The open plan office has been omnipresent in the modern workplace for so long that people could be forgiven for forgetting that cellular offices once dominated the office landscape. Indeed, the open plan office is itself evolving, precipitated by new technology, and a shift in our lifestyle habits. Third space areas and remote working are changing the face of the modern workspace.
As industry thought leaders, designers and workplace analysts herald the dawn of an exciting new era for offices, it seems unthinkable that some businesses would consider reverting back to a cellular office model. But that’s what some law firms are choosing to do.
Some facets of law, particularly corporate, property and criminal, have often struggled to adapt to open plan office environments. Solicitors are often working on highly sensitive cases requiring the utmost privacy. With this privacy comes the need for working professionally, quietly and without distraction.
Even with the significant advances in acoustic management, applying techniques such as white or pink noise, installing acoustic rated partitions and screens or even acoustic artwork to reduce reverberation, this does little to fully address the issue of unwanted noise distraction in an open-plan office.
Whilst this helps to understand why law firms have been the last bastion of the cellular office environment, the vast majority of city-based firms succumbed to simple economics. Four fee earning solicitors could work in an open plan space that hitherto, had been taken up by one fee earner in an office. That’s four times the revenue and a fraction of the fit-out cost. It was hard to argue with the numbers.
One of our clients, a Top 25 law firm based in London, has been acutely aware of this argument between cellular offices and open plan working. To them it was simple: Whilst the cost implications were important, it was vital that their fee earners could work in optimum conditions. Working closely with Opus 4’s experienced design team, investigations were made into the cost of trying to acoustically improve an open plan environment and whether this could give the levels of effectiveness that were required. We then looked at the sq. ft. per person costs of creating cellular offices, but accommodating between two and four fee-earners in each room.
It became clear that whilst there was a higher cost to create the cellular offices, it wasn't prohibitively so. Furthermore, the proposed environment would ensure the fee-earners would work in comfort, without distraction. Attractive break-out and third-space areas were included in the design, enabling the solicitors to take time away from their desks to relax and communicate with colleagues.
The modern office might be evolving, but it's wrong to assume every business can be shoehorned into an environment which doesn't meet its needs. That's why a case can still be made for cellular offices in the legal sector.