What am I working on today?

That is the question which Shoosmiths lawyers and staff in Manchester now ask themselves when they arrive at work in the morning. Then, they pick where they want to carry out the task they need to complete, and get on with it.

Shoosmiths moved into its new premises in Manchester in June 2017, taking two floors in the ‘XYZ Building’ in Spinningfields. The office has been designed and fitted out to ensure that the firm’s staff work in a completely different way. Manchester office head Vaqas Farooq says: “I see this as the next phase in the evolution of open plan.”

Shoosmiths opened in Manchester in 2009 and the office expanded rapidly, making new premises necessary within a few years of launch. Farooq, who is conveniently also the firm’s real estate head, led a two-year consultation with staff to ensure that the new offices would be fitted out as staff wanted and would be something that would enable Shoosmiths to work as it wanted.

An additional factor to take into consideration was Shoosmiths Agile, the firm’s flexible working scheme which launched initially in the Thames Valley before being rolled out to Manchester. The new offices gave Farooq and his team a chance to put agile working at the heart of the way the premises were laid out, the technology required and the choice of building.

“We wanted it to be flexible and crucially we wanted it to have communal space,” Farooq explains. “That meant we could take less space and reduce our property costs.”

Turbocharging tech

The XYZ Building (see box) was several years in the planning and development and Shoosmiths was the second tenant to sign up. The firm occupies 32,000sq ft in the fifth and sixth floors of the seven-storey building, but also has access to its communal workspaces, the soon-to-be-completed tenants’ bar, and other communal facilities such as a gym.

Farooq explains that Shoosmiths’ space was wholly designed around agile working. It has 11 types of workspace across the two floors. Each department has a “zone” but there are no offices and nobody has an allocated desk – although open-plan desks are one of the workspace types offered.

Others include glass fishbowl-style “pods” for telephone calls, more open pods for meetings, soft-seating and an oak-panelled library with leather wing-back chairs. Farooq says the choice of the latter was meant to be slightly tongue-in-cheek, harking back to a more traditional lawyers’ office, but the library is proving to be a popular place for a bit of quiet drafting work.

The aim is that lawyers and staff pick the area in which they work depending on the task at hand. To make this possible, everyone has been given a Toshiba laptop and a choice of either an iPhone or Blackberry smartphone. All calls are routed through laptops using Jabber and there are no desk phones in the office at all.

“Everywhere there’s workspace we’ve put big screens in,” adds Farooq, explaining that the laptops can seamlessly cast to the larger screens to enable collaborative working, presentations and so on. “Our printing costs have gone down 82 per cent,” he adds.

The offices have what Farooq describes as “turbo WiFi” everywhere. For catastrophe planning reasons there is a back-up WiFi system supplied by a different company, should the main network go down; and wiring is concealed under desks and behind walls in case that collapses too.

As nobody has an allocated desk considerable thought was given to storage. Each member of staff has their own locker in their practice area’s zone to keep things they will always need at work. There are also lockable shelves available which can be used if you plan to return to that area after a meeting or the following day.

Although printed matter has reduced due to the use of big screens, naturally Shoosmiths is still receiving paper from clients and other firms. Accordingly it also has rolling filing cabinets, as well as offsite storage for documents which are not needed on a daily basis or have to be archived.

While the design of the new offices was focused around Shoosmiths’ staff needs and Shoosmiths Agile, clients were not forgotten. Client meeting rooms – similar to those found in law firms anywhere in the country – offer the usual options for video conferences, telephone conferences, presentations and so on. These are themed around significant years in Manchester’s history, with suitable artwork on the walls. The theme, suggested by two young associates, was chosen after a competition within the firm.

Clients also have access to a lounge bar which serves hot drinks and food during the day and alcohol in the evenings. The lounge is open to any client who happens to be in town and Farooq says “they’re actually using it”.

Futureproofing Manchester

The new offices are actually slightly smaller than Shoosmiths’ previous space in Manchester, despite plans for growth. The firm currently has 220 lawyers and staff in the city.

“We believe we’ve future-proofed the office,” Farooq says.

This is helped by the firm encouraging people to work from home. There are no set minimum or maximum number of days Shoosmiths wants its staff to work from home.

“I don’t want to say to colleagues in this office that you need two days at home,” Farooq says. “I don’t want people to have that constraint over their head. I want to trust our lawyers and trust they know instinctively what they need to do. I don’t anticipate that lawyers will spend five days in the office.”

This also extends to staff – although support staff are less likely to work from home, they do have the option and Farooq says they do take it up.

The combination of agile working spaces and flexible working patterns means Shoosmiths does not need to give each of its staff as much space as in a traditional office, enabling Farooq to confidently predict there is room to grow to as many as 300 people.

The firm also managed to negotiate a below-market rate rent for the XYZ Building, paying £28 per sq ft. Farooq says current rates are around £34 per sq ft.

More importantly, Farooq says the combination of the choice of places to work, the technology provided to support that and a culture of giving people more autonomy over their daily tasks has brought about a transformation.

“I would go so far as to say that it’s completely changed the way our lawyers are working in the office,” he says.

According to Farooq, Shoosmiths will roll out the Agile programme to all its premises around the country as offices are refurbished or leases come to an end. Manchester will be the model for the way the firm works in the future. While the thought of going beyond open-plan might be too much for some firms, Farooq also says he has shown “hundreds, if not thousands” of clients, competitors and other interested parties around the XYZ Building in the few months since Shoosmiths moved in. Some of them may, perhaps, take the plunge and follow in Shoosmiths’ flexible footsteps.

History of the XYZ Building

Developer Allied London first presented plans for the nine-storey ‘i+’ building in Spinningfields, Manchester in 2012. Planning permission for the rebranded ‘Cotton Building’ was obtained in January 2014 and construction started later that year. In May 2015 the development was rebranded again as the XYZ Building.

Shoosmiths was the second tenant to sign a deal, in September 2015, taking two floors of the building. Savills and Irwin Mitchell acted for Shoosmiths and OBI Property and Ward Hadaway acted for Allied London in the deal.

In March 2016 Hamburg-based Union Investments bought the building for £85.6m.

The XYZ Building was completed in 2016 and Shoosmiths moved in in June 2017.

XYZ BuildingKey facts: XYZ Building

Owner: Union Investments

Development: Allied London

Construction: McLaren

Architect: Cartwright Pickard

Fit-out: Claremont

Space occupied by Shoosmiths: 32,000sq ft

Lease runs until: 2032