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Open Plan offices and Darwin’s natural selection bring unexpected law firm benefits

Posted in Business Models, Change, Culture, Management, Partners, People Strategy, Trust & Respect, Uncategorized

Open plan offices are not new, even for law firms, and no doubt there are a couple of examples in your region. The jury does still seem to be out though in regard to the pros and cons.

While there are those who proudly espouse the virtues of ‘open plan’ with benefits like:

It seems open plan offices can have some unexpected benefits, like selecting out the ‘dickhead’ factor. (image courtesy of BFX NZ)

  • better staff interaction;
  • everyone seen to be on the same footing;
  • more work gets done, etc.

others think they are a crazy idea. Arguments against tend to revolve around confidentiality, the need to work in peace, no interruptions and so on.

I did some work for a firm recently which has adopted an open plan for its new premises. The partners were quite open about their motivation – to save costs and make more money. Of course, they also hoped it would be okay for them, and for their people. On balance they felt everyone would just have to make the best of it.

Turns out it has gone straight to the bottom line with improved profitability. There has also another benefit which they had not anticipated which, with the benefit of hindsight, makes some sense. The managing partner gleefully confided to me the unexpected outcome – the ‘selection out’ of dickheads. Almost a case of Darwin’s* theory of natural selection.

The open plan office scene is just too tough for these difficult customers we have all experienced – their bad behaviours, thinking and attitudes are just too obvious to everyone around them. In an open plan there is no-where to hide. They can’t carry them on behind closed doors or slinking down passageways. Without anyone saying too much, natural selection takes its course and they move on rather than the staff around them having to resign to get away from them.

The result – a happier, more stable work-force and performance and contribution rates for the firm have never been better. What I couldn’t help noticing when walking around the office:

  • a quiet cheerful buzz about the place;
  • the partners were spread amongst staff with no obviously beneficial space sizing or location;
  • various partners and staff volunteered that it was working really well – and they are 18 months’ into it – well past the honeymoon period;
  • amazingly, all the partners seemed comfortable in the environment with one confiding she now ‘looks forward to coming to work‘ and another saying ‘I love having my team all around me‘ – hopefully they love being around him!

[*Darwin’s theory of natural selection: the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring (and those less suited, don’t survive or move on).]

Sean Larkan, Principal, Edge International