Open pain?

I’m sure they exist. They have to exist. This is a large universe, filled with many glittering bodies, I’m sure I’ll meet one eventually. But for now, I have to wonder whether I will ever come across a partner who actually likes working open plan. One who actually prefers it to having an office.

Mark Brandon
Mark Brandon

I’ve met plenty of the other type, in fact I met one a couple of weeks ago. “We’re not as profitable as we should be,” he grumbled, “and it doesn’t make any sense because we have lots of clever people here and good clients. I think it’s open plan, it reduces productivity.”

The New Statesman columnist Ed Smith picked up on this recently in a marvellous piece about how open plan is really the worst of all possible worlds; everyone knows we work most effectively in peace and quiet on our own, but sometimes – especially when we need to bounce around ideas – we need interaction with others. What open plan does is impinge on the first without facilitating the other, Smith contends. In fact, in open plan, we become specialists at building unseen barriers to interaction.

I think there is something in this; having worked open plan all my career, I can attest that there were days in recruitment where nary a word passed between our desks from breakfast to lunch and thence to teatime. In fact, at one company, my line manager emailed me to tell me to basically sit down and shut up rather than interact with my colleagues.

Most partners I have discussed this with dislike open plan because they too like to work in peace and quiet, with plenty of thinking space and time, and thoroughly dislike the idea that they may be overheard. They will dress this up, usually, by reference to client confidentiality and so forth, but I think there is a deeper root for the discord.

Partners, by their nature, are marvels of the tension between being an expert on the one hand and the awful possibility of being seen by those around them to be wrong on something, which might fatally puncture their claim to be expert. The more expert one is, the greater the fall possible, the greater the schadenfreude of one’s rivals. There is even a recognised psychological term for extreme cases of this: imposter phenomenon, or fraud syndrome.

For lawyers this is of course magnified by the possibility that missing something could lead to a massive professional negligence claim. It has been my experience that truly gifted legal advisers use awareness of this tension to their advantage. If you have an office, this is much easier to manage, but in open plan, the risk that you will be overheard by some smarty-pants associate misquoting from section 97 of the Incredibly Difficult Act is of course much greater.

The fact that some very successful firms stick with separate offices, at least for partners – I personally think there is a real case for having support staff work open plan and partners having offices, with other legal staff maybe somewhere in between – and others choose to go open plan suggests that there is not a ‘right’ answer.

So, what is the point of open plan? Well, cost for a kick-off. But then in the absence of figures comparing open plan with office configuration, I might beg to be a sceptic there. I wonder if people even look at that; rather, I suspect that it is an ideological decision rather than an economic one, though helpfully backed up by the fact that offices is a more expensive way to go.

I suspect with law firms, frustrated by a lack of cross-selling among partners that seems deeply rooted when they have offices they can retreat to, open plan must seem like the panacea but I wonder if it actually works like that, per Smith.

It may just be a generational thing, maybe I’m a grumpy old man. Many of the young ‘uns are never going to know anything different from open plan. But then I have never had an office – until now – and I know for a fact there are points where I would have been significantly more productive if I had; certainly, I’m way more productive now than I was when I worked open plan.

Of course, in the rigid environments that are beloved by the big recruiters, for instance, supervision is a key point. Smith quotes from Gideon Haigh’s book The Office, arguing that open plan “has reflected a low-trust environment, the idea that workers not under panoptical supervision would malinger and make mischief”.

Is it really going too far to extend this to the hallowed professional environment of law firms? Could my partner friends really be complaining about an infringement on their autonomy as partners?

No, surely, for that to be the case, law firms would have to be low-trust environments, where partners were constantly supervised by management to make sure their billings were at the correct level, with the threat of being booted out of the club if they falter.

Oh wait…

Mark Brandon is managing director of Motive Legal Consulting