Managing Your Practice
The Death of Status
Office design is key to employee productivity and client satisfaction
By Karen Niemi
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
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?
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.
FOR THE MIND
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.
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.
INCREDIBLE SHRINKING CORNER OFFICE
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.
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.
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
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.
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.'
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.
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.'
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.
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.
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
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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.