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Technology's new and critical role in a post-COVID world
John Stambelos, CIO, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP
“I know the timing isn’t great,” explained Stephen Wood, the managing partner of our Salt Lake City office, “but our lease is up.”
To say the pandemic has changed the world is a tiresome trope. Traffic, travel and technology have all been altered by Covid-19. Dense traffic and brown smog have given way to fast-moving traffic and crystal-clear skies in Southern California where my firm is based. Empty TSA security checkpoints serve as a stark reminder that airlines are desperate to return to profitability. And video conferencing, once an exotic (if a little nerdy) way to conduct business, is now the norm for professional service firms. Even middle school-aged children now complain of “Zoom fatigue.”
In fact, the rapid adoption of video conferencing technology combined with expansive work-from-home (“WFH”) policies has even led to the rise of so-called “Zoom Towns” vaguely reminiscent of the California Gold Rush. Manhattan and San Francisco are witnessing its inhabitants flee to outlying regions as tech giants like Facebook and Twitter extend their WFH perhaps in perpetuity. Obviously, not every business can operate on a WFH model. But for those that do, life may never look the same.
Even before the pandemic, professional service firms (like law firms) started to grapple with the fact that important shifts in workflows (facilitated by technology) may have led to an accumulation of excess square footage.
That’s why I jumped at the chance to help reimagine our office space when I got Stephen’s call. A central challenge of the project is to compress an existing 7,000 sq. ft. office into 3,000 sq. ft. I knew technology would have to play an essential role. But the culture around real estate had to change, too. I knew Stephen was committed to making sweeping changes when he told me, “No one will have a dedicated office in the new space -- not even me.”
It was certainly bold. Not only would the technology need to help our professionals adapt to a smaller space, we would need to make convincing cultural shifts in the way lawyers thought about office space. The days of the massive corner office as a status symbol had long ago given way to cubicle farms. The challenge was to layer in a combination of simple but practical technology to make the space work for everyone.
Luckily, many of those changes had already begun to take place on an ad hoc basis even before the pandemic struck. Over the summer of 2019, I visited several of our firm’s larger offices. As I strolled the hallways, it struck me that many private offices on the window line were empty. To be sure, our attorneys are a busy lot and while they weren’t sitting at their desks, I knew they were out taking depositions, arguing motions in front of trial judges or prospecting for new clients at lunch meetings. Still, those offices stood empty. That’s because law firms had long ago benefited from an infusion of technology which enabled knowledge workers to work remotely. The truth is they had to work remotely: our clients told the legal industry for decades that they didn’t care where work got done -- just that it got done. And, at least up until Covid, our attorneys were constantly on the road. They had to be equipped with technology that enabled them to travel and be productive.
Still, I couldn’t wait to put into practice some of the ideas I had collected over the course of my more than 30 year career helping law firms use technology. Lawyers are inherently a conservative bunch. It makes sense that this would be the case. Attorneys spend their time helping their clients avoid (or manage) risk. But, this risk aversion made large law firms slow to embrace the seismic shift from on-premise technology to cloud services. In part, clients’ security restrictions impeded the rapid adoption of cloud services. But, as law firms and their clients alike understood how difficult it was to achieve the same operational efficiency of large cloud service providers like Google, Amazon or Microsoft, they were forced to adapt. Luckily, this change was well underway by the time Covid challenged law firm leaders like Stephen to rethink their workflows to keep workers safe.
To be sure, the threat posed by Covid will be ameliorated soon enough as promising new vaccines reach the marketplace. But, Covid will continue to impact our lives and businesses throughout 2021 (and maybe forever). It will be hard to unlearn the new efficiencies we’ve cultivated during this unique moment.
In the meantime, what should smart businesses be doing? When Stephen told me he’d be willing to give up a private office as part of a firm-wide experiment, I knew we’d reached an inflection point. Stephen was right: it was time to give up private offices. Behind personnel expenses, real estate is typically one of the most significant fixed expenses for professional service firms. To be sure, there is an absolute need to maintain a modicum of office space to meet clients, prepare for cases and collaborate with colleagues. In some cases, like conference space, that need will increase to respect social-distancing requirements. But, dedicated office space may no longer be essential when a considerable part of the workforce is remote.
Instead, consider the concept of “hoteling.” As leases come due, consider reducing your real estate footprint by treating private offices like they were “hotel rooms” to be “checked out” or booked the way you would a hotel room for a set period. Sure, you’ll lose the comfort of artwork or pictures from your last vacation, but most of those are on your phone anyway. And, if you’re able to reduce the amount of square footage you need to lease by 30% (or more), this seems like a worthwhile thought exercise.
Here’s how we are considering the use technology to support the business need to shrink our real estate footprint:
1. Use a reservation system. When an attorney needs a private office; we are exploring a reservation system that will allow them to book a private office or conference room right from Outlook. We’re also considering ways to tie the system to display panels (akin to small iPads) affixed to office doorways and conference room entries. An attorney visiting from another office can quickly discern which space is available as they walk down the hallway since the panels will have a visible red or green light. They can also walk up to an available room and quickly reserve the space using the touch panel (or with an app on their phone). By using technology like these display panels and the accompanying reservation system, we can shrink our square footage by using our office space more efficiently. Think of VMWare but for office space.
2. Get rid of paper. For eons, lawyers have been bogged down with massive amounts of files and boxes. Now, many months into the pandemic, we’ve proven to ourselves that most operations -- even in a law firm -- can be done paperlessly. The pandemic has ushered in an era of electronically signed documents and high capacity desktop scanners. With very few exceptions, firms have already embraced the digitization of their workflows. We’ve just been too preoccupied by the pandemic to notice that we’ve crossed this important milestone. In designing the new space, we’re placing a premium on scanners and deemphasized printers.
3. Plan for security. As we consider our design, we’re also omitting a formal reception area. Since there could be long stretches when the offices are empty, a reception area would be hardly more than an architectural statement. Instead, we’re opting for strategically placed cameras, including doorbell cameras like many consumers have at home today. Getting security right is important. We are even considering ways to safely monitor occupants’ temperature and provide security badges printed on special paper that expire after a set period.
4. White noise, coffee and collaboration. Besides having well-appointed audio-visual systems that could allow attorneys to present to a jury in each of our conference rooms, we want to create a space to permit collaboration once people return to the office. We’re creating a common area that is designed to function like a comfortable coffee shop complete with high-top tables that overlook the majestic snow-capped mountains surrounding our offices. But, besides a good coffee machine, we also wanted to dampen the sounds of a heated telephone conversation or confidential discussions. For that, we are considering a speaker system that pipes in white noise like subtle static or trickling water.
5. It’s all about the details. Because we expect attorneys will eventually travel again, we wanted to make the space suitable for roll aboard luggage or court reporters’ equipment during in-person depositions. To accommodate this, we’re planning for closets inside conference spaces. Making sure you have space for people to keep winter coats and luggage contributes means space that is comfortable for our lawyers.
The pandemic has been tragic and devastating. The impact of Covid-19 will last a generation. It’s forced us to adapt in many ways we could not have imagined even a year ago. But, it’s possible that with just the right amount of technology, leadership and creativity, we’ll be more efficient than when this whole thing began.