The “returning to the office” discussion is an opportunity to consider the physical space and policy changes that will define your firm’s future.
As we emerge from the pandemic-shadowed year of 2020 and begin discussing getting back to “normal,” it doesn’t take long to realize that may not be possible. “Normal” has become a relative term and people are often at odds regarding its definition.
Going back to normal for law firms may present a particular challenge, given a working landscape where the traditional office is eroding daily. Loeb Leadership finds that “67% of lawyers and staff want to continue to work remotely, even when it’s safe to return to offices.” At the same time, people do miss their co-workers, the close community and the culture of the office. Depression is on the rise, and mentoring and training programs have suffered serious setbacks, which will likely have a negative, multiyear impact on young lawyers.
Returning to the office may relieve some of these issues — if the office prioritizes flexibility and freedom of choice and provides the culture-building environment that is so sorely missed.
Five Questions About Returning to the Office
As you consider your office space and the plan to return in the coming months, take the time to discuss the following questions.
1. Is your workplace important?
Does your physical workplace amplify your culture, build community and connect people to your mission and brand? Is the place where you have traditionally spent more than eight hours per day pulling its weight? The workplace has the potential to be a cultural and community hub, bringing people together and creating common bonds. For centuries, the places where people congregate daily have had a significant impact on the culture. Your office can, and should, be significant. If it’s not, how can it be changed?
2. How do your people work?
Are there unique work styles within your firm? Are there behaviors you want to reinforce or discourage? Before reopening, many firms are considering one-size office configurations (versus the traditional “corner office” hierarchy), or more open, shared spaces, to provide options for different kinds of work. A carefully considered blend of spaces should provide the right space for each person to be the most productive — a strategy that made sense before the pandemic, too.
3. Will people have the ability to choose when and where to work?
Will the firm support work from home and work from anywhere policies? A hybrid model that allows for splitting time between home and office? We are all finding out, at an individual level, which scenarios are successful and which are not. While working from home, the recent law school graduate has a very different workday experience compared with the partner who is parenting three children, or the paralegal who supports a practice group while caring for an elderly parent. All provide value to the firm and will require the freedom to choose the best place to produce their work, counsel clients, learn from peers, and achieve their career goals.
4. Will people have dedicated or shared individual spaces?
Is having an assigned seat for each person an important part of your culture? Moving to a shared seat or unassigned seating scenario should be much more than a real estate strategy. As blended workspaces become more common, real estate and space planning decisions must reflect the cultural shift. For example, shared seating and flexible spaces may make sense if your focus is on team-building, cross-department collaboration, or another business goal that is achieved through quickly putting people together in strategic teams. Unassigned seats can promote an urban vibe of community and teamwork. However, they also limit personalization and sometimes make people feel transient — as if they don’t have a home in the office. Programs that support intraoffice community building can resolve those issues.
5. How confident are you about the future of your firm?
Are changes to your organization predictable over the next five years? Ten years? Flexibility in design of the space, as well as the business and HR policies that support the use of the space, may need to be revisited more often. The design and construction of your workplace should support the evolving nature of your work, practice area growth trends, and staffing needs.
Is Your Workplace Pulling Its Weight?
Your workplace can and should be an active participant in reinforcing the new ways of working that will define your future. As you plan your return to the office, be sure to consider the physical workplace and the policy changes that will allow your firm to succeed.
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