Managing Your Practice

The Death of Status

Office design is key to employee productivity and client satisfaction

By Karen Niemi

How well does your office work? Think of the space you work in, the space the managing partners work in or even the space the senior partners work in. If you're like most habitués of glass boxes and towers, these spaces are delineated in a time-honored tradition, with square footage allocated by seniority within the firm, and corner windows reserved for top dogs.

But chances are, your firm is not the same business it was 15, 10 or even five years ago. Volatile economic conditions, keen competition and dizzying technology have changed employers' expectations of employees, and vice versa. At the same time, the demands that companies must meet in order to serve their clients have evolved. Now partners are asking themselves: Are our offices set up to help our firms work efficiently? Can co-workers interact easily? Can the way we design our office save us money while still creating a great place to work?

As an interior architect specializing in workplace design, I have spent more than 20 years helping companies change the size and character of their offices, use space more efficiently and make informed decisions based on the changing nature of their company and clients.

More and more, I see companies, including law firms, moving their cultures toward an emphasis on knowledge work. This means that many managers are concerning themselves less with minimizing space costs and more with leveraging investments to encourage learning, ideas and communication.

Research has shown that in most companies, 80 percent of organizational learning happens through informal conversation and only 20 percent through formal training. The American Management Association has reported that inadequate information is the cause of more than half of the problems related to human performance, so it is crucial that the individual and common work spaces act as hubs of information.

Recognizing that even expensive real estate is a bargain if it attracts, supports and retains the best minds, companies are looking not only at space costs, but how to leverage that space to build better businesses. With rent being second only to salaries in a law practice's expenses, more efficient space planning can save a firm as much as $5 million over the term of a lease. They are looking at the character of their interiors and planning layouts to connect, rather than separate, people. We are helping them design comfortable, humanistic interiors that offer employees a variety of alternative work areas within the office.

What I've noticed over the past few years is a strong trend toward reduction of individual workspace, often as much as 30 percent under space standards of the 1980s. Offices are using 'universal' workstations, providing nearly all employees with identically sized, shaped and furnished spaces, making the available office more flexible and readily available to meet client needs. What has been an eye-opener for me, however, is the fact that law firms - some of the staunchest supporters of the traditional office design - are beginning to catch onto this trend.

The Portland law firm Lane Powell Spears Lubersky LLP recognized that in order to meet future needs, its new offices should not be based on tradition. Increasingly, law firms are finding that to effectively handle clients' more complicated legal matters, they need to draw on the expertise of firm specialists and client teams. The effort required to coordinate the work is increased as employees are spread out across a floor or multiple floors. In order to meet the emerging needs of clients and to most effectively use its know how and technology, Lane Powell needed an office space that would encourage employees to work closely in teams. This meant, for example, that the traditional linkage between office size and status within the firm was no longer in the best interest of the firm or its clients.

We developed a space that, in my experience, is unprecedented in Northwest law firms. We created a one-size-fits-all, 10-foot by 15-foot office for all attorneys, regardless of rank, and were able to reduce overall square footage by 24 percent. In order to make the best use of space in these smaller offices, we decided on new flexible furniture that would maximize vertical space for storage, including floor to ceiling shelving and large file storage units. We also chose P-shaped desktops that can serve as both a desk and conference table, allowing attorneys the flexibility of holding one-on-one meetings easily in their personal office space.

These new office spaces provide overall flexibility for the Lane Powell staff. The uniform office space allows them to rearrange work teams if a project necessitates or accommodate new staff members easily without having to worry about office size or status. Secretaries were also given their own cubicles, rather than being in a pool, to accommodate the technology needed to do their jobs. This also gives the office some flexibility, allowing secretarial spaces to be converted into paralegal stations as client needs change.

In order to encourage teams of employees to work together, we created more conference centers. Several conference and caucus rooms are now located in a central location. This is especially helpful for large meetings that often require breakout sessions.

These changes have been well received at Lane Powell. As Jeff Wolfstone, chair of Lane Powell's business department, has said, 'We designed our new space to promote greater interaction, and we've had an excellent response from attorneys, staff and clients. Our lawyers, legal assistants and secretaries are now in closer proximity. This promotes more formal and informal communication, enhances teamwork and improves responsiveness to clients. It's good for morale and good for business.'

I am seeing similar trends take place as I begin work with Portland's second and third largest law firms, Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt and Miller Nash LLP. Both firms have very traditional practices that have withstood several decades of economic and cultural changes. However, as we work through the initial stages of space planning and analyzing each office's current needs, the future is playing an important role. Both firms, although traditional in practice, are beginning to take less traditional approaches when it comes to office space.

Jonathon Goodling, partner at Miller Nash and chair of the firm's building committee, was instrumental in recognizing the changing needs of the firm. He said, 'We've been in these offices since 1983. We knew our office space was outdated cosmetically, but when we started to really look at plans, we realized that the office not only looked outdated, but was outdated, especially in terms of efficiency and in accommodations for new technology.'

At Miller Nash, we are working to reorganize and redistribute office space to accommodate changing needs. For instance, as more and more legal research sources are stored electronically, Miller Nash has realized that they no longer need as much library space. Therefore, we will work to reduce space used for library storage, making much needed room for the firm's information systems staff - staff that didn't exist nearly 20 years ago. We are also working to increase conferencing space and combine reception space for increased overall efficiency.

Realizing that changes are necessary in order to remain leaders in the future, both Miller Nash and Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt are opening the doors to better use of space. Like Lane Powell, and many other law firms I've worked with, they, too, are emphasizing productivity, teamwork, employee satisfaction and client service.

This is a trend I have watched emerge among several of my clients in the Pacific Northwest, not just law firms. Businesses and other organizations are displaying an understanding of what it takes to get and keep great employees and customers.

As we begin the new century, the advancement of accessible, affordable technology is changing our lives on a daily basis, freeing us from the shackles of place. We can work together when we are apart and send messages all over the world from wherever we might be. As the revolution progresses we should continue to ask: Why are we prisoners in a cubicle when we are equally as effective - and perhaps even more so - someplace else?

Our offices will continue to move out of the glass towers and into our briefcases. Offices and homes will continue to converge, with a lot more home at the office, and a lot more office at home. Our challenge in the design industry is to create flexible, supportive work environments that encourage the best work from employees and the best service to clients. The measure of our success lies not in whether a space is well designed for today, but in whether it can adapt to an unforeseen tomorrow and meet the greatest challenge of all - the human productivity challenge.


The author is an interior design principal with Yost Grube Hall Architecture in Portland. As a professional member of the International Interior Design Association, she has passed the examination of the NCIDQ (National Council on Interior Design Qualification). Designers with IIDA attached to their names represent the highest standards in training, experience and professionalism.

return to top
return to Table of Contents