Smells like team spirit

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.;