Adapting law offices to agile working is tricky. Divest yourself of too much space, and you will have office chaos. Hang on to space you do not need, and you will miss out on potentially huge savings. Fortunately, technology now exists to support good decisions.
By Tony Booty, Director, Abintra Consulting
The pandemic has accelerated the move towards flexible work with numerous law firms signalling they now intend to permanently adopt new ways of working.
What is driving this trend? The HR benefits of an agile environment in terms of recruitment and retention are well documented. Meanwhile, many sceptics have been surprised that productivity has not been damaged by employees working from home.
There is a third reason. In many cases, partners and managers will be attracted by the chance to offload some of their expensive real estate. Next to people, premises are the biggest overhead for most professional firms, so this is a significant opportunity.
You can get an idea of the scale of savings possible from our recent study into the amount of wasted office real estate in the UK. We estimate that switching from a one-person-one-desk arrangement to agile working can save 30 per cent of a firm’s office space or even a lot more. With a single desk in a Grade A office space conservatively estimated to cost £15,000 a year, that is going to add up to a tidy sum for any sizeable law firm.
However, firms must understand how tricky it is to make those savings and to ensure that their office layout works in the new agile scenario.
Even before the pandemic, there was more to this process than many office managers realised. It has been made more complex by two things. Firstly, the exodus of employees from the office to work at home during lockdown makes it harder to estimate future usage and capacity. Secondly, the partial return to the office in the short to medium term while Covid exists will necessitate different layouts than those that may be possible longer term.
How much space do you need now?
The first step is to discover exactly how you are using your office space, and the fastest way to do that is with an office space utilisation survey. This will swiftly give you true insight into how you use your space now, and it can be repeated as things change down the line. There are various ways of doing this both manually and using technology.
For the past 12 years, we have been providing our WiseNet suite of wireless-based solutions, capturing utilisation data for all spaces – desks, meeting rooms, breakout and soft seating areas. WiseNet is easy to deploy and will typically give you the insight you need to make informed real estate decisions within four weeks of installation.
WiseNet does not capture or report on the activities of individual employees nor does it incorporate cameras that employees might regard as intrusive “eyes in the sky”. Our hardware is purpose-designed, capable of pinpointing how many individuals are in a meeting room and where they are sitting, for example.
Compared to touring the office with a clipboard and checklist, our technology provides empirical, fact-based data and detailed insight into what assets are being used and when, rather than just a snapshot in time.
What kind of space do you need now and in future?
Once installed, sensors give a crystal-clear picture of how and when space is being used, and they can keep on doing that, so space can be adapted if more people start using the office more often, for example.
One thing you may discover is that people are using space differently in the new agile working era. They may be more mobile than they used to be when they had their own desk, relishing the opportunity to interact with others formally and informally.
Space around the water cooler, breakout areas and soft seating might turn out to be at a premium compared with conventional meeting rooms. One of our corporate clients took the opportunity of freeing up space and refreshing the workplace layout to a more enticing, productive and healthier environment, even incorporating a coffee franchise.
Desk booking and scheduling
Connected to a reporting system, managers and employees can see which seats are available or occupied in real time by logging onto the system with mobile devices, laptops or PCs, and the same information can be shown on display screens within the office, for example in a reception area.
Aligned to desk booking and meeting room scheduling systems, the software can enable managers and employees to view and book space in advance.
What about Covid?
With staff returning to the workplace after the lockdown, managing people’s safety in the office environment is a priority for employers.
Effective workplace monitoring and analytics can help you to comply with “test, track and trace” directives as well to manage social distancing. Evidence-based reporting allows you to meet compliance obligations and reassure staff.
Live active floorplans show employees at a glance which workstations are available rather than occupied by someone else or unavailable to accommodate social distancing. In conjunction with your cleaning regime, the display can also show which workstations have been cleaned since last use.
Alongside occupancy sensors, environmental sensors also have a role to play in combating Covid in the workplace. Standard CO2 monitoring rarely, if ever, takes into account cellular spaces such as meeting rooms, for the simple reason that it has not been deemed necessary.
By distributing CO2 monitoring sensors in any cellular spaces within the office, employers and building managers can see if there are areas of high CO2, suggesting inadequate ventilation where virus particles could accumulate.
Improving the office environment
Looking beyond Covid, environmental sensors have a huge role to play in improving the office environment for health, wellbeing and productivity. Our own latest environmental sensors continually monitor the office environment, and when linked to smart building technology, support building managers to control it in detail. Our sensors cover five key metrics (CO2, humidity, temperature, light and noise), all important factors in staff comfort, safety and the workplace experience.
Good utilisation technology collects large amounts of highly accurate data, so look for a reporting solution that allows you to view that data in detail. Data is, or should be, the backbone to support decision making. The key is in understanding what that data means. We work closely with each customer to ensure clarity of reporting and insight, so that potential opportunities and options for the path ahead are clear and understood.
To go a step further, you can specify advanced database platforms, such as Microsoft Power Bi, to provide even greater flexibility and insight. Alongside the sensor data, you can bring other factors into the system such as your estate and facility data, business culture and planning.
All that comes together to help you to answer the most challenging and fundamental questions about your office real estate, and to adapt for the new way of work.
To quote a multinational client: “Any organisation making critical real estate decisions without having accurate data to support them is quite frankly irresponsible.”
About the Author
Tony Booty is a Director of Abintra Consulting, inventors of workplace monitoring hardware and software. Abintra’s solutions have been deployed in major corporations worldwide.