Part of the fascination of reading all the tributes to Steve Jobs last week was wondering how much of his leadership style could be translated into a context outside the consumer and creative industries.
On balance, a bit more imagination about the end-user wouldn’t go amiss in the law, although I doubt a cult of Napoleonic micro-management would go down too well in firms. But amid the hagiographies there was one telling detail about Jobs’ time at Pixar that has relevance for professional services firms: he redesigned the building for the greatest mixing opportunities among staff to maximise energy and creativity.
By contrast, in the professional services sector, the psychosocial effect of space and surroundings on organisational behaviour is oddly underplayed.
Without getting all new age about this, lawyers - or ’knowledge workers’, to use the term favoured by academics - sell services based on intellectual collaboration. However, the cellular layout used in most firms reinforces the idea of a priestly class and rigid teams rather than project-based groupings. While most firms are trying to foster collaborative behaviour through financial incentives for cross-referrals, for example, the old approach to office organisation seems out of step with the rest of the working world. Trying to create teamworking when your office is organised like a cube farm is a bit like training for the 100-metres in Louboutins.
There’s not enough space here to do justice to the arguments for and against, but objections are usually based on lawyers’ requirements for quiet in order to draft and deal with confidential information. Proponents of open working - or perhaps I should say evangelists, since they show all the fanaticism of converts - counter this with examples of separate meeting spaces and studios.
Three major firms - Addleshaw Goddard, Eversheds and Pinsent Masons - have embraced open-plan workspaces for all fee-earners. It’s notable that all three are national practices that have always had a need to synchronise teams across locations. Meanwhile, CMS Cameron McKenna’s management team utilises open-plan, which is an indicator that the firm may go the whole hog in its new building. It’s almost Californian.