On the face of it, DLA Piper’s relocation in Manchester last year was a relatively straightforward undertaking. The firm’s old Manchester offices are literally 200m from the new premises and both old and new offices are open-plan – meaning DLA Piper’s staff and lawyers did not have to adjust to new commutes or new ways of working.

But the relocation of the firm in Manchester, from two offices in Barbirolli Square to a brand-new building in One St Peter’s Square represents a new stage of thinking for the firm about how it manages its office space.

Manchester was the third location in DLA Piper’s global footprint of more than 80 offices to be relocated or refurbished according to a set of “design principles” which will now govern the way the firm thinks about space.

“We start from the principle that the office is part of our brand,” says senior partner Andrew Darwin.

The firm has developed a 134-page document to guide its office design, with guidelines covering sustainability, the workplace environment, technology, front of house and workspace amenities among other aspects. The idea is that while each office reflects its local area, it is recognisably DLA Piper.

Sydney was the first office to be designed according to the new principles, while Darwin was based out in Australia.

“We used that as a guinea pig project,” he explains. “Australia has a slightly more modern outlook on office accommodation for lawyers and we were able to use the Sydney project as a template.”

Brisbane followed along the same lines, and then came Manchester.

The firm was looking for new space in Manchester due to the expiry of its lease in Barbirolli Square, where it had moved in the mid-1990s. It wanted to find somewhere close by to the old offices, so as not to disrupt staff and clients too much; it also needed a modern building with the right sort of floorplate to meet the new design principles.

In mid-2014 DLA Piper became the second tenant to agree a lease at One St Peter’s Square, a new build in the heart of Manchester. KPMG had already taken the top three floors of the building and DLA Piper agreed to occupy 45,000sq ft on the eighth and ninth floors. Darwin says this is actually slightly less space than it previously occupied in Barbirolli Square.

“We’re able to use the space more efficiently than before,” he says, adding that the way it is laid out allows for more contraction and expansion.

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Going open-plan

The majority of the space devoted to staff and lawyers is open-plan. Partners were given the choice over having an office or not, but critically all the offices are in the centre of the floorplan, not around the edge.

“We don’t build anything around the perimeter of the building, so you keep the light coming in,” says Darwin. “The idea is if you’re open-plan you get the best position on the perimeter.”

Every staff member has their own desk – DLA Piper has not gone down the hot-desking route – but as well as desks there are several kinds of spaces where people can work, individually or in groups.

“Fundamentally we want to get away from the idea that people just populate a single space,” Darwin explains. “We want to get to more agile working. Unless it becomes the way that everybody works and unless we can break that mindset, we’re going to struggle to get people to accept that.”

In Manchester it was not hard to encourage this shift in attitude. Barbirolli Square was open plan, although Darwin says that having been fitted out in 1996 it was “not such a good open plan environment”.

The move enabled DLA Piper to put in a much larger canteen with better food offerings, which more people are using.

Tech upgrade

It also meant an IT upgrade. Dual screens were put in, and everyone now uses Skype for Business for conference calls. They were also given noise-cancelling headsets, and significant attention was paid to the acoustic control of meeting rooms to ensure confidentiality.

That extends to the client suites, which Darwin describes as “not ostentatious” and “modern, clean and functional”. In Manchester there is no client lounge, but there are areas where clients can work if need be.

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The décor for the client space references the Manchester symbol of the bee.

“It’s designed to be a talking point but it’s designed to be subtle as well,” adds Darwin. He says each office designed according to the new principles will have a similar local theme in its client front of house area – Sydney’s walls are made of synthetic surfacing material Corian, designed to look like the Sydney Opera House roof tiles, with sandstone elements to reflect the city’s structure.

Moving on, the design principles will be used for every DLA Piper office getting a facelift.

“We’re always moving or refurbishing somewhere,” Darwin says.

A key new office will be in London. DLA Piper is hoping to relocate this year from its current offices in Noble Street to a new building, just around the corner, at 160 Aldersgate. It will be the main if not the only tenant there.

As in Sydney and Manchester, London will be open plan – a more significant shift as it currently operates on a cellular floor plan. Unlike Manchester, London will have a client lounge built in, with the firm expecting more client traffic in the bigger office.

Darwin says cost is not a factor in any of the firm’s moves and going open-plan is not reducing cost.

“Neither Manchester nor London is about cramming more people into floors,” he adds. “The density will be the same. If you do it for cost reasons you make a big mistake – it isn’t cheaper.”

History of One St Peter’s Square

The site now occupied by One St Peter’s Square formerly housed a 1960s office block, Elisabeth House. In 2010 Manchester City Council gave planning permission for the site’s redevelopment.

Construction started in 2012 and the building was completed in late 2014. KPMG became the headline tenant and DLA Piper was the second organisation to sign up to a lease.

Addleshaw Goddard has also moved into One St Peter’s Square, taking the three floors below DLA Piper and moving in in early January 2017.

Key facts: One St Peter’s Square

One St Peter’s Square, Manchester, M2 3AE

Architect: Glenn Howells Architects

Structural engineer: Tier

Construction: Carillion

Fit-out of DLA Piper’s space: Como

Cost of construction: £60m