Legal teams spearheading the movement toward open office design

Friday, October 27, 2017

It’s a rare occasion when a company points to its legal team as its most forward-thinking department. But don’t tell that to the people in Sun Life Financial’s new offices at One York in Toronto.

Take a millennial on a tour of the 17 floors that Sun Life’s 2,000 employees occupy and ask her where she’d like to work. The answer’s a no-brainer: only the 31st floor, housing senior vice-president and general counsel Trish Callon’s 50-member team and the 33 people working in the corporate compliance and corporate secretarial departments, stands out.

Apart from a handful of executive offices occupied by, among others, the company’s CEO, there are no designated offices. Some 30 sit-stand desks populate the floor, all configured with the push of a button. Windows dominate the periphery and tons of natural light floods 12 individual enclaves (not offices) and several collaborative areas best described as booths. There’s space for privacy, deep focus, rejuvenation, collaboration and health and wellness.

No wonder then, that Callon believes that the premises will help her team attract young talent. It’s quite a change from the old premises at 150 King Street, where the legal team’s haunts had remained basically unchanged since at least 1992.

But what’s noticeable as much as the physical change is the extent to which the new space has influenced personal interaction and collaboration. There’s a fresh can-I-grab-you-for-five-minutes mentality that has usurped the natural inclination to sit in one’s office, frequently with a closed door. Callon says she’s had more interaction with more people at more levels in the last four months than she had in the two-and-a-half years working in the old space. On a larger scale, the open premises have gone a long way to forging improved communications between the legal team and corporate compliance in particular.

Nobody seems to be missing their offices. That’s no surprise to Callon, who cites data showing that on any given day, 30 per cent of lawyers don’t use their offices at all. What has surprised her is that some of the naysayers, the ones who expressed the most concern about the loss of office space, are now among the biggest champions of the new premises.

Redesigning their space produced other benefits for the legal team, which used the opportunity to rethink how they worked so as to set themselves up for success now and going forward. The team implemented a new matter management system. Instead of carting paper around, individuals are walking around with their laptops, on which they’re doing things like taking notes and pulling up meeting materials.

To those ensconced in occupations and professions more readily attuned to modernity, this may be old hat. But progress is hardly old hat for the legal profession. A recent study finds, for example, that 45 per cent of all law firms refreshing their hardware in 2017 will provide desktop computers to their lawyers. Even where there is innovation, it tends to arise in the context of efficiencies, not culture.

This having been said, at least two national firms, McCarthy Tétrault LLP and Miller Thomson LLP, have made significant strides in using office space design as a tool in transforming their culture and departing from traditional norms and stereotypes surrounding the profession. McCarthy has embraced an open-space concept where partners find themselves in glass pods with sliding glass doors that are interspersed among the work stations occupied by associates and support staff.

Still, Callon believes that her legal team is the first among larger departments in Canada to have taken office redesign this far. Arguably, what’s most interesting about that is, as Callon puts it, “Whoever would have thought that the lawyers in the company would be the drivers of change?”

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