My professional career began in the 1990s, in a big city law firm. The marble in our HQ was as much a subject of comment from colleagues and clients as the culture of the organisation to which it was home. In those days, a firm's office was inextricably bound up in its brand precisely because so much of what that firm did, happened in that office. For individual colleagues "their" desk was intrinsically wrapped up in their role and, sometimes, their status. Offices were often laid out in a way that reminded people of how they might be different from their colleagues – with business services teams segregated from lawyers, and individual practice areas separated from each other.
We all understand that the shape and purpose of 'work' varies from role to role, and from sector to sector. One of the many insights the pandemic has brought us is that work is the thing that we do, not the place that we go to. And in most businesses that 'work' comprises many different tasks interacting with clients or customers, collaboration, colleague wellbeing, training and mentoring. The question we must now ask is where that work can be done most effectively and productively, and that, in turn, informs the space, tools and approach we use. The answers to those questions are constantly evolving as client and colleague expectations shift, and technology improves. Therein lies the fun; whatever the future looks like, it won't bear much resemblance to my 1990s' expectation that almost everything should be achieved at a single desk.
Our firm's journey reflects that evolution. The start of this year saw all 400 of our Edinburgh colleagues relocate from Atholl Crescent to Capital Square, in the capital's Exchange district. Our Atholl Crescent office – a charming, Georgian townhouse that became our firm's home in the city in the mid-1980s – holds fond memories for many a past and present colleague, who remember the early days of typewritten client letters and a world without emails, mobiles and Google.
Our new office at Capital Square marks a new chapter in the way that we will work together. It houses over 30 meeting spaces, including a wellbeing room, virtual courtrooms, training and yoga spaces, study booths, roof terraces, a two-storey library wrapped around a central staircase, colleague hubs, and a soundproof studio for podcast recordings – all designed to the highest WELL standards, a seven-factor rating system that optimises the wellbeing and productivity of those who visit and work there.
Pre-pandemic designs for Capital Square were quickly adapted once we reflected upon the accelerated changes occurring in the legal sector and within our own firm. Conducting court business online became routine, as did the use of e-signatures for contracts and wills, negotiations and deal completions moved from physical to Microsoft Teams rooms, and interaction with clients – new and existing – to virtual; all of this was factored into the design. Connectivity too, remained critical to our operations, to ensure that clients and colleagues across our offices could continue to have the same conversations and collaboration opportunities, online or in-person.
The pandemic also played a role in accelerating the journey we had already begun towards hybrid working –giving colleagues the freedom to choose the best location to work, based on what is best for them, their teams and our clients. The impact of that greater flexibility cannot be underestimated. It allows for a better work-life balance, and opens up opportunity to connect with a greater range of talented people. It means that our new office is consciously designed not to segregate teams or to reinforce hierarchies, but to recognise that talent and ambition comes from all parts of our firm, and opportunity must too.
The pandemic, though, has not been the sole factor in changing the way we all work. Businesses are more conscious than ever before of their responsibilities to customers or clients, to their colleagues and to society.
For us, one key focus is our path to net zero. Businesses with similar commitments will look for office buildings like Capital Square, that have been environmentally assessed and attain that all-important BREEAM 'excellent' rating. On a day-to-day basis, we track the 'little' changes that will make a big impact, and the onus is on every firm and its colleagues to take collective and personal responsibility to alter their working and behavioural practices, from reducing paper use and recycling, buying renewable energy supplies, to avoiding unnecessary business travel.
Working practices also play an important role in the legal sector's responsibility to create opportunities in our profession, regardless of difference. As a board member of PRIME, the industry's social mobility initiative, I'm all too aware of the pandemic's disproportionate exacerbation of the disadvantage already faced by those from less socially mobile backgrounds. It is my hope though, that some of the flexibility in learning and working that we have grasped during the past two years will, in the long run, improve the ability for colleagues from all backgrounds to prosper. Greater flexibility to balance work and life commitments should also allow retention of colleagues who might otherwise have struggled with that balance.
Technology too, is changing the way legal services are provided, and the role of the lawyers who provide those services. Clients won't pay a law firm to do things they know a computer can do, but they will pay – and again, the pandemic emphasised this – for empathy, teams who collaborate, deep sectoral knowledge and, most importantly, judgement. Offices must create an environment in which that empathy, collaboration and knowledge are shared.
The world of 'work' will continue to evolve, and for our firm, we now embark on a process that will see us incorporate the lessons we have learnt in Capital Square, into our other offices. Continued improvement of working practices might be a journey that never ends, but one in which much joy is to be had en route.
This article originally appeared in the Scotland on Sunday.