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Returning to the office: a tough conversation for the legal profession

Ian Hodgson, Executive Director at Lee Baron, examines how law firms can re-think their approach to office spaces to adapt to an increased appetite for agile working post-COVID-19.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has radically changed the way we live and work. As the roadmap for the easing of lockdown restrictions becomes clearer, businesses – including law firms – are considering the future of their office space. As we adapt to the ‘new normal’, it is important for firms to embrace a more balanced approach to work.

Adapting for the future

The pandemic has drastically changed ways of working for all sectors and has pushed more businesses to think about their office space in a new way. At Lee Baron, we have implemented systems to make sure that the business continues to run as smoothly as possible during this exceptionally challenging time – now is the time for other traditional businesses, such as law firms, to do the same. Many of the factors that determine how law firms utilise office space no longer apply, and things that used to be low on the list of priorities for partners’ – such as flexible working and open-plan offices – are now more important than ever. Changes in attitudes towards home working, together with a new approach to occupying office space post-COVID-19, must bring with it a reassessment of space requirements which were considered a necessity in a pre-COVID-19 world. The assessment of total occupational costs now has entirely different drivers.

Looking ahead, questions arise over whether social distancing will become a distant memory or if the five-day-a-week office model will return – the answers to these questions is, probably not. Some industries – financial services being a notable example – have already fallen out of love with the office, embracing the flexibility and perceived cost savings that remote working brings.

A flexible approach

The legal sector is seeing generational differences when it comes to the appetite for a return to office working. In conversations we’ve had with more experienced lawyers in the City, many suggest that they are fully aware that going back to the ways of working from before COVID-19 will not be possible. However, the majority of partners would love to see associates back in the office, both as a resource and for their personal development.

There is no single solution to the reoccupation of our workspaces. Pre-pandemic, many of us never thought that home working could be successful in the long-term, but the majority of people have adapted well. It is something that we should be proud of – in many ways, this forced change delivered an unintentional ‘trial run’ of a working model that most wouldn’t have imagined. We can now see benefits that we may not have considered before.

That said, compromise will be needed to put everyone at ease. The consensus is that the trend towards agile working that we started to see before the pandemic will be accelerated and a flexible, adaptable working space will be needed to ensure this is sustainable.

Last month, a number of law firms, including Latham & Watkins and Baker McKenzie, showed confidence in the city centre office post-pandemic, signing deals for new space. Both firms are taking smaller space and a more flexible approach to occupation as a result of what they have learned over the past year or so.

As the battle to attract and retain top talent continues, so too does the need for a central space for collaboration, mentorship and exchanging ideas. Going forward, offices need to develop a multi-purpose nature – the spaces themselves will require more efficient planning in order to provide serve a dual purpose. Agile working may become the new norm, with different teams occupying the same spaces at different times.

Legal libraries and individual offices for partners seem less likely to be priorities moving forward. We predict there will be more focus on face-to-face meetings that help to develop team members and allow a collaborative approach to tasks; this will be central to the new office spaces.

The work from home revolution has also tempted office workers out of cities, particularly in London, with many seeking cheaper rents, a better work-life balance and an escape from city life. There will be a change in the dominance of the office as a permanent place of work and economists are still unsure how many workers will want to move back into cities once social restrictions are lifted.

According to a survey of 62 law firms across Europe by consultancy firm RSG, over a quarter of respondents reported increased productivity whilst working from home. Furthermore, nearly half of law firms expected a long-term change in the way office space is used – there are many aspects of remote working that are useful, even in the complex legal industry. However, the need to have a space to meet clients and socialise with others in your firm is essential too.

In the long term, we will move towards an evolution of workspaces and how we use them, towards what we now understand can be an efficient way of working. Offices can become spaces tailored towards the communal aspects of work – places to grow and train your team, especially junior employees who benefit from being able to learn from others at the beginning of their careers. The workplace could become a space to entertain and present to clients – something that has been sorely missed by all businesses this year.

Finding balance

Our office spaces will highlight what is best about our businesses and the work that we do as they will be more tailored to team collaboration, whilst giving those who require it a designated workspace away from home. The tasks that require no, or minimal, team input can continue to be done remotely, allowing for flexibility and balance in people’s lives.

This ‘new normal’ will allow each firm to work with their office providers to dictate exactly how the space can best function for them. Different areas of the office could be converted to serve a distinct function; the open plan trend of many modern offices can continue, but as it is unlikely that all employees will – or even need to be – in the same space every day, leading to a long-term change in the demand for space and what it is used for. In the short term, this may lead to repurposing of existing accommodation to provide team areas to increase the flow of the new working model. At the same time, areas for video conferencing will be required regularly and appropriate pods or breakout areas will need to be developed. As fewer people will be using the space at any given time, firms can determine how to bring their employees together in the way that is most effective for them.

The upheaval of the last twelve months has given us all time to reflect – many of us have realised that a shift is needed. By allowing our offices to work for us and our team’s needs, we can achieve a more holistic approach to work – one that may allow us to reach even greater heights than before.

Originally published by The Law Society on Thursday 1st April 2021.

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