then be used to invest in smarter working initiatives and create better, flexible working environments for your business.’
Law firms are unlikely to revisit the full outsourcing models, says Low. The more likely solution will be a blend of outsourcing, shoring and technology (artificial intelligence) that will change the law firm supply chain model, driven by client pressure to deliver legal services more cost-effectively.
‘Outsourcing in law firms is typically for back-office functions where no client interaction is needed externally, and minimal internal client interaction is required – for example, payroll, some finance, IT and marketing functions. Shoring is more prevalent where the work is less complex and not partner-led, and for marketing and business development functions. Technology will underpin all of this by freeing up time and resource. In some cases, we are now seeing technology replacing aspects of a lawyer’s role completely.’