Moving into the space age

Redesigning offices with a new sense of harmony is all the rage and some firms are even turning to feng shui. Chris Dignan reports.

The image of a partner cocooned in an expansive oak-panelled office, protected by a secretary outside acting as gatekeeper is set to change.

If some consultants have their way, the next generation of law offices will focus on a light, ergonomic environment of living workspaces, with network sockets for laptops, mobile phones replacing desktop handsets and the free flow of information and life forces replacing the paper mountain and corporate stress and competition.

It is easy to fall into the new design jargon and even easier to scoff, but many law firms are now calling in consultants to redesign their offices to match the way they now practise law.

For some, the new design principles often coincide with those of feng shui. Both aim to increase harmony in the workplace and even those that shy away from such holistic models are looking at doing more than rearranging the furniture.

The new focus is on how people work within environments. “We behave in certain ways when we are in certain environments and surrounded by particular shapes and colours,” says Sarah Shurety, consultant at The Feng Shui Company in London.

Managing partners are not simply looking for cosmetic changes to impress visiting clients. They have heard that the right kind of redesign makes their employees happier and can lead to a 15 per cent increase in productivity.

Old offices were designed on the assumption that a lawyer worked in isolation and most of their work was conducted on paper.

The traditional layout of small satellite offices on the perimeter of the building, surrounding a windowless administrative pool with rows of desks, is still commonplace. Such a model has changed little since the 1970s, even though the way lawyers operate has changed radically in the last five to 10 years.

There has been a move to vast open-plan offices with rows of desks what some would call a half-way house but the basic principles have stayed the same. This is all about to change.

Law is now much more of a team effort, with several lawyers often working on the same case. Individual offices are just not practical as lawyers often need to meet, discuss and plan. Furthermore, many spend very little time actually in their office.

With the growth in the use of information technology networked computers, the internet and videoconferencing – the old-fashioned office has become redundant and even counter-productive. If the work demands teamwork and the technology enables networking, a workplace with separate rooms, corridors and partitions can be a liability.

The design gurus behind the new movement argue that old-style office layouts are not only impractical but restrict what people can do, demotivating them. If people are happy in their surroundings, they are more creative and inspired and become much better workers, the argument goes.

Robert Finch, a property partner at Linklaters who chaired the firm's move to new custom-built premises in 1997, says the computer dominates the job. But, he argues, technology is only useful if premises are designed around the people who use them.

“On the Channel Tunnel financing and the huge privatisations, there were simply lots and lots of lawyers on each case and you have got to have them working together on one thing without pieces of paper flying around the office. You need to end up with them all reading the same thing and being in the same room together when you can,” he says.

“What's the point of an office for an international lawyer who does not use it for half the year?”

This change has meant sweeping away offices and replacing them with informal meeting rooms. Linklaters has also installed glass where partitions would have once been used. “Now we can't have lawyers brooding behind office doors or partitions because we have opened up the environment with huge amounts of glass. The more international you become in your business, the more teamwork there is and so you have to use space to help that,” says Finch.

Linklaters is looking at taking this further and, as The Lawyer reported last week, has taken part in a study by design consultancy DEGW, a company that says its design ideas “coincide with feng shui principles”.

Firms have found their workplaces becoming more and more crowded and want to find out more efficient ways of using their space an expensive commodity.

DEGW stresses in its survey of law firms that it makes good economic sense to redesign. “One risk of not changing the work styles and the work settings traditionally used by lawyers is that law firms will be forced to continue to take on ever increasing amounts of space, to move buildings or to re-arrange the internal planning of buildings,” the survey says.

Several law firms looked at Andersen Consulting's premises near the Strand where the traditional office layout was, under the auspices of DEGW, abolished and replaced by a brave new world of hot-desking, sofas, meeting tables and racks of mobile phones replacing the desk-bound phone. This got the lawyers thinking and many of the big firms have asked consultants to look at how their offices can be re-designed, incorporating many of these features.

Peter Buchan, director of architects The Ryder Company, is helping northern firm Ward Hadaway review its office design, and says more and more firms are asking for their offices to be overhauled.

“Logically organising an office and stimulating people by the design brings out the creative and emotional side of people and the potential for increase in productivity is enormous. We see an increase of 10 to 15 per cent,” he says.

Buchan also believes that technology is important. Networked computers mean people can have a portable computer and plug in anywhere they want to in a building, he says. Individual booths can be reserved for people who need quiet or confidential telephone conversations, racks of portable phones means a person is constantly available, and lounge areas can be used for meetings, sofas for reading reports.

“You have different areas of the office designed for the different needs people have during the day. This gives variety, is more efficient, flexible and uses space to the optimum. Lawyers are now beginning to realise that there is more to life than sitting in an office surrounded by a load of dusty files,” says Buchan.

Opening up an office to all of the staff has advantages for support and administrative workers. “Partners may have plush offices but support staff are miffed because they often end up in places without windows or ventilation. This will leave them demotivated,” Buchan says.

But in the brave new world where space is equal and no-one owns an office, a desk or even a phone, there could, of course, be problems. With tradition dictating that a larger and more luxurious office often goes hand in hand with a promotion and higher status, there may be some resentment.

The partner's office as a status symbol is becoming outdated as the fast-paced realities of practising law overtake tradition, says Andrew Harrison, director of research and methods at DEGW.

“The amount of space provided for a particular activity should be related to the particular task and not the status of the person carrying it out,” says Harrison, who says his firm's studies showed that the average solicitor is out of the office for half of the working day.

His own firm is practising what it preaches by completely reinventing its office layout at its King's Cross headquarters to make it look like someone's living room. For some firms, giving up gilded offices which they have treated as private havens may be painful, but admitting they are following feng shui may be much harder. As Buchan puts it: “Law firms are the last bastions of old practices.”

That may well be true, but technological pressures, client demands and new work practices are pushing the profession towards a radical redesign of its work environment.

7 ways lawyers can manipulate their ch'i:

1. The direction a building faces is crucial as it sets the energy levels for the whole firm. It should be aligned to one of the four optimum directions of the managing partner or whoever is the ultimate head of the organisation.

2. A firm's building should also have or be near a spire or dome as these are shapes most sympathetic to the legal profession and will help increase energy levels within the building.

3. Do not move into a building if it has housed companies which have failed in the past because it is likely it is on a site of poor energy.

4. Inside, firms should aim to put as many palm trees in foyers and offices as possible because they are full of movement and force people to lift their heads to look at them, which helps to lift a person't energy.

5. Firms should avoid painting walls and ceilings white as this symbolises being devoid of blood. Colours like peach, beige, lighter shades of orange, and cream give much more energy and the occasional splash of red is recommended.

6. People should align their desks to their optimum direction within the office, but avoid placing people back to back as this obstructs communication.

7. Square rooms make people feel much more comfortable while they work than rectangular rooms. Abolishing all private offices may be counter-productive, because some people sometimes need their own space and privacy.

Sarah Shurety, consultant at The Feng Shui Company.