We have a theory.
Abandoning the office—as one Managing Partner put it, “like the fire alarm went off, everybody out now”—was the easy part. Going back will pose one of the most complex management challenges to law firms posed by the pandemic, a puzzle with many dimensions—and one mutating through space and time. How so? The questions the puzzle will pose for you to solve will include:
- The attitudes of lawyers and staff about what’s “normal” in the working environment have changed forever. So far, so commonplace. What we don’t really know yet—and won’t until we all start experimenting by living it—is how much people (Which people? Will it segment along age, gender, status/position lines? Geographically?) will prefer mostly going back to working together in a central office vs. how much WFH has demonstrated its flexible charms. Where will the new comfort levels and preferences settle around commuting? And for those of us who live in metropolitan uber-plexes: Mass transit, anyone? Global cities don’t work without it, full stop.
- Clients will also, as always, figure in the mix: What are they doing in their own businesses, and do they think they’re a model others should follow? Will they want to meet in person? “The customer is always right” gets teeth.
- Technology itself is an ever-moving target (thanks, Gordon Moore). How much and what exactly can you do remotely that seems invisible, effortless, obvious and how does it intersect with what seems artificial, strained, awkward without being present? The radius of the first Venn diagram oval will continue to grow and that of the latter shrink.
- Finance too will be in the forefront. According to widely accepted sources such as Thomson Reuters’ Peer Monitor, occupancy represents on average 25% of law firms’ overhead and 12% of total expenses: So, “all else equal,” as economists like to say, cutting that outlay by 10% should add 1% to profits. Of course, a not-so-small timing complication here is that your firm’s office leases never all expire at once. You can read that as an obstacle (we can’t do this quickly) or, if you’re like me, an opportunity (we can experiment with what types of cuts and redesigns work and learn and improve over time).
- Finally, there will be the inevitable overlay of regulation: What will health departments, other regulatory agencies, landlords, cities, states, cantons, provinces, national governments prohibit, what will they permit, and what will they require? Will we have QR code apps on our phones serving as digital health passports?
We could all spin out the imponderables ad nauseum, but so far as it goes, the opening premise here that the entire legal sector had no trouble essentially standing up together and booking right out of the office over a short span of days—but that returning will be protracted, idiosyncratic, widely variable, and basically a mind-bending problem in optimizing tradeoffs, I rest my case.
So what would we actually suggest you do?
Use your imagination. Jettison all the assumptions about The Office that you still harbor (many of which are unspoken and possibly unconscious).
Most importantly, ask probing questions. Challenge your answers by asking “Why so?” Repeat. You might want to start with, “What is an office really for?” What functions does it serve better than any place else?
Understand that you’re balancing two somewhat countervailing realities:
- WFH is not just convenient and flexible, it’s efficient and productive. No time wasted commuting, having people “just drop by” right when you hit peak concentration, forcing night owls and early birds on to the same profoundly arbitrary schedule. And it grants your autonomy-seeking professionals autonomy. But/and:
- For millennia, the human race has evolved to cooperate, collaborate, and communicate—ideally, using the maximum bandwidth that only face to face can provide. It may be a cliché, but some cliches are true: We’re social creatures. (You can say it out loud: Aren’t you just dying to be back in a buzzing, energetic, dynamic restaurant or bar scene? At a thrilling theater/-opera/-dance/-rock/-jazz/-classical performance?)
Back to your assignment: What activities are best conducted in an office—not at home, not in a hotel conference room or Starbucks or on the street corner? One activity Covid-19 has taught us all that offices are not for: Entering a small room alone, closing the door behind you, and opening your laptop.
So if not that (we ask again) what are those thousands of Class A square feet for?
A few suggestions and then a proposed way to get started on this.
The Office of 2021/2025/2030+ is for: (a) meeting clients at critical junctures in your engagements; (b) bringing teams together in war rooms and deal rooms to power through what needs to be done with an “all hands” effort; (c) assimilating, acculturating, and integrating younger professionals into your firm; (d) working the same intangible but indispensable magic on lateral hires; (e) uniting and inspiring large groups of people at the firm behind a vision, agreeing on a shared purpose, cementing core cultural values, celebrating wins and mourning losses; (f) brainstorming and free-associating about gnarly new matters, or about blowing up operating logjams, or about new services and offerings—before being guided through an expertly facilitated forced-ranking exercise to pick winners and losers.
If that sounds like a start—and you will and should have your own list—then what?
Go out and find a bunch of talented, unjaded, and creative workspace design architects without ingrained assumptions of their own. Maybe throw an industrial/organizational psychologist into the mix. Go for modular, flexible, adaptive; your first iterations of what tomorrow’s office should look like may not be perfect, but even if they’re utterly superb, as soon as people show up they’ll demonstrate how the space should be used—just as landscape architects figured out it was usually a mistake to lay down orthogonal paths and sidewalks between buildings on a new campus. Have people move in to the campus and wait to observe what pattern the beaten paths assume.
Most of all, celebrate the liberating heart of this adventure. Wouldn’t it be great to occupy offices that help catalyze the high-bandwidth communication at the heart of why humans like getting together? And get rid of the serried rows of identical, interchangeable-parts cubes with and without walls?
Covid-19 has taught us once and for all that people do not have to go to the office. Now it’s your turn to make it worth their while. Give them creative and tantalizing reasons why they’ll want to.