Official Magazine of the Denver Bar Association

Open Offices. Open Minds. ~ By Cynthia Steinbrecher

Images: Davis Partnership Architects’ new office. Photo credit: Paul Brokering.

Love them or hate them, open office floor plans are likely here to stay. How they translate to law offices is something I’ve discussed frequently with attorneys, especially one whom I find particularly insightful — my husband.

Generally, there are three reasons why companies choose open floor plans. First, open floor plans save money. It is impossible to ignore the rising real estate costs in Denver. Open floor plans allow for the more efficient use of space, maximizing a firm’s ROI. Consider the following:

  • Walls are expensive and inefficient.
  • You pay rent on the square footage under a wall. This can be significant in a large office.
  • Walls are relatively inflexible. Once you build a wall, you’re stuck with it. It’s more difficult to adapt walled offices to varying workforces. One walled office typically accommodates one person. But open up the same square footage and it can accommodate one to five employees. And that number can change more easily and more frequently.

Saving space saves money, and many businesses across the country have already realized this. In the last seven years, the average space dedicated to each person within an office has shrunk from approximately 225 to 150 square feet. Reducing the space per person can be particularly important to companies where many employees telecommute and do not depend daily on their office space.

Open-Office-2Second, open office plans can improve employee satisfaction — particularly among millennials. Millennials want to feel like they are part of a larger community and be in a place that encourages face-to-face interactions. The sheer number of millennials joining the workforce has shifted office planning nationally. There is some research to suggest that even among other age groups, open office plans lead to better problem solving by allowing the free exchange of ideas, which happens when staff mingle, share thoughts and collaborate. Open office plans also allow people to change their posture from sitting to standing or to move between work areas throughout the day. Such changes can be physically energizing and mentally stimulating; they help people stay refreshed and engaged. Open office plans can give employees a sense of choice and control over how and where they work. Whatever work employees are doing, they can find a workspace that best suits that type of work. That sense of choice and control can increase employee satisfaction. When employees feel they have the best place to do their jobs, it helps them be more efficient, less stressed and more satisfied with their jobs.

Third, open office planning produces the image of equality across management and staff. Fewer walls and doors can make management seem more welcoming, encouraging information to flow more freely than hierarchically.

I know firsthand that redesigning an office is a daunting task, having recently served on the team designing our firm’s new office space. Our new office project hinged on reducing our total leased area by almost 10,000 square feet (nearly one-third of the space) while still accommodating 150 architects, interior designers, landscape architects, lighting designers and signage designers.

Cost played an important role in our design. By methodically planning the locations of work stations, desks and meeting rooms — and by cutting out needless walls — we reduced the size of the space required to accommodate our staff and clients. The visual impact of an open office was also important to us as architects and designers. And we wanted to showcase how an open office could be productive, healthy and inspiring because many of our clients come to us looking for an open office plan. We wanted to show them that we could do it right for ourselves and for them.

Open-Office-5Improving employee satisfaction was also an important consideration in designing our new office. Before actual design began, we surveyed the staff several times to hear their input. We engaged the staff in collaborative design charrettes and open forum discussions on what our new office should be. We created a subcommittee to outline the goals for the office, brainstorm how we could alleviate concerns over space constraints and determine how we could turn theoretical concepts into reality. We spent five months designing 70 different space plans. Everything had to be perfect — and we think it is. Of course, there were a few bumps in the road over the first year, but the office feels vibrant and successful. We were honored to win both architectural and interior design awards for our space, and there seems to be a renewed sense of pride, engagement and satisfaction among employees.

Obviously, the needs of a law firm and an architectural firm are not identical. Architects and designers rarely need to maintain client confidentiality or to protect against conflicts of interest. And few attorneys need to construct 3-D models or maintain a library of tile samples. But the two types of firms share many attributes that make open office plans desirable. No doubt both strive for efficiency and seek to reduce overhead costs wherever feasible. Both employ high-achieving individuals who need to maintain focus over long working hours. And both seek to engage and retain those employees.

How can we adapt the benefits of an open office plan to the traditional needs of a law firm? First, most law firms will not want to give up private offices entirely. But consider carefully who really needs an office full-time, and once that list has been boiled down, look at making offices smaller and using the saved space for the entire staff. If many of the staff work in the open portion of the office, consider adding a handful of private rooms for conversations that require privacy. Then consider adding the attributes of open office plans that have worked well in other contexts. For example:

  • Numerous conference rooms, small and large, for client meetings or private internal meetings.
  • Open spaces for collaboration and the exchange of ideas.
  • Small private rooms for focused concentration.
  • Varied seating and work arrangements in each setting so that employees can change their positioning throughout the day.
  • Technological devices, such as laptop computers with wireless network access, can make changing locations easy and seamless; a phone system that can instantly forward calls to employees’ cell phones, like Voice Over Internet Protocol, makes communication between employees and between employees and their clients hassle-free. It can also allow desktop video conferencing for meetings.
  • Acoustical concerns are paramount in open offices so careful planning and choice of materials will need to address this issue at every step of the way.

This is not an exclusive list because, of course, the needs of each firm will vary. But with proper guidance, law firms can benefit from “semi-open” office plans without compromising the professional and ethical obligations lawyers face. It’s important to recognize that the office environment is changing and that differences in generational norms will only accelerate those changes. Office settings need to go with the flow and adapt to changing needs. That’s where open offices can ultimately provide the greatest value. D

Cynthia-Steinbrecher_port-(2)Cynthia E. Steinbrecher is a senior associate interior designer at Davis Partnership Architects. She can be reached at cynthia.steinbrecher@davispartnership.com.

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