Why Post-Pandemic City Firms Will Need Their Office Spaces

An abundance of articles and thought pieces have emerged on the death of the office, and the huge savings that can be made from reducing real estate overheads. But will the trade-off really be worth it?

The way we work is changing. ONS reported that only 5% of the UK workforce worked from home on a regular basis in 2019, whereas now this is almost 50% of the workforce and most office workers. What does this mean for city firms post-pandemic? Is it the end, or a reimagining? Patrick McCrae, CEO of ARTIQ, one of the UK’s foremost art consultancies, offers his opinion on the continued necessity of physical offices.

Coronavirus, in spite of its damage to the global economy and our physical and mental health, is ushering in a change that has been afoot for some years: that of purposeful work. Those firms who can re-emphasise their purpose to all stakeholders will thrive as the best legal candidates assess how their employers reacted during this crisis.

The new reality we find ourselves in is generating some serious questions: Why do I work?  Why do I work for this legal firm? Why am I exchanging my time for money with this specific company? This is fundamentally a question of company culture, which is, without regular human interaction and with restricted funds, being tested to breaking point in many city firms.

Following the slow easing of lockdown, it will be increasingly important to have a place to not just work, but to talk, to socialise, and fundamentally, to humanise the legal work we do. The office could evolve from a place of work to the physical and cultural hub of a legal business.

Many firms exist for more than just profit, and for those businesses the office is already representative of company culture – how the business and those who work within it perceive themselves. In the office this often means excellent facilities and design. One of the many ways to signal this is through artworks.

Many of ARTIQ’s legal clients use art collections as a tool for employee engagement. An APPG study found that 60% of people believe art helps them to work more productively and another recent study discovered that individuals work 30% more quickly in workspaces they have had agency in curating themselves. Art can therefore be used to reassert company values.

For example, lawyers Mayer Brown, as part of the changing art collection earlier this year, chose to curate an entirely female and non-binary collection of artists in their client suite to emphasise their support of International Woman’s Day and the work they have been doing around breaking the glass ceiling. Global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills have, for almost a decade now, sponsored the Graduate Art Prize with ARTIQ where the best emerging artists are supported through a group show, mentorship and a cash prize. Their clients and staff alike enjoy art in the offices, but are also reminded of Herbert Smith Freehills’ desire to support emerging talent in the art world as well through their trainee intake and entrepreneurial business, both in their clients and their partners. This is one of the many things legal firms can do to underline their values and purpose.

Many firms exist for more than just profit, and for those businesses the office is already representative of company culture.

It has already been widely reported that we are entering a global mental health crisis as a species, with 80% of adults in Great Britain concerned about the impact of coronavirus on their lives. The global lockdown has created often confusing rules about our private lives, widespread isolation and concern for our heath and the health of our family, friends and colleagues. Business-saving schemes such as the furlough scheme (that 79% of firms are using) have also shaken our sense of financial security. 61% of workers rated their wellbeing positive before lockdown restrictions, dropping to 35% since lockdown has been in place.

For lawyers, whether significantly or not, working from home – sometimes in isolation, sometimes with our families, sometimes with flatmates, occasionally in our purpose-built home offices – has been at times productive, and at times plain awful. Minimal social interaction to structure a day and the omnipresence of our home office set-ups means we’re working 20% longer hours.

It would be ignorant to argue that having a nice office is a magic cure or that mental health issues didn’t exist before lockdown. However, an office that is well-designed, offering a place to socialise and be reminded of company culture, and that is full of art and engagement opportunities, will help. The benefits are tangible: in 2017 the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing in the UK published a comprehensive report collating research showing an undeniable positive link between art and mental wellbeing.

With data showing that after engaging with the arts, 82% of people reported greater wellbeing and 77% engaged in more physical activity, the benefits of art and wellbeing are undeniable. Art is one of a menu of items the cultural hub could offer its staff.

An example of ARTIQ’s work with Mayer Brown.

Indeed, already half of all office users believe that artwork makes them more effective at their job, while 61% believe that art inspires them to think and work more creatively. 82% of people consequently believe that artwork is an important addition to the workplace. These stats show how legal employers can help their staff be happier and more engaged.

In terms of clients, with more people working from home, offices are likely to become a key point of difference for businesses wanting to communicate their messaging and purpose to clients, engage employees, and attract new talent. There should be joy in going to the office.  A reminder for staff, in the wake of some serious shake-ups of headcount, that they are working for a stable and purposeful legal business. We foresee an attitudinal shift after lockdown, with firms taking a greater interest in how they utilise the office, and how to foster company culture with people increasingly working remotely.

While there is no doubt home working is here to stay, flexibility is vital – holding the office as a legal hub, a central space for people to go and meet their co-workers and their friends, for company culture to be reasserted, for purpose to be underlined, and for those people whose time we are asking for to know that it’s all actually worth it. Legal firms should seriously consider the benefits of the office before they cut into that overhead, weighing equally the need to keep budgets under review with the transformative agency that activated offices have on our wellbeing and business culture.

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