Somaya Ouazzani: Ditching office space is a costly business

Somaya Ouazzani, CEO & founder of Mimoza Fleur, examines how ditching office space is a costly business and how it should not be treated as just an operating expense or an unnecessary cost centre, in Legal Futures. 

Slashing office space is being treated as the panacea for Covid-19, but at what cost?

This aggressive and arguably short-sighted approach to responding to the pandemic is creating a very virtual, almost dystopian legal environment.

Office space should not be treated as just an operating expense or unnecessary cost centre. Offices provide vitally important space from which teams are built and developed. It is where investment in people happens first and foremost.

It’s no secret that the very best form of professional development comes from real-time, real-life exposure. The retention of good-quality office space should be treated as an investment in people, in futures.

Junior associates learn from the way their senior supervisors interact with clients on the phone and in meetings, and by sharing office space. Whether its listening to a partner dictate a without prejudice letter or brief to counsel, you cannot replicate the learning and development that comes from being physically exposed to superiors on a day-to-day basis.

The same is true for senior lawyers wanting to make partner. Working side-by-side with high-performing, well-rounded partners is often the best way for an aspiring partner to learn not just the client development and business generating skills, but also the critical people management skills that one acquires from observing a partner in their interactions with his or her team, clients, opponents, peers and partners.

Yes, the move to remote working has been hailed by the corporate world as transformational. And, yes, it’s given many employees the feeling of a better work/life balance. Perhaps, more so than any other, its benefited male lawyers that have long wanted to be more available to their families but have struggled to properly participate in family life.

This is particularly true for very senior team members, those who manage very international practices and those whose work requires prolific international business travel.

But for many its compounded problems with burnout and there is anything but a sense of work/life balance.

Days are starting much earlier and ending much later. It’s become much harder for lawyers to compartmentalise their work and home life. Switching off at a sensible hour has proven difficult, especially for those with families and/or dependents, which is why so many female lawyers have struggled with the lockdowns.

Many female lawyers have shared their view that the commute to and from work provided some welcomed respite from the responsibilities of work and home life. The daily commute into work provided two small windows at either end of the day to try to switch off.

Visibility for those wanting a promotion, and a space from which they can pursue opportunities, develop and grow is also proving harder to achieve.

Building and sustaining relationships with mentors and sponsors is tougher too. These relationships need cultivating to be meaningful. The very best way to fertilise these relationships is through connection, time and exposure. No amount of virtual relationship cultivating can replicate this.

This issue is compounded even more for female lawyers and those of colour who already struggle to have the same voice and visibility in the workplace.

Firms need to think carefully about which employees need a physical office space. It is definitely not a one-size-fits-all situation.

The more easily commoditised work allows for more effective virtual working. But for those lawyers working in mentally gruelling and intellectually taxing work, a physical office space is essential. Essential for morale, retention, and output.

Entire cohorts of junior lawyers are struggling to get the important training, supervision, mentoring, coaching and sponsorship their predecessors benefited from. Senior lawyers are struggling to maintain and build teams, attract talent and develop their own practices in an entirely virtual environment.

The feelings of isolation and segregation is making the legal world a very lonely one.

For every lawyer who wants the benefit of flexible working, two want to know they can work at a firm with a permanent, well-resourced office space that their firm can grow into.

If firms are to reduce their office space, they need to give serious thought to which employees will generate the most returns. Law firms operate best when there is a meaningfully joined-up structure and place from which fee earners can cross sell, integrate, recruit, and build team camaraderie.

No amount of Zooming can replicate this and law firms would be remiss if they forgot that.

Somaya’s article was published in Legal Futures, 2 February 2021, and can be found here

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