This post is scripted from an IBA webinar today, most ably moderated by Stephen Revell, which I was privileged to co-present with Elizabeth Cooper, Maria-Pia Hope, Steve Martin and Segun Osuntokun. At the time I was physically located on a remote hilltop in the Isles of Scilly, 25 miles into the Atlantic off the south-west tip of Cornwall, illustrating rather well one of the key points that I made. That is: it’s already easy today (and will in the near future be far easier) to work and collaborate effectively from even quite remote locations.

We are all so used to the idea of everybody working in big, self-contained offices and anywhere else by exception that it is very difficult to ‘unthink’ that and imagine anything radically different. Offices like those that we are used to have been at the core of our experience for a century or more, deeply ingrained into what we understand as ‘work’.

Our central business districts (CBDs) exist on the premise that people travel from home to work in the morning, do their work, then travel home again in the evening …. [hopefully] to return again the following day. It’s barely eight months since a prominent U.S. law firms sent out an email to all staff saying more or less that this ‘work from home’ nonsense had to stop except for when there was a good reason why somebody could not come into the office.

How things have changed. Even so, it’s very difficult to challenge a paradigm that has prevailed for a century or more. That’s what I want to try to do now, though. To challenge you to re-imagine what ‘workspace’ even means – at a far deeper, more fundamental level.

Imagine if we could ‘re-imagine’ our workspaces, looking to the future not the past, with a completely clean mental state. If we could visualise from scratch what the ideal combinations and configurations of spaces would be for our firms, that would deliver the very best results, given all the geo-economic and socio-political trends in play and evolving client needs and the demands of our people and the technology available now and expected soon. What would look like?

This might sound like a crazily hypothetical question, but it is very real. Put yourself in the shoes of a law firm leader whose firm’s lease is nearing an end. You would then need to imagine, looking out over the next DECADE at least, not only how the most cutting-edge technology available now might be deployed, but also what technology might become available that does not yet exist (or is not yet in common use) in the next few years.

As a simple but potentially transformational example, imagine how ultra-realistic, mixed-media-enabled video conferencing might impact the way in which your people collaborate. As you can see from the [real] backdrop behind me, I am presenting this webinar from a hilltop in the Isles of Scilly, 25 miles off the coast of Cornwall. What if, instead of this rather grainy two-dimensional picture on a computer screen, you were listening to me speak to you in your language of choice, from a completely different, three-dimensional setting. Perhaps a conventional auditorium, perhaps something entirely different. This technology has already existed for some time.

What if a group of your people could meet in a highly realistic virtual room through avatars that accurately resemble each participant, irrespective of where each person was physically located at the time? The obstacle to rolling this technology out now is internet bandwidth. But speeds are increasing all the time and 5G will make that so with mobile devices, too. The Skylink low-orbit communication satellites that Space-X is currently launching by the dozen will make such ultra-high-speed (by today’s standards) mobile connectivity available in most, perhaps ultimately all places on earth.

How and where will your people choose to live and work, then? What opportunities will arise to train and mentor juniors in ways that are impossible today? How will the way that clients want you to interact with them, change? We know that GCs are eager to meet with their lawyers again, and not just on Zoom. Does that inevitably mean a return to what was before, face-to-face, or will they be open to new forms of meeting?

Would such a ‘re-imagining’ exercise bring you back to pretty much how firms operated before, with better air filtration and lots of hygiene stations and more flexibility and better technology? Would that be the very best solution, that would drive the best performance and yield the best competitive advantage?

Or would you conclude that a completely virtual business model, perhaps something like Axiom but with enhanced technology would then be feasible in ways that it has not been before, and that the savings in rent would alter the firm’s profit model and market positioning to such an extent that the switch is worthwhile? What would that ‘switch’ even look like, in the most practical of terms?

I spoke last week with an old friend, Gary Wingen, who is managing partner of the law firm Lowenstein Sandler, with offices in Manhattan and in suburban New Jersey. He said that they are seeing people wanting to shift from the New York City to the New Jersey office and even laterals wanting to join the firm because of the option to work in a suburban setting, and that they see being able to offer this as a source of real competitive advantage. Will we see law firms maintaining client suites in the CBD and one or more smaller offices, well linked and perhaps virtually supported, closer to where people live? Working from home has been wonderful for those with home offices and other private spaces where work and home have been clearly separated. Those sharing accommodation and trying to work from home using the same space and internet connection are having less pleasant experiences and would prefer to return to the office …. but remain deeply uncomfortable about close contact with strangers on mass transit systems.

What size would such a ‘satellite’ office need to be and how would it need to be equipped and secured, to be viable? Again, would such an arrangement deliver the best performance and competitive advantage for your firm when viewed over the next decade, perhaps in a world where Covid-19 persists in the background? Humans as a species thrive far better in ‘tribes’ than alone and the drive to socialise and work in groups is inexorable. As the drive to socialise becomes stronger than fear of the pandemic, one would expect that talent will seek out employers who can provide the best combination of socialisation and safety.

What combination of spaces, systems and structures will be needed to knit a network of offices together, and is that really all that different to what would make a multi-office firm perform better? How would work spaces need to be configured, to optimise the physical component including the technology required to support the ‘virtual’ component, the latter being wherever a person happens to be doing work except in the office? Could one make the experience of switching between the two more-or-less seamless?

If the new ‘ideal’ model that delivers the best performance and competitive advantage is radically different to just ‘office-plus’ then that could be disruptive to legal sector market dynamics in the true sense of the word. I am leery of the term ‘disruptive’ innovation. It is used too frequently to describe changes that are little more than incremental nudges in their overall competitive impact. At the other extreme, it has also too frequently used as a battle-cry by those seeking to overthrow established industry practices on the most spurious of grounds. One cannot simply walk away from a long-term obligation like an office lease, though. If current market leaders find themselves hamstring by such liabilities whilst others find themselves able to freely adopt such new approaches to work places and work itself, then that might indeed constitute disruptive innovation as its inventor, the recently-late Clayton Christensen, meant the term to be used.

Exploring answers to these questions is where I believe focus needs to be, at this juncture. There are of course also other, more immediate questions to answer about what firms need to do right now, and in coming months, to support their people in doing their best work. Beyond that, though, we need to remove the blinkers from our eyes and think with greater imagination about what might be even possible over the next five to ten years.

It’s been said that Covid-19 propelled our work practices at least five years into the future, instantly, but many other aspects of our cultures and systems and structures and (especially) mindsets are still five years or more in the past. So, we have a metaphorical decade to bridge, intellectually, and that while projecting our thoughts a further decade into the future. That’s very difficult.

So, astound your kids (or your grandkids) this evening by suggesting you watch Ready Player One together and then, instead of dismissing the whole thing as sheer fantasy, challenge yourself to think how, with tools even remotely like that, our world and our clients’ legal needs and the way in which we define and configure our workplaces might different.

Then, return to your current reality and think what makes sense to consider, the “what if’s?” in terms of the real questions that you need to answer today, about your firm’s work spaces over the next five to ten years.