25 April 2019By Eden Kaill
I was at a workplace-tech conference a couple of months ago, and I heard a presentation on open-concept modular office layouts, where workers don’t have their own designated work area but instead move freely between desks, thereby freeing up unused offices and allowing companies to make more efficient use of space.
The presenter was animated and enthusiastic, but I was highly skeptical to say the least.
After the presentation I went up to him and asked “ok, but this would NEVER work for a law firm, right? I mean – a lawyer’s office is pretty much their second home. You’re going to have a real fight on your hands if you want them to give up their personal space.”
His answer was: it would be worth the fight - you’d be surprised. It takes some getting used to, but the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.
My next question stumped him, though. In an office where all the desks belong to everyone, where do my shoes go? And even more crucially, where do I keep my snacks?
What is a Modular Office?
Let’s look at some of the different ways a modular office can look and what the advantages and drawbacks are:
1. Open office
What it looks like: one big space with rows or clusters of desks – no partitions or walls. Workers use whatever desk is available at any given time.
Who uses it: startups, tech companies.
Advantages: affordable, bright, facilitates conversations and the free flow of ideas. No visible hierarchy.
Disadvantages for a law firm: noisy, distracting, lack of privacy, lack of storage, confidentiality issues.
What it looks like: one big space with rows or clusters of desks PLUS private meeting rooms (“pods”) and boardrooms. Workers use whatever space is available.
Who uses it: communications companies, media consultants.
Advantages: all the advantages of #1, with opportunities for confidential meetings and a place to work without distraction.
Disadvantages for a law firm: every time you use a pod, you have to bring all your materials with you. No designated personal space.
3. Co-Working Space
What it looks like: these come in many shapes and sizes, but they are usually a combination of open desks, tables, lounges, boardrooms, and private offices.
Who uses it: small companies without the need or money to rent office space, or large companies with multi-city business who need a place to meet out of town.
Advantages: affordable, facilities (kitchens and supplies) taken care of, flexible.
Disadvantages for a law firm: lack of storage and confidentiality/security issues.
Why it could work:
The common thread in the argument against modular offices is the lack of space to put stuff. As law firms go increasingly paperless, this becomes less of a problem. In theory, eventually lawyers won’t be looking at physical documents at all, and would just need to move their laptops or tablets to whatever desks they are working at. The frequency with which lawyers already end up working in courthouse hallways, airports, coffee shops, and other improvised work spaces speaks to the potential for flexibility in office layouts.
Why it probably won’t:
Documents aren’t everything. A lawyer’s office is full of ephemera – family photos, art, plants, a change of clothes. Where does all that GO in an open office?
And if the answer is that it all stays at home, what does that mean for lawyers, who aren’t likely to start spending any less time at work? Realistically, I suspect that any modular law office would, over time, become less modular. In “How to Survive in an Open Concept Office”, Susan Fish describes workers improvising walls and doors around their modular desks in a bid for privacy. It’s not hard to imagine lawyers picking which desk is theirs, leaving their personal items on it, improvising walls, and doing whatever they can to ensure that their space is their own.
It's not just a sense of personal space that’s at issue. Fish points to studies that show open-plan offices can contribute to sexism and harassment. In “The Problem with Open-Plan Offices (and How to Fix It)”, Dawn Calleja writes:
“Open-plan workers are unhealthier, too. Excessive noise raises blood pressure and stimulates the nervous system to release stress hormones. Factor in the unimpeded flow of airborne germs and these employees take 62 per cent more sick leave than those who work in enclosed offices.”
Worker retention can be an issue as well, especially if people aren’t consulted about how and if the space is working for them. Calleja tells the story of a lawyer who was evicted from her office, stationed at an open desk, and eventually quit because of the stress of trying to keep her clients’ confidentiality.
The Takeaway: law firms should approach the modular office idea with caution. Very small firms with very little dependence on paper documents could make it work, and the costs benefits could be significant, but they should beware of the serious downsides and keep adapting. If the idea of modular office space is to facilitate communication, then communication about the space is key.