Why a Brisbane law firm ditched the corner offices: Partners say it’s worth losing the city views

Law firms are nothing if not hierarchical.

Young lawyers put up with the long hours and unequal pay for a chance at the big leagues – the corner office, the cushy job and a share of the profits.

But one indicator of the hierarchy has crumbled away at one Brisbane law firm, which has ditched its corner offices in favour of a flexible workspace.

Gadens Lawyers isn’t tiny. Its Brisbane office alone has 350 staff, and 34 partners.

Those partners now sit towards the centre of the space, with support staff along the edges.

It’s a radical inversion of the normal arrangement, and was implemented in partnership with architectural firm HASSELL to make more flexible use of the space.

It can’t have been an easy sell. Gadens partner Paul Spiro says he anticipated resistance, but it ended up being easier than he expected.

“When we explained the strategy for this decision and when people settled into their new offices, they were overwhelmingly happy, even those senior partners that lost their corner offices with previously sweeping city views.”

The revamp was sparked by Gadens needing to fit in a new banking team. But while they were renovating, they decided to try something more ambitious.

“Rather than have the fit-out dictate our culture, we decided to reverse that and use our culture to influence the design,” Spiro says. “Gadens prides itself on its friendly and open culture. Our new layout, with its glass walls and wide-open spaces, enhances that environment perfectly.”

The office is now split up by several glass walls, which let light through the space. The walls are also movable, offering staff the chance to alter the space to suit their needs.

Keti Malkoski, a workplace research psychologist at workplace furniture design firm Schiavello, says putting important people in the middle of a workplace as opposed to the traditional model of around the edges is great for sharing knowledge.

“One of the reasons we open up the workspaces and break up the hierarchical expression that is the corner office is to improve connection, interpersonal relationships, collaboration and knowledge-sharing and learning,” she tells SmartCompany.

“The central allocation of partners will allow the rest of the workforce to have access to them, to allow them to be visible, to allow that bumping and the exchange of ideas,” she says.

And flexible workspaces are just more efficient in how they use the space, she says.

“In many firms these days, teams form and reform constantly, and the space needs to adjust.”

Naturally, taking away people’s corner office is unlikely to be a popular move among your senior management. That’s why Malkoski says employers doing this need to give something back.

“We’ve seen so many changes in Australian in workplace design due to the constant push for collaboration in knowledge economy. But there also has to be a balance that provides people with privacy. We need to feel comfortable in space. There’s a psychological component to how well we work as well – we need to feel it’s ours.

“You have expectations about your workplace, and many of these are what your employer conveys to you.

“If a change is driven by positive objectives, however, most people accept it, especially if they’re involved in the change. But it has to be broad – it has to be about changing the culture to fit the workspace. And that’s an ongoing process.”

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