Research on Lawyers In Open Plan Offices?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about open plan office:

Is there any research on the productivity of in-house attorneys in open plan office environments versus traditional closed offices?

Signed, Planning

Dear Planning:

There are a number of sites that refer to one or two studies and studied opinions about open plan offices. You can find them in a quick search. However, none seem to refer to attorneys specifically. A legal secretary asked me the same question the other day, since her office is switching to open plans for secretaries and smaller offices for attorneys. I couldn’t find anything specifically about that either.There might be some information through national organizations in the legal field. Or, you may be able to find unscientific but real-world information by contacting some of the larger law offices with which you’re familiar. Writing to a magazine that serves the profession may produce some information as well.

My personal opinion (which you didn’t request!) is that businesses of all types seem to be headed back to the 1930s when photos show professionals lined up desk to desk, with no privacy, no sense of personal space and the feeling of a cattle car in which the goal is to pack as much beef into it as possible. I can see the value of saving space and furniture as well as having the work of employees be more visible. But, those are off-set, in my opinion, by the negative feelings of employees and the lack of privacy, concentration and work-focus that often results.

The argument that seems the least valid to me involves the egalitarian approach to office space. I’ve never met any new employee yet who had an expectation that offices would be equal from top to bottom. I think an executive who felt guilty or an office planner with a diabolical streak, must have thought of that! However, once that idea is broached, some employee’s latch onto it with the zeal of a revolutionary with hatred for class differences.

As far as the subconscious and conscious feelings most of us have about privacy and quietness for mental work, think about this: Consider being an attorney working out of your home office in an apartment, condo or town-home style residence. Another attorney lives in the unit next door and his home office is on the opposite side of your office wall. He’s a nice enough guy and a good neighbor. HOWEVER, all day long you can hear him working in his office on the other side of the wall. Desk and file drawers open and close; the phone rings; you can hear muffled laughter and voices and a cough or sneeze now and then. You worry about what HE can hear so you walk into another room to talk on the phone about anything of importance.You’d hate working like that! You’d probably look for ways to insulate the sound, even if you had to build an extra wall and lose some space to do it. If you mentioned it to others they would sympathize with having your concentration interrupted in that way. No one would think you were a whiner for complaining that you have trouble focusing when you keep hearing noises all day. But, if you decided to start working out of an office with an open plan, you might be in a much worse situation. At best you might have a partial divider made of glass between you and the attorney next to you. You’d not only hear the sounds, you’d see him all the time with peripheral vision. You’d hear bits of conversations and he would hear yours. If you wanted to talk to your manager privately, you’d have to ask to use one of the conference rooms that are set aside for that purpose–and which everyone notices.No wonder people want to work off-site! (Unless they have a neighbor who works off-site too and makes noise all day!) It just doesn’t seem logical to me that better work can be done in an open space or even in spaces with partial walls, than can be done when people have a work space with some privacy that can be set-up for the individual’s reasonable work needs. That was the LONG answer to your question about whether we know of research about open office plans for staff attorneys. The SHORT answer is, no we don’t know of any such research. But, thanks for listening to my opinions on the subject anyway!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.