Those of us involved in the leasing and design of office space for legal firms, know that in the downtown Toronto area, vacant office space has been at a premium for quite some time now - demand has been outstripping supply. According to Rachelle Younglai, (commercial real estate reporter for The Globe and Mail):
“The city’s core already has the lowest vacancy rates in Canada and the United States, and little relief is expected until new office buildings start opening their doors in a few years.”
If lucky enough to find the necessary expansion space - expect a bidding war for it. This means that wise office space users, including legal firms, need to be very creative in how they accommodate growth. In an age that idolizes spacious, light-filled open plan offices; employees are being convinced that this is the standard. All want their share of daylight and fresh air - (not a lot to ask!) - but delivering this can be challenging when human density increases.
How can we all manage to gracefully accommodate growth when not able to add the square footage we want?
Happily, there is no need to return to old age office models, where people are wedged into stuffy, dark spaces. There are indeed ways to accommodate growth within limited square footage; while ensuring the office space you provide is inspiring, supportive and memorable (in a good way). But it takes clever planning, and an investment in protective systems. Just a few of the professional tips we can offer:
1. Workplace / Workstation Standards Need Review:
We know of a tenant with this same challenge. They were landlocked in their space, but needed to integrate 30% more staff. Using Interior Design consultants with some pertinent experience, they managed to reduce the overall leased square footage by 25%, while adding the 30% staff growth. And this was done while improving the quality of the work environment for EVERY staff member. This included shared access to daylight and reducing ambient noise. This was done, using a different approach to both space planning and to the workstation standards. The cost of changing the workstations was nothing compared to the amount of money saved in long term rent. Each square foot of space, after the change, generated far more revenue than it had before. And, more importantly – the staff were happier.
2. Make Some Areas “Multi-Functional”:
Review of all common, shared areas – to establish just how frequently the areas are used – and when they are used. This usually allows you to make a case for doubling up some functions. Whether it is making meeting room sizes changeable with moveable walls or using library contents as sound insulation by lining corridor walls that already exist – (there are so many ways to do this) - often space savings can be found.
3. Don’t forget to add acoustical protection:
If the design of the space does not allow for empty negative space between people, (a critical element of successful open plan solutions), then create acoustical baffles in other ways. A detail that is often missed is the addition of critical ‘sound masking systems’. Originally used only on office floors with no partitions to stop the flow of sound; these systems are now understood to have broad, valuable application. Taking some of the money that you would have invested in increased square footage, and instead, supplying sound masking will help ensure a more successful project.
4. Respect Staff’s Need for a Private Moment:
Everyone in today’s work force will from time to time, needs to make a private telephone call. If staff are able to quickly make this call and get back to work – without the need to leave the office space - it is much better for the employer. The gesture of providing private staff areas for this function, will enhance the reputation of the firm as humane, and caring Employer.
5. The Use of Glazing to allow for the Sharing of Daylight:
Legal firm space generally includes offices on the perimeter, which can block daylight flow for others on the floor. If the firm culture can not tolerate glazed office fronts, then ensure every side to the floor contains a facility that can have a glazed front, such as a meeting room, offices for support staff such as clerks or students – to ensure at least one shaft of daylight will reach the staff who are not located on the perimeter.
6. Respect Canada’s Privacy Laws with Housekeeping Protocols:
We all know that legal firms need to keep all client records under lock and key, to protect client confidentiality. If these rules are followed, all surfaces in offices, war rooms and shared meeting areas should be cleared at the end of each work session. Areas that are clean of debris and surplus file boxes, not only look larger and more professional; they are made available for spontaneous use by others.
7. Quality of Lighting:
Using lighting that emulates the colour of daylight will help make the space seem larger and brighter, which is critical when density is high. Used in tandem with glazing will make the days seem brighter for those in the inner depths of the office. Also, use creative, sculptural lighting as space dividers or landmark, to create space definition. This is a very creative way of tricking the eye to focus on an interesting vista, to see beyond the density.
8. Conference Calls:
One of the most serious source of frustration for staff in workstations, is office dwellers who make ‘hands-free’ conference calls. Even when the call takes place in a room with the door closed – the sound of yelling can disturb others. Consider supplying each floor with a small meeting room, located in an isolated area, for those who want to have a hands-free conference call. It has worked well for other firms.
Lastly, do not forget that when faced with space challenges, your office space should strongly reinforce your brand message, and support your recruiting efforts. It may be a challenge, but it will be worth the professional effort!