Law firms are beginning to recognise that COVID-19 has created a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink and reset how and where work is done. Ann Clarke, director of future workplace at Claremont, which specialises in legal office interior design, shares five ways that legal offices are changing as a result of the pandemic.
1. Short-term reactive change
One of the most pertinent and common changes we’ve seen across legal office interior design so far is the urgent need to physically re-plan office space. Driven by the need to comply with social distancing guidelines and keep employees safe, many legal offices have taken areas out of circulation, introduced one-way systems, removed furniture, reduced capacity and reconfigured whole layouts.
The general trend to move away from owned spaces in favour of shared environments over the last few years will have made this particularly challenging for many firms. However, with fewer people in the office and new ways of working at play, firms are starting to see the workplace with a fresh pair of eyes.
2. The workplace as a destination
The pandemic has quickened the pace of agile transformation in the legal sector. Lockdown proved to even the least-agile business that many legal tasks can be completed out of the office successfully. So, if heads-down, desk-based working can be done at home, the legal office needs to fulfil a new role.
It must now become a destination – a space that is actively sought out by employees to sate specific needs and enable the tasks that cannot be done remotely. This means less reliance on desking and formalised lone-working spaces in favour of a dynamic, social and collaborative offering where employees have choices about which spaces and facilities they use, not just for that day, but for the task in hand.
As much of this focuses on offering variety and facilitating interaction, the post-COVID-19 legal office will place more importance on providing:
- libraries and knowledge-transfer hubs
- town hall spaces and social areas for company-wide meetings and team-building exercises
- tech-rich huddle areas for project teams, with team members working both in and out of the office
- a greater blend of meeting spaces, booths and pods to accommodate small impromptu gatherings.
3. Reflecting real needs – fact, not fiction
The need to make operations remote and agile almost overnight forced the senior leadership teams of law firms to dissect firm-wide tasks and processes; they had to understand the detail of how they do business in order to adapt and survive.
That same knowledge now provides an opportunity for law firms to make sure that their workplaces meet real needs, instead of relying on generalisations and assumptions. To help firms do this, we categorise office work in one of six ways, depending on how frequently employees are in the office, the agility and variety of the work settings they need (i.e. spaces for quiet reflection, team work, desk-based activities etc), and the sort of tasks they undertake. By thinking about employee personas, behaviours and tasks, it is possible to make sure that workplaces cater for future working patterns and offer flexibility and resilience.
Evidence-based behavioural insights underpin the continued evolution of the legal office and we expect to see more appetite for firms to embark on interior design refreshes, refurbishments and office moves.
4. The desire to feel connected
With remote working mandatory for so many, law firms have to find new ways to engage their people and keep them close, as well as reflect their brand and organisational values.
Much of this will rely on the new behaviours and processes that firms advocate and support as a result of mass remote working. This will have to be reinforced with a sustained investment in technology to ensure that employees have a seamless and positive experience, wherever they’re working from, as well as a renewed approach to employee engagement. But the workplace has a key role here, too. Law firms will need to ensure they give employees a highly positive experience when they are in the office, as these moments will be important to staff development, retention, engagement and a sense of belonging.
Consequently, we will see this in a very literal sense – think artwork, branding and the inclusion of social and collaborative spaces – as well as in more intuitive ways, such as the new ease in which someone can just ‘plug and play’ and access facilities; how movement is encouraged throughout the floorplate; how technology improves the user experience; and how trainees are able to able to learn from their colleagues and develop new skills.
While social distancing is a common shared experience now, COVID-19 is only heightening our desire and need for greater human contact. Legal workplace design must respond accordingly.
5. Thinking creatively
On the face of it, you might expect law firms to downsize, particularly if more people are working from home. However, it’s more likely that law firms will just use space more cleverly. By reducing the number of desks, which typically account for 75% of a law firm’s floorplate, it is possible to free up space for greater endeavour.
We expect this to manifest as feature-rich spaces that will be as focused on wellbeing, career development and rest and relaxation, as they will be the business of law – particularly as firms recognise the holistic needs of their workforce.
Traditional reception spaces may be replaced with more virtual front-of-house solutions; smaller meeting pods will be added to accommodate the growing need for video conferencing spaces; there will be more space for people to circulate freely (a definite COVID-19 response); and areas will be dedicated to quiet reflection and personal support services.
The pandemic has forced through 20 years of change in just six months. Law firms must now reflect on their 2020 experiences, revisit their priorities and plan for the future. All of this requires firms to see change as a process rather than a destination, and to embrace the new opportunities it presents.
Quite simply, law firms need to become “future-flexible” in every way – from how they deliver client care, to the way they innovate, win new business and design and use their offices.
Future-flexible offices must be desirable and safe for people to enjoy, offer personalised and relevant experiences for every kind of use, and bring the values, purpose and vision of an organisation to life. Anything less is a missed opportunity.