While in many sectors the post-pandemic future of the office looks uncertain, it still holds significant value in the legal sector and is vital for enabling a collaboration. Law firms talk to Ashleigh Webber about their current intentions.
Numerous surveys have identified an appetite for increased flexibility over working locations and hours post-pandemic. A survey of more than 2,000 office workers commissioned by behavioural science consultancy Mind Gym found that six in 10 wanted to remain working from home in some capacity on a permanent basis, rising to three-quarters in London. Likewise, CIPD research found employers expected the proportion of their people working from home in the long term to increase to 37% from 18% pre-Covid-19.
This has prompted many organisations in various sectors to consider whether an office is necessary, which is unsurprising given the significant savings on overheads some firms could make. For example, City employers often pay an average of 20% of salary in real estate space for each employee, according to Brian Kropp, chief of research at consultancy Gartner HR.
“There will be a significant increase in the number of companies that make the decision to shut down or dramatically shrink their office space to capture these cost savings,” he says.
Numerous large organisations in sectors including finance and technology are proposing to take advantage of employees’ openness to remote working and reduce their office footprint permanently. Barclays and Fujitsu have signalled that they will be closing some of their office space, while NatWest Group – formerly RBS Group – has told almost 50,000 UK-based staff that they will continue working from home until at least 2021.
But HR leaders in large law firms say they will take a more flexible approach to the use of their office spaces; allowing staff to work at home if they wish, while opening up their facilities for meetings and socialising.
Baker McKenzie’s head of talent management Katherine Hallam says the firm already offers a range of working options depending on employees’ roles and the type of clients they have.
“We see working collaboratively within an office as part of the future of working in our firm,” she says. “Agile working is something that we really want to take forward and ensure that people can still carry out their roles to the best of their ability; for some that might be two days in the office and three days from home, for others it might be one day per week from home and four in the office.”
She is unsure whether Baker McKenzie would require less office space in the long term, but says how it uses its estate is likely to evolve over the coming months and years.
“Our sector is about relationships; be that about relationships with our clients, relationships with our colleagues, and there are times where that relationship is best served with that personal interaction and human contact, but there are also times where you can work remotely very effectively,” she adds.
Collaborative office spaces
Slater & Gordon is among firms that have decided to focus on collaborative space, especially in London, with employees’ homes becoming their permanent place of work.
It will have a reduced footprint in the City, permanently closing its London base at 90 High Holborn, and the rest of its office estate will be reviewed in September. The space it does have will be more aligned to enabling teamwork and meetings.
Offices will no longer be the place where people come in to complete their daily tasks, says Slater & Gordon, which envisages that only half of its workforce will be in an office at any one time.
David Whitmore, chief executive, said in May: “We don’t want our staff tethered to desks in offices. We trust them to work hard to get the best outcomes for our clients wherever they are.
“We are a technology driven business and we always knew that having most of our staff working remotely was in our future. It improves the wellbeing and work-life balance of our staff and provides flexibility to our customers. We have been able to accelerate these plans over the last few months.”
The view that the future of work in the legal sector will be a “blend” between office and home is shared by Paul Robinson, director of HR at Trowers & Hamlins. However, he thinks the share of home working and office working will change depending on the work demands employees are under and the stage they are at in their careers.
“I’m in a senior role; I have my networks, both internal and external, developed through years of experience and familiarity. This has made my transition [to home working] relatively straightforward,” he says.
“However, I have learned from more senior colleagues previously, observing them, listening to them, socialising with them. Whilst flexible, agile working has a place and is essential in the modern-day law firm, fledgling careers could suffer. So much learning is done informally and relationships similarly developed, both within and across teams.
“Whilst there are great benefits to having a flexible approach to where you perform your work, the benefits of seeing colleagues regularly and having that first hand human interaction are invaluable,” he says.
The ‘next normal’
Although law firms may have in the past had concerns about confidentiality and security where employees brought work home with them, Hallam says the agile working culture that has emerged at Baker McKenzie means this is no longer an issue. For example, it already had policies requiring papers to be brought into the office to be securely destroyed before the coronavirus lockdown was imposed.
Whatever the future holds for office space in law firms, it’s unlikely that all staff will be in the office all of the time. A recent report from property firm JLL suggests around 30% of all office space will be consumed flexibly by 2030, as the need for a fixed office space declines.
“Office space will continue to evolve as a result of the pandemic and is arguably going to play an even greater role in driving corporate wellbeing and productivity,” says Ben Munn, global flexible space lead for JLL.
“As organisations look to adapt to the ‘next normal’ where de-densification of main office space will need to occur, we anticipate a move towards a ‘hubs and clubs’ model that provides office locations closer to where people live. These distributed locations, or ‘clubs’, are likely to lean heavily on flexible space arrangements.”
A future of ‘something else’
Although Boris Johnson has announced that office workers should be encouraged to return to the workplace from 1 August, it remains to be seen whether law firms will follow suit. Hallam says Baker McKenzie is preparing for a return in autumn; Robinson expects the same for Trowers & Hamlins.
“We have got people who are very keen to return, but equally we are very understanding that they want to return in a safe way as well,” says Hallam.
“Because agile working was already embedded in the way we work we were able to quite seamlessly switch to remote working. I expect this will continue even after our offices reopen.”
A completely remote workforce in the legal sector is looking unlikely at the moment. But for the law firms who may be considering closing down their offices completely, Gartner’s Kropp says they need to think carefully.
“What companies should be asking is not if we should have a corporate office, but rather what do we want the purpose of our corporate offices to be? Should it be the place to engage our employees, our customers or our communities? Should it be the place where we collaborate and innovate? Or maybe something else?”
That “something else” remains unclear at the moment. In the legal sector at least, the office still has a role in enabling collaboration and relationship-building – but the pandemic has prompted firms to use them in more agile ways than before.