Moving to full open-plan. Is this a trend that will work best for larger firms, or can SMEs gain from becoming more ‘open’?

Emma Sell By Emma Sell
from Brahams Dutt Badrick French

This blog post was also featured as a column in the May 2016 issue of Legal Practice Management magazine. To read the issue in full, download LPM magazine.

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Olswang has announced it’s moving to full open-plan to “better utilise its office space” and “cultivate a more agile, flexible working environment” and appears to be following the trend set by CMS Cameron McKenna, Ince & Co and BLM. Is this a trend that will work best for larger firms, or can SMEs gain from becoming more ‘open’?

The idea is that open-plan makes your fee earners more collaborative, encourages knowledge sharing and helps to build relationships – by physically removing walls, you are removing perceived barriers to human communication and interaction.

As well as that, the benefits to the firm are that it’s apparently more cost-effective, as larger law firms seek to offset rent rises by taking less space and occupying it more efficiently – open-plan layouts requiring 20% less space per head than traditional cellular structures.

It’s a thin line between interaction and interruption. Could hearing everyone else’s calls and conversations every day lead to a loss in productivity, hostility, and perhaps become stress-inducing? Then there’s the reverse – the eerily quiet atmosphere where you don’t dare speak, which can become depressing.

In order to compensate for the potential noise levels and interruptions caused by others in the near vicinity you need to make sure you have enough meeting rooms and ‘quiet zones’ for fee earners to utilise. These quiet areas will obviously require more space – so does that make it as efficient a use of space as first thought?

When you think of cellular office space, you tend to think of a hierarchical system of a partner and an associate in a room, and the managing partner tucked away in his corner office on his own. While this is generally construed as a bad idea, there may be something to be said for the argument that it gives junior fee earners something to aspire to. There is also the question of how supervision happens in an open-plan environment.

Having recently moved office, we made the decision to opt for a cellular layout, but there were still concerns about losing collegiality. To that end, we chose a space with floor-to-ceiling windows, invested in glass partitions rather than solid walls, and implemented a strict ‘open door’ policy. We believe we’ve found the happy medium so that lawyers can get their heads down, but aren’t physically separated from the rest of the firm. While the model we have adopted is two to three people per cellular office, with either a partner or a senior lawyer paired with a junior lawyer, this isn’t necessarily set up so that the junior only works for the senior. In fact, we switch the fee earners’ desks every six months so that they don’t stagnate with the same methods of supervision – there is something different to learn from all senior members of staff.

We tried to be as efficient as we could in terms of the non-cellular office space. A roller racking central filing system and regular (monthly not yearly) archiving purges have saved on hundreds of metres of linear storage space, and with the majority of legal texts and research tools available online the need for a library is reduced to a couple of shelves. The meeting rooms combine to form different sizes so there is no need for, say, one big room, two medium rooms, and three smaller rooms – the space is already there.

I think we’ve managed to employ the best of both worlds, by giving our staff an environment they can concentrate in, but one which allows for plenty of sharing of information and ideas. No one size will fit all, but if you’re flexible in allowing staff to work remotely, and have embedded an open and collegiate culture, then perhaps it doesn’t matter where you’re sitting or with whom. Collaboration is, after all, not about the building but the people in it. 

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