In a guest editorial, commercial real estate and investment firm CBRE shares insights into the changing workplace and how it impacts the way the legal sector will use office space into the future.
The office landscape
Covid-19 has seen disruption across all industries and change in how organisations are looking at their use of office space. Survey results from the CBRE European Occupier Survey July 2021 show that:
- Offices will repopulate over the remainder of this year, led by small companies.
- Mixed or hybrid working is the intended landing zone for most, but much of the detail remains to be filled in.
- Offices feature strongly in corporates’ thinking about the future distribution of work, but they will be used differently.
- New work strategies – and interim pilot projects to assess them (test & adjust) will accelerate the growth of flex space markets.
- Workplace solutions will be geared strongly around collaboration, engagement and culture where technology is the glue and enabler to plans.
The legal sector has historically been fairly traditional in its workplace strategies; it has since seen one of the greatest workplace transformations of any sector since the start of the pandemic. How are we seeing the sector adapt to new trends in working practices?
New ways of working
With patterns now starting to form, we are seeing some radical adaptations underway, which may become templates for other professional services firms. However, although changes are taking place, it is clear from our research with firms that the office remains a staple feature of the working environment for the legal sector.
We’ve traditionally seen law firms struggle with desk ownership battles, space utilisation and embracing flexible working, as well as adopting new technologies. We are now seeing many firms adopt an agile working environment, with some indicating that their employees will occupy the office for two to three days per week. Some have launched plans to overhaul working patterns, encouraging their employees to decide on how they want to balance office and remote working, guided by how they prioritise their work through the lens of client, team and individual.
At the same time, firms remain focused on attracting and retaining the best talent, with strategies that must adapt to reflect changing work patterns. With Covid-19 having accelerated shifts in office use, how can firms ensure offices fully represent the culture and brand of a firm and provide a place where staff and clients want to be?
Recent survey data we have from the firms we advise still indicate a strong preference for sticking with a central HQ office location. This is supported by the need for a single centrally located hub to encourage collaboration and innovation as more people continue to work remotely.
The majority of firms we speak to are broadly settling on a two-to-three-day work-from-home strategy for employees, but this is open to interpretation and often underpinned by staff surveys that help establish the balance between team and function.
This should be an opportunity to review and possibly reduce overall space requirements. While some organisations are reducing overall space, many are considering how they will use space in the future as there is more need for collaboration zones and less dense work environments. The overall impact on space will probably be less than originally anticipated at the start of this pandemic.
CBRE’s research indicates that the office will be used for more collaborative purposes, meaning a shift from cellular office/private office space to an open-plan setup. Where the office has traditionally been used for work processes, we expect to see a shift towards collaborative, educational and social spaces.
Although the future design of the office for the legal sector is still being debated, we are seeing firms adopt more forward-thinking approaches. Some firms are repurposing space for amenities like yoga and wellbeing, better team-meeting spaces and reviewing client space to assist with collaborative meetings.
These changes to working styles need to be supported by facilities management plans. There is an increasing drive for firms to achieve greater operational efficiency in the buildings and spaces they occupy, with widescale reviews of hardware and equipment to ensure cost and energy-consumption savings are being secured.
Employees now expect enhanced experiences from their working environments, focusing on a seamless and frictionless working environment. Understanding the intersection of the physical, human and digital worlds will help when developing digital strategies for improving people’s experience. This can be seen in the need to be able to book different spaces for both individual and shared, collaborative working. More and more firms are adopting building apps which can be used to book space and provide communication and create a common experience between work from the office and home. CBRE research indicates three factors dominating building selection:
- Wellness and sustainability – especially indoor air quality.
- Technology integration – data capture.
The majority (67%) of those companies surveyed now view indoor air quality as a critical building amenity. This has led to a rise in demand for air quality sensors and notifications to staff of the quality of the air. Measuring indoor air quality is vital in ensuring that pollutants are identified, enabling incoming fresh air to be treated adequately, and the internal sources of pollutants to be reduced or removed. CBRE has undertaken work with a significant number of Law Firms to make indoor air-quality improvements.
Some firms see this as a demonstration that they are doing what they can to improve staff confidence in returning to the office while there is evidence that better air quality improves productivity by 20%.
The increasing use of sensors and data capture from these and employee apps improves analysis of space use and building data, enhanced asset lifecycle, and improves building efficiencies and overall real estate decision making.
Many of the firms we advise have indicated that they see future working patterns where lawyers will come into the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays to mitigate less favourable commuting patterns. This has become more of a concern for legal real estate leaders who don’t want to encourage ‘bottleneck occupancy’, or to accept empty or under-utilised space on other days of the week. We are seeing some firms implement social team initiatives and free coffee and food to encourage a more even distribution of office-based work across the week.
We’re seeing a cultural and demographic workplace contrast within the legal sector. From a cultural perspective, workplace trends have been dictated by differing government directives across the globe. For example, lawyers have been deemed as ‘critical services’ in Europe and parts of America, which has encouraged higher office occupancy levels compared to the UK. City infrastructure, such as in Singapore, has also impacted workplace trends. Some of our clients stated that the home-working environment and lack of space have encouraged lawyers to return to the office.
From a demographic and work-role perspective, we’re seeing a split in behaviours. Where partners have sometimes struggled with new or unusual working arrangements, some clients have indicated that they have adapted more readily to working from home than envisaged but expect to return to the office as restrictions ease and working rhythms change.
By contrast, at associate level, family needs have dominated future office occupancy decisions, whilst sentiment highlights that trainees want to get back into the office most regularly to benefit from shared learning practices, as well as a having desk space and equipment to work from.
Business support roles in the fee-earning space have mostly adapted well to working from home. This will only accelerate the need for digital technology enhancements in the legal sector to support digitalising postal services, archiving, secretarial tasks and other administrative services.
Firms are engaging with their workforce to agree or prescribe new working patterns through engagement and sentiment surveys. This data is being used to better understand the relationship between team, task and space. There is certainly no ‘one size fits all’ but many firms are taking a ‘test and adjust’ approach to space planning underpinned by data.
For those making decisions on firms’ working practices and space, a flexible approach is needed with a clear understanding of balances required to build the law firm office of the future.
For further details on the above, or our future Legal Round Tables, please contact:
Facilities Management Law Firm Specialist
Director, Head of Digital Sales CBRE