Perhaps I should have said upfront in Part 1, but it’s never too late:  In this series I’m discussing the office after humanity has re-emerged from the global isolation ward this dratted pox has lowered on us all.

I am not discussing, and have no interest in, imagining how the office might function during this extended interregnum, or what it will look like with social distancing, fractional capacity, and all the rest of it.  Plexiglass barriers, instant-read touchless thermometers, infantilizing and hectoring decals at 6’ intervals on the floor?  Be my guest, but I’ll see you on the other side.  (Yes, I laud the experts who have devoted their lives to knowing how to  make all these things possible—we really need them to be in charge right now.  But I’m not one of them.)

Let’s resume our survey of the explicit and tacit design choices made in offices, their cultural overtones, recipes for the mix between sheer, maximized worker-bee productivity and social/connective/team dynamics,  and why people might want to “go to work” in an office if their job functions don’t actually demand it.

As I read some of the new literature on why we even have offices, one of the metaphors I found helpful as a spur to thought was to think of the office as a “bundle of space applications, the way cable TV is a bundle of channels.”  And now some of those channels are changing and we have the lockdown/WFH effect kicking in to speed up those changes.  (The quote is from Jennifer Magnolfi Astill, a leading researcher on workspaces.)

Some excerpts from the interview:

Magnolfi Astill: This [physicalàremote] shift has been under way for some time. What the current situation has done is shine a very bright light on the change and accelerate the process of adoption for companies outside the traditional tech world. In some industries, we’ve seen companies and individuals adopt almost 10 years of workspace progress — such as the use of digital collaboration tools and video as a default — in a few months, simply because they had no choice.

Ten years?

The shifts I observe in tech workspaces have about a decade time scale. That just seems to be the way it works.

She tracks three primary changes.

Starting in the 1990s, first Silicon Valley startups and then the rest of the world, discovered the business applications of the internet—starting with email and highly networked corporate environments.   [Done that—Bruce.]

The second shift became obvious after the 2008 financial crisis:  The shift to mobile technology, cloud computing, and smartphones.  [Done that—Bruce.]

The third and current shift started a couple of years ago, and it’s focused on exploring the potential to apply machine intelligence to business problems.  [This future, in the famous phrase, is already here but “unevenly distributed.”  I suspect it’s the kind of evolution that will find lawyers, rather than lawyers finding AI.  So you don’t have to learn to code just yet.—Bruce]

The good  news is you have time to plan all this:

  • Everyone isn’t rushing back to your current offices this week or next.
  • Office leases tend to last a fairly long time and rare indeed would be the multi-office firm where they all expire even in the same year, much less at the same time.
  • And we are all making this up as we go along—something to be celebrated, not fretted obsessively over.

One more thing:  One size need not fit all.

By that I mean simply that physically present and virtual/remote lie on opposite ends of a spectrum; there is plenty of space in between for imaginative hybrid and mixed options.

Full disclosure, but this is old news to regular readers:  I am a card-carrying devotee of major metropolitan areas: The more global the better.  And at the same time I completely understand the celebratory, liberating adrenaline rush of realizing we don’t have to descend every day into the subway or exhaust everything NPR has to offer playing stop and go on the freeway.

On the other hand:  Humans crave connectedness.  Being away from colleagues for long times generates free-floating “FOMO” (fear of missing out).  Strolling through a densely packed midtown or downtown, with attractive stores, architecture, and yes, people, is a lot of fun.  Zoom is the sworn enemy of totally serendipitous encounters.  So let’s ask if there isn’t a middle way?

Generalizations can be perilous, but they’re undeniably useful, so let me advance the reasonable hypotheses that:

  • The more employees working virtually in number and days/week, the greater the challenges to instilling/maintaining/growing social cohesion. (For each of these, the obverse should be true, so “the more employees working on-premises in number and days/week,….)
  • The more employees working virtually in number and days/week, the greater the access to widely dispersed geographic talent.
  • The more employees working virtually in number and days/week, the greater the challenge (near impossibility?) of integrating new hires and recruits into the firm’s culture and “the way we do things around here.”
  • The more employees working on-premises in number and days/week, the lower the savings on real estate, the more time spent commuting.
  • The more employees working on-premises in number and days/week, the greater the odds of spontaneous, serendipitous chance encounters resulting in genuine creativity.

To bring all this in now for what I hope resembles an intentional landing, let’s switch gears to how to think about the office of the future. (This was informed by PwC’s “Creating the office of the future,” (July 2020).

First, redefine, for your firm, what role the office should serve.  An “acid test” question here might be to ask, “What activity is so important/attractive that it will keep people coming in and showing up?”  I suspect you may quickly find yourself discarding the (unspoken, previously unchallenged) assumption that the office is the default location for getting work done.  Maybe the default is remote and WFH.

I imagine many of you will find that the functions the office serves—the activities that can really only be performed there and not remotely—center on team building, intense collaboration, and commitment (to decisions, strategies, tactics).

Second, and conversely, redefine what the WFH/remote guidelines should be.  People (probably not too many in a law firm, perhaps IT specialists) who need to be physically present with critical in-office equipment or technology, are obviously not going to be WFH much or at all.

Given those two exercises, you should have a rough idea (a) what activities the office needs to be optimized for; and (b) how many people it will typically need to accommodate.  This brings us to the third task.

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