Facilities management: Agents of change

The office environment can make or break a merger. So what is the formula for this function’s success?

The office environment can cause most grief than any other issue, particularly post-merger.

“Facilities management and property costs are the second highest expense for most law firms,” highlights Pinsent Masons senior facilities manager Dave Ash, who was responsible for legacy McGrigors’ move into the firm’s landmark premises at Crown Place following the 2012 tie-up between the two. “With this in mind, there’s more thought and science involved than most might think.”

move

A common misunderstanding is that facilities management is all about tables and chairs – under-the-radar stuff that nobody really cares about. But Ash is quick to highlight the more emotional and strategic elements of the job. 

“Moves can be emotive because by their very nature they involve change,” continues Ash. “It’s how you manage that change that makes it a success or not.”

Champions

Indeed, any frustrations with a merger can be exacerbated when the two firms suddenly work under one roof. The challenge is to create a one-firm -environment, with fee-earners in constant communication, sharing information and clients.

“The office has a huge impact on culture – people see investment is being made for them as well as for clients,” says Shoosmiths head of real estate management Carol Light, who was responsible for moving 200 staff to a larger, open-plan office in Birmingham last year.

“It can be difficult making sure all partners are happy [with a move], so when we do a big facilities change such as the Birmingham move, we arrange for what we call ‘champions’ – usually the PA of that group – to represent each department and make sure everyone’s happy.”

But a successful move is not just about packing your bags after giving the team leader a satisfied high-five. It took three months for Light, along with office head Jason Jackson, to plan the big move after benchmarking costs and presenting a business case to the operations board. 

Next came a risk assessment of the technology being brought in – the “first major priority” for any big project, emphasises Light – as well as a review of the design, fit-out, furniture, audio-visual systems, workstations and storage at the 40,000sq ft space.

Keep staff onside

Despite the long to-do list, facilities management is often an overlooked job. Can this be frustrating?

“With facilities management, people aren’t aware of it until something goes wrong,” answers Light. “One major improvement has been storage, because there was previously a lot of storage local to each of the lawyers that wasn’t always relevant. Now we have a centralised storing system with only live, essential cases stored locally.” 

While these decisions are made at the top, extensive consultation with staff helps to minimise backlash.

“The main thing here is partnership, not just internally but also with third parties,” says Light, who has no assigned seat and hot-desks between workstations on a daily basis. “It’s important that I build relationships with external design and fit-out companies so I know who can deliver and who I can trust.” 

As with most things, communication is key, even if the talk is about furniture. When Pinsents made the decision to go open-plan two years ago staff were faced with 12 types of chair to test before head of office Martin Roberts settled on one.

“I could speak and write all day about the complexities of facilities in an international law firm,” says Ash. “But the main thing I’d say helped keep our partners as happy and as content as possible was early communication from the team. Letting them know in advance about developments is critical.”

Of course, another challenge for facilities managers is getting things at the right price, especially after a merger – is it necessary to purchase new furniture and storage units or should the money go towards design or catering? 

“Offer people good quality free coffee and you can get 10 other things away no problem,” muses one manager. 

Posh coffee or not, the answers will vary depending on the reason for the change. With such huge costs involved in property and
office space, facilities managers can have a hefty influence on the future of a firm. 

While Pinsents’ new office has attracted the attention of TV crews from The Apprentice, Spooks and Luther, others have moved under harsher conditions. Liverpool-headquartered Exchange Chambers, for example, changed office in October following legal aid spending cuts. The set’s 35 criminal barristers took up more decentralised working – specifically, hot-desking – to reduce its costs. 

facilities

Get collaborative

While cost-saving is often touted as a main driver for going open-plan there are also cultural and practical benefits to scrapping offices.

“In our old office we had lawyers on 11 floors and nobody bumped into each other unless it was in a rickety old lift,” K&L Gates London head Peter Kalis told The Lawyer after the firm moved into One New Change in May 2011. “Here, you get away from that isolating environment where IP lawyers are on one floor and finance lawyers on another. Now, everyone is mismatched and they bump into each other. It helps to engender a collaborative environment.”

But open-plan does not always mean cheap. When Reynolds Porter Chamberlain (RPC) went open-plan seven years ago it spent £95,000 (about £1 per sq ft) installing a ‘pink noise’ system (a sound that masks noise). This was broadcast from hundreds of small speakers in the ceilings.

“We still use pink noise – it allows our people to work with minimal sound disturbance of the sort that other open-plan environments might experience,” says RPC head of brand & talent Clint Evans. “[But] we also have internal meeting rooms for private meetings and sensitive phone calls.” 

Such decisions make up just a tiny part of a facilities management role. Other functions that fall into the job description include the post room, print room, building maintenance, catering, health and safety, cleaning, security, equipment maintenance and operations, making it a pretty vital chunk of law firm management. 

In light of this it is no wonder that some firms turn to outsourcing. CMS Cameron McKenna spearheaded the trend in 2010, when it became the first City firm to outsource all its business support -services to Integreon. A year later, Field Fisher Waterhouse signed a £18.5m deal to outsource the facilities management of its European offices, with specialist company Rollright Facilities bagging a five-year contract to take over its London-based facilities team. 

But as cost pressures have piled up, such arrangements have started to unravel. In July last year CMS decided to shut down parts of the deal with Integreon, although at the time the firm kept quiet about which parts of the business had been removed. Sources have since said that the firm’s post room unit was sent to digital printing service Xerox, while its facilities services unit was pushed over to FTSE 250 business Initial Facilities. Osborne Clarke also decided to scale back its deal with Integreon, transferring most of its support services back into the firm last March. 

The reasons for firms moving away from outsourcing are varied, but issues can arise when a key operational function is separated from crucial parts of the business. Pinsents head of facilities Simon Harding left the firm in December and it will be interesting to see how the firm chooses to manage this segment of the business in future. 

So, as a growing number of firms choose to merge, the multifaceted world of facilities management is an increasingly important factor in the success of the strategy. Food for thought next time someone says facilities is bottom of the pile.