Spaced out: why you should keep your office
Bernadette Bennett, business development lead for the legal sector at Moneypenny, considers the advantages of retaining office space during the pandemic, even if you're considering downsizing or becoming a completely virtual firm to save costs.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) has forced many law firms to address their long-term resilience, rethink how they operate, and take a closer look at overheads. With business survival likely to be a pressing concern for some time, the subject of office space and whether it still has a role to play is particularly pertinent right now.
2020 has been the year of greater organisational agility. As firms made seismic changes to how, when and where they operated almost overnight, it prompted the media to speculate about the future of the office. Could COVID-19 kill the office? Will we ever return?
I don’t think it’s as black and white as that. Surely, instead of asking “do we need an office at all?”, perhaps the question is: “How much space do we really need, and what purpose must it serve?”
Certainly, months of enforced home working have shown that large premises are not necessary for firms to operate successfully. Why have a large office for 100 people, if 70% are going to continue working from home?
In HSBC’s annual law firm strategy and investment survey (PDF), it found that, although almost half (46%) of law firms surveyed are planning to reduce their office space in favour of greater remote working, this is almost offset by the amount of firms considering taking more space to reflect their new ways of working (41%).
In other words, the office still has a clear role to play, even with vast amounts of remote working.
The advantages of an office
The advantages of law firms having offices are plentiful. One is that remote working does not suit all tasks and kinds of work. Offices provide a space for collaboration: where problems can be solved collectively, training delivered and teamwork fostered.
While technology can facilitate these things remotely, lockdown taught us the importance of face-to-face contact. We saw this ourselves at Moneypenny, with a 25% increase in the duration of calls and live chats made with law firms during the height of the pandemic, as people sought greater reassurance and human contact.
Office space also provides somewhere to nurture your business culture, instil camaraderie and create a shared sense of purpose – all powerful factors that affect people performance and engender loyalty.
The office can be particularly important to clients, too, providing a space to do business and encourage confidence in your brand. For smaller firms in particular, the office is often a shopfront for the communities they serve and is essential to winning business.
Think about your clients
For law firms facing financial difficulties or which are struggling to make sense of new market pressures, it would be easy to view the office as an unnecessary cost, but the decision should not be made in isolation. Careful consideration must also be given to the client experience. Clients expect firms to be accessible and easy to contact, and to know that they’ll get the professional service, advice and support they need.
In practical terms, this means ensuring that the client journey and experience is the same, whether your team is in the office or otherwise. If your focus is less on a shared workplace, then there must be even greater investment in technology, working protocols and employee support programmes to ensure a seamless client experience.
Whether law firms choose to close their offices altogether in favour of remote working or adopt a hybrid approach, there are some shared requirements. Secure file-sharing systems must be fit for purpose; collaboration technologies must enable people to work together in real time; telephone calls must be answered and made professionally, irrespective of location; and employees must feel part of a cohesive team.
COVID-19 has shown that law firms need to think and operate differently, which in turn requires something different of their workplaces. For some, becoming completely remote will provide a commercial advantage and a point of difference, while for others redesigning their space, downsizing or even adding more space will allow them to achieve their goals.
Answering the question ‘stay or go?’ is personal to every firm, but the need to keep clients’ needs front and centre in their decision-making is shared by all. In doing so, firms will be able to charter their own successful course.