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No open plan: We're lawyers, not 'battery hens'

12 August 19 - In the News

#Corporate & Commercial Law

Authors: Michael Pelly
Publication: Financial Review
Publisher: Fairfax
Publication date: 1/08/19

When national law firm Holding Redlich was designing its new offices, it looked to the future - and decided it wasn't open plans or hot-desking. It's giving people their own space.

The firm reckons that instead of encouraging collaboration, the "battery hen" approach does the opposite.

"The basic reason for that is everybody puts on headphones, to get their own privacy," says national managing partner Ian Robertson.

It will mean smaller offices - with junior lawyers sharing - and fewer meeting rooms and personal lockers.

"Really, when you look at open plan, what you see is that there's a whole lot of breakout areas, meeting rooms, cafe areas and things," says Mr Robertson.

"What we've really done is to give that space to the people themselves."

He expects the design principles for the extra space Holding Redlich has taken out in Brisbane and Cairns this year will eventually be replicated across its other offices.

"The reason open plan has become popular, frankly, is that it costs less. I think we should be honest about that."

Scenes from US legal dramas Suits and The Good Fight of lawyers working side by side in call-centre style spaces hasn't quite translated to Australia but most firms still have open plan areas, especially for graduate lawyers.

Others, such as MinterEllison, Gilbert + Tobin and most of the bigger accounting and consulting firms, have gone much further - with the majority of staff at "workstations".

Gilbert + Tobin has in its Sydney office about 500 desks, all open plan. Only 75 are "agile" and they are filled by operations staff. All fee-earners and their EA's have allocated desks. In its Melbourne office, four partners still have an office, but there are plans to make it entirely open plan.

Minters says only its Sydney office is open plan, where it's an 80-20 split between workstations and offices. Most partners work open plan.

Mr Robertson says looking at the various models in action convinced him that people need to have their "own little part of the world" - and that any move away from offices would be counterproductive.

"It's your own photographs, or whatever you want to do, and you've got your area and space to think and move and you don't have the feeling of, frankly, being a human version of a battery hen."

He says the other priority was natural light "for a degree of humanity and warmth". There will be adjustable desks for those who want to work standing up.

Mr Robertson says the thinking of some of the partners had been swayed after attending the professional services firms short course at Harvard Business School in Boston. A recent article in its journal was titled "The Open Office Revolution Has Gone Too Far".

"The research shows open plan reduces collaboration rather than encourages it, and we accept it," he says.

"The other issue, which is an increasingly important issue in law, is the issue of mental health. And we don't think their mental health will benefit from being deprived of privacy and personal space."

© 2019 Thomson Reuters. No claim to original U.S. Government Works.

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