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Redesigning firms and other corporate workspaces is a pressing task if companies want to retain staff who, in this period of record low unemployment in Australia, can chase offers that allow them to work entirely remotely. And there is plenty to renovate.

Despite the ever frequent shifts in technology, from faxes to emails to instant messaging and Teams and Skype calls, the infrastructure of offices had changed surprisingly little since Robert Propst devised the idea of “Action Offices” in the 1960s, to respond to the productivity challenges facing knowledge workers in modern America and the omnipresent wish of employers for efficiency, both in storage and output. 

Adjustments being made now to space out workers, per COVID social distancing requirements, and offer a more attractive space to incentivise workers are only the third iteration of office furniture trends in more than 50 years. 

From the cubicles to the shift in the early 2000s, where long rows of open-plan desks took over and Silicon Valley CEOs like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg ditched corner offices to work in the centre of their workforce (throwing in the odd beanbag), returning to the office post-COVID has become a catalyst for a reset. 

Adjustable spaces for reflection, meditation and quiet conversation or collaboration have become necessary, no matter the cost – the price of enticing staff happily back to the office.  

“One of the regrettable conditions of present-day offices is the tendency to provide a formula kind of sameness for everyone,” Propst said in 1963, a statement that rings true today when determining how to make the office a utilitarian success. 

The NSW Government, the largest employer in the southern hemisphere, has renovated office spaces in CBD locations to ensure better distancing between staff and high quality ventilation. Office-based employees are now requested to be in the building for part of the week. 

Corporate and tech behemoths have already summoned more kitsch solutions. Google’s open-plan desks now have the option to install a plastic bubble privacy barrier, which can be inflated when staff need to have a discreet conversation. 

“Certain companies I am involved with have a huge interest in providing ergonomic support at home: some will have a specialist go out to do an ergonomic check at someone’s home and ensure they have the right chair, or their desk is at a good height. Other companies provide allowances so their employees can buy the right equipment,” Lawcover chairman Peter Harmer says.

But US companies, where it is estimated as many as 30 per cent of office workers are still based entirely at home and places like New York are mandating city employees return to the office, and some Australian organisations, are finding that, while new furniture and more natural light are a nice fixture, they neglect the more profound reasons some of their staff are reluctant to return to office roles.

Societal problems like stagnant wages, access to childcare, and flexibility for those with caring responsibilities are very much in play, as many point to the past two years as evidence they can perform professionally and fulfil personal commitments more productively by working at home.  

Peter Harmer, LawCover Chairman Peter Harmer, LawCover Chairman

Certain companies … will have a specialist go out to do an ergonomic check at someone’s home and ensure they have the right chair, or their desk is at a good height.

Tiedt says it’s faces, not furniture, that must be the forefront of the office experience.

“Offices and chambers thrive on practitioners interacting in person,” he says, adding, “mentoring junior lawyers over video or telephone call is almost impossible.”

The 2020s have been an exercise in disaster planning. Pandemic measures were a harbinger of the necessity to rapidly move legacy, paper-driven systems to agile digital options – as seen in the NSW flood crisis earlier this year. 

 “Take LawCover, for example. Their claims are predominantly paper based. So of course, when everyone had to work from home, we had to drag people in to pick up files or to work from the office for very specific reasons,” Harmer tells the Journal. 

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While new office furniture and more natural light are a nice fixture, are we neglecting the more profound reasons staff are reluctant to return to office roles?

“We then saw this very same issue play out with floods (that devastated the Lismore region in March 2022), with little practices in Northern NSW, where it may have happened businesses were destroyed. 

“These things are going to have to change, but they come at a cost because it’s not just about looking forward, you’ve actually got to go back and pick up all of your old files as well. There’s a sunk cost there, which I think we’re going to have to find a way of addressing. 

“Other than if you have a problem like another pandemic, or another natural catastrophe that takes out your business, that’s the only time you’ll ever really get to realise a return on that kind of investment of planning for the future.”

In a briefing to the NSW Attorney General in June, the Law Society said NSW courts can become fairer and more efficient if the Government learns from measures introduced to keep justice afloat during the pandemic’s darkest days.

Adapting to the challenges of now is clearly in order.  

The legal profession must harness the technology, the talent and the tools to reset, acknowledging that, if this decade so far is any indication, the next challenge might be only a week away.

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