Using IT to create dynamic office space

“The trouble with most law firms,” said one specialist from a mid-tier firm recently, “is that they are not using the internet properly to get the most from their corporate property.”

What does “using the internet properly” mean in this context? It means making the best use of the flexibility which the internet can bring. Most law firms could implement a range of fairly practical measures to improve their usage of office space.

Perhaps the most obvious options are homeworking and hotdesking, now more generally replaced by hotelling. These types of change are made possible by increased use of wireless communications.

Homeworking can be one of the easiest ways to improve office use. The availability (and low cost) of digital communications technology, laptop computers and information interchange software, means that staff are no longer necessarily obliged to be in the office to complete their allotted tasks. A lawyer who needs to produce a lengthy, well-argued document is no longer obliged to occupy valuable meeting room space but can draw up and revise the document from the quiet of his or her home, undistracted by movement around the office and constant telephone calls.

Hotdesking, originally introduced in the 1980s, has not proved as popular as once thought. Reliant as it is on the use of the same desk and telephone by a series of individuals in turn, hotdesking achieved a bad name for lack of status (“my desk represents my position in the firm”) and for lack of familiarity (“I can’t keep photos of my family with me where I can see them”). There were also problems with the use of desktop computer, where individuals wanted to personalise their system and also with establishing whch phone number the person could be reached on that day.

Hotelling has only become possible within the last couple of years. It works via wi-fi and VoIP. Wi-fi enables a user’s laptop (often the preferred type of computer in any case) to access the LAN from anywhere in the office and VoIP allows workers to pick up their handset and be connected to the same phone number where ever they happen to be working that day. Usually supported by room and desk booking systems, hotelling removes the anxiety about a daily scrum for the best space and indeed the potential for not finding a space at all.

Many law firms find that, while homeworking is fine to a certain extent, the need for team working requires that the majority of work is carried out in the office. This in turn means that, as most workers are in the office for most of the time (unlike for instance accountancy practices where large numbers of auditors spend weeks at a time in client offices), the need for hotdesking or hotelling is not very great. Wi-fi can still however play a significant part in the organisation of the office space. Using wireless, many firms are now able to provide break-out areas for small meetings or quiet working, while enabled meeting rooms are able to provide immediate access to backup documents without the need to leave a meeting to go and search for them. And touchdown facilities in reception areas enable visiting clients to log on to their emails while waiting to start a meeting. The aim is improved flexibility; staff are able to roam more freely and work from wherever they wish and clients are offered an additional facility.

To summarise, you can get more staff into a space either by squeezing them up closer together (generally unpopular!) or by using the space dynamically. And this is where IT comes in, whether the office is new and sleek or relatively old fashioned.

It is very important to discuss these issues with staff, since they are the ones who are going to have to live with the results. It is important also to work closely with the IT people since the desired flexibility in working patterns can only be obtained by IT systems which actually work.

Alison Sutherland runs AVS Publicity, a PR consultancy for professional firms.