It has the power to turn online forums aflame with vitriol. The open-plan office is now the norm for many an industry, including a growing number of law firms. It also seems to be an issue that’s every bit as contentious as football, politics and the road to world peace.
Law firms have long embraced the cellular individual office structure, affording lawyers and their clients a private place to discuss sensitive matters. There is also the status that comes with having your own office – preferably on the corner with a city view.
But things are changing, and open plan is increasing in appeal. In 2013, a third of UK law firms were fully open plan and their ranks are growing. Those with open plan include Shoosmiths and Pinsent Masons. “You can approach anyone for a quick chat, which allows you to build strong relationships with partners. It feels like everyone’s pulling in the same direction,” a Pinsent Masons’ insider said, praising open plan’s virtues to Chambers Student.
The Lawyer reported recently that Olswang is planning to move to full open plan in its London headquarters, having trialed it for the real estate team last April. A spokesperson for the firm said they have “become passionate advocates of this collaborative way of working”.
Advocates of open plan believe that it allows for better cross-selling, encourages transparency and enables junior staff to see first hand how the more experienced people in the team operate (note, this is not a good thing if they see their managers ranting and raging, sleeping or on Facebook all day).
Open plan means you are in view and you have to behave accordingly.
This can have the effect of natural selection. According to Sean Larkan, a principal at consultants Edge International, who looked at a case study of an open-plan law firm, it quickly reveals who the idiots are, and they are soon forced to move on. Larkan also noticed the firm had a “quiet cheerful buzz” about it.
One of the main arguments for open plan is that it can reduce property costs, with less space per head required. A study of UK law firms by property organisation CBRE found a clear differential between open plan and cellular: 310 sq ft occupied per fee earner in open-plan offices compared to 550 sq ft per fee earner in a cellular model.
However, some question the real cost benefit once you have factored in the additional meeting space and breakout areas that are needed.
Hell is other people
So what’s the furore about open plan? Noise and distractions are the main concerns. One study also found that open plan favours extroverts. One vehement detractor was driven to leave an open-plan firm, writing online: “The only people who liked open plan were the chatterers who never did any real work. Being distracted by other people’s noisy phone calls, personal chats and smelly lunches drove me barmy – open plan was the main reason I left.”
There are measures that can counteract some of the negatives. Sound masking systems can be installed to prevent conversations being heard all around the office, and etiquette policies put in place on levels of noise, loud ringtones and unnecessary conversation. Plentiful private areas are also provided for confidential or highly focused work.
Moving with the millennials
Whichever side of the fence you sit, and there are compelling arguments from both camps, the debate is set to run on. The increase in millennials in the workforce, who, as a sweeping generalisation, are said to prefer more collegiate ways of working and less hierarchy, will see to that.
Whether young lawyers feel that the prestigious corner office is still something to aspire is a debatable point, but it is something to be considered by those tasked with talent attraction and retention.
For business services professionals, this divisive issue should be on your radar. There are valid reasons why open plan has been as scorned as it has been embraced. A firm’s preference for one over the other may give you valuable insight into its culture and help you identify your next move in line with your own way of working.