Donna Harris provides an insight into a newly-flexible working environment

The days of cellular offices have long gone for most of us working in-house – and indeed, right across the profession. We’ve got used to open-plan working, we tune out the sound of our colleagues when we need to, and we are considerate about the disruption to those working nearby when we’re on the phone. But most of us still cling to our own desk. We may personalise it with photos of family and pets – after all, we spend a lot of time at work - and we have a pedestal under the desk which can be an efficiently organised space giving handy access to essential items - or equally, it can be useful receptical for spare shoes and biscuit crumbs. We are creatures of habit and sit next to the same colleagues day after day, week after week.

At Aviva we value flexible, collaborative working and we identified that the way our offices are set up can be a barrier to that. So we have recently moved to a more flexible environment, which has brought some significant changes to the legal community in Norwich, and our colleagues in York are about to follow suit. No one at our offices in Norwich has their own desk. Instead, a team has non-exclusive use of a part of the office and can (within reason!) say how they want to use that space, in terms of desks, meeting rooms, more informal break out areas and so on. Generally, we have a desk allocation of one desk to every 1.2 people, which means that at the end of a working day every desk has to be completely cleared, because someone else could be sitting there the next day. All of our personal items have to be put in lockers, and files put away in lockable cabinets.

One big plus is that our working area is a lot less cluttered. Colleagues have commented that it is actually very refreshing to come in to a clear desk in the morning – even if you do immediately start to bring out files, and press ‘print’, there is something quite calming about sitting down to a desk that is not covered in work, coffee cups and back copies of the Gazette! It soon becomes second nature to sit at different desks within the team area - a desk doesn’t belong to anyone, so it doesn’t feel like an act of trespass to sit at it.

Inevitably, some people were resistant to the idea that they would no longer have their ‘own’ desk to sit at and others were worried that perhaps they wouldn’t actually be able to find anywhere to sit, particularly if they typically arrived at the office relatively late. We’ve been working in the flexible environment for a couple of months now and it is astonishing how quickly we have become completely accustomed to it. I can honestly say we haven’t yet had a single occasion when someone has come in and hasn’t been able to find a desk. Some people are choosing to work from home more frequently and when that is coupled with ordinary absence, whether holiday or business related, we actually have spare desks on most days.

Of course there are still issues we’ve got to work through. It’s not just a myth that lawyers like to hoard paper – the biggest challenge of the new environment has been around file storage. I work with a team of property lawyers and we have tried to rationalise our on-floor filing, clearing as much as possible to remote storage. We are fortunate to have a fantastic online environment with access to electronic copies of all archived deeds and current documents, and electronic filing of e-mails. But many of us still prefer to work from hard copies and when we have dozens of boxes of deeds arriving on completion of a new acquisition, we need to check them, scan them and get them off the floor, as quickly as we can!

Another problem we hadn’t anticipated is the noise of the printers. They have been moved so that they are very close to the desks, and it is not just the noise generated by the machines that we struggle with – there is a constant stream of traffic as people collect their printing, chat by the printer and slam the doors open and shut as they refill the paper trays. So a word of warning on that one – we are going to have our printers replaced with quieter models and moved away from their current close proximity to the desks!

Needless to say, this flexible style of working is underpinned by technology: we all work from laptops which can be docked at any desk and we can log in to any phone so we are always contactable at the same extension number. Decent wifi is also essential in a flexible working environment , particularly those with breakout areas, and this required an upgrade in our case.

The key driver for our new environment is to encourage collaboration but accommodation costs are a major overhead for any business. With our new model it is possible to have more people working out of an office and we have been able to vacate other buildings we formerly occupied in Norwich. That potential for cost savings will be an attraction to other organisations, whether or not they are looking to work more collaboratively, so I am sure that many more of us will be working flexibly in the not too distant future. My advice is to give it a go – you may be pleasantly surprised!