Words by Michael Willoughby
Law firm Reynolds Porter Chamberlain had a radical overhaul, primarily fitted out by Vitra. Michael Willoughby
spoke to CEO Adrian Martin about the ins and outs
A life-size reindeer hovers on a bridge over the foyer of Tower Bridge House, the sole Christmas decoration in the home of London-based law firm Reynolds Porter Chamberlain.
The simple seasonal gesture encapsulates the remarkable minimalism of RPC’s offices. On all four floors of the building, designed by Richard Rogers, there are rows and rows of clean, white desks facing banks of white filing cabinets. There is hardly any clutter anywhere.
By all accounts this set up is very different from how RPC used its previous offices in Holborn and Leadenhall Market, where it had resided for 35 years. Files from large, important, closed cases were everywhere. Senior lawyers had their own offices. Juniors and trainees shared rooms. This set up – the cellular offices and the “trophy files” of victories bagged – spoke of hierarchies and a type of display that CEO Adrian Martin wished to do away with.
It is one of the paradoxes of modern life that the business of making money – often seen as conservative and narrow-minded – has often brought about changes in society unachievable by decades of political egalitarianism. And Martin, who has piloted this move from what he admits was a “crusty” and “embarrassing” workspace to the largest open-plan office for a London law firm (with space for 500 at present), is not a tradition-loving lawyer but an accountant. He is aware that community, team work, visibility and a flat structure may be buzz words, but they are also highly effective tools for productivity if done right. He himself is to be found in the exact same desk as everyone else, albeit at the end of a row with a nice view of the Tower of London through Rogers’ sparkling glass walls.
RPC employees and clients have ample space to meet and move around, including closed meeting rooms on each identical floor, perching points, high seating at work tables and low seating at leisure tables. Most meetings, however, are carried out at each other’s “homes” on the Vitra Freeform desks. The peripheral offices are hardly used. The open-plan critics have lost the argument.
It took Martin six months to plan and carry out the move. Great care was taken to get it right, to keep people happy and ensure that business went on as usual. “You only get one chance,” he says. Not that there were any complaints about the old way of doing things. “Some people liked being buried,” he adds. He was taking a huge risk, so campaigns and secret ballots were carried out – moving opinion from 70% to 95% approval. He and facilities manager Mayur Patel saw buildings at home and abroad and noted their strengths and weaknesses.
Key to the success was convincing people that open plan could provide privacy and effective working conditions if done right. The problem is, Martin says, that too many have only experienced it done wrong. For example, he travelled to another “top London firm” where open plan was being trialled. The experiment consisted of miles of cellular office space. After complaints about noise levels, the screens were made higher, somewhat missing the point of open plan.
It was their traditional experience of open plan – noisy and grey and exposed – that made some RPC lawyers fear it. So the firm took care of that by carefully arranging lines of sight and sound. A £70,000 white noise machine was installed and the seating is staggered so no employee has another one directly in his or her sights.
The white noise is a high hiss broadcast from hundreds of tiny speakers implanted into the ceiling. You could think it was the sound of the air-conditioning if the pitch wasn’t different in each room. Engineers arrive to fine-tune it every month, and employees say it makes a huge difference since, when it’s switched off in the evening, a phone call can be heard from the other end of the room. The rest of the time, even neighbours are happy yabbering away into phones next to each other. It also makes possible the desk-side meetings that other designers go out of their way to discourage for fear of disturbing nearby residents. Though the system was expensive, it is key to the success of the plan.
Martin is so enthusiastic about what has been done here that it is hard to remember he’s the CEO of the company and not a workplace expert. Like any recent convert he is a keen evangelist, but if he eloquently articulated the problems and needs, Vitra found the solutions. And the company was amply rewarded for its success: the space is filled with Vitra furniture, from the Freestyle desks to the Coconut lounging chairs to the Eames tables. To cap it all, the firm kitted out the place with Bellini Headline chairs (onoffice issue 2) for secretaries and lawyers alike, based on a pre-production prototype. There’s even a cluster of miniature Vitra chairs and tables. “Tim [Oldman, associate director at Vitra] said he wanted to show people around the space and I said, ‘Fine, if you bring us a miniature chair every time you do’,” says Martin. Fourteen pieces sit on top of the filing system. “We are something of a Vitra showroom.”
And that’s even more remarkable when you consider that Vitra was not at first responsible for the overall styling. London-based HOK Architecture, which still provided the category B styling, was originally charged with the whole job, but Vitra convinced RPC it could do better and that HOK had made some mistakes.
For instance, desks were originally slated to be next to the huge glass expanse of Rogers’ windows. This would make the place look untidy both across the sparkling ravine at the heart of the block and from the outside. Vitra ensured that clear space surrounds everyone and everything.
“The architect created the infrastructure but work style and design was largely contributed by Vitra’s in-house team,” says Martin. It seems that Martin, Oldman and Patel were better able to bond over business and operational matters, such as filing: “I know it’s not very exciting,” says Martin, opening up a cabinet and taking out a plastic box, “but these boxes save up to 23% storage on traditional file folders.” More interesting was the two and a half miles of filing space that RPC and Vitra worked to rid the company of – that’s down from four and a half miles in six months. £250,000 worth of equipment didn’t need to be purchased as a result, and £300,000 worth of floor rental space was freed up.
True to his accountancy background, “Adrian had a mini-business case for everything,” says Oldman. The meeting rooms and lounge (with free salads, biscuits and drinks) on the ground floor, which are used to entertain clients and pitch new business, were a considerable outlay. But Martin worked out that they were a better investment over two to three years than hiring seminar rooms in the surrounding area.
So, what of the staff? Intellectual property veteran Gemma Cullis, who thought she knew open plan and hated it, is keen. “A lot of thought has gone into the equipment,” she says. Trainee solicitor Matthew Dando said it was time to move on from the old space, which was “dated”. He was impressed with the process of consultation and the move. “People were at their desks and working on the first day of the move,” he says. “Everyone who was sceptical has been proven wrong.” If there’s any complaint, it’s that you sometimes feel a slight inhibition when interacting socially with colleagues, says Cullis. “But I suppose that’s a good thing.” She says she’s also forgotten to do a few things as a result of the clean desk policy. This means that cleaners place everything on employees’ chairs at the end of the day. Her pile of papers was her to do list, she says.
Secretaries and floor managers will have a word with repeat offenders on the clean desk front. “We’ve gone to great lengths to provide enough storage,” says Martin. His benevolent dictatorship of order and tidiness shows itself in colourful toys and sweets on the top of the filing cabinets; there to provide a spot of colour, but also to stop people dumping clobber all around. His desire to keep his new space looking as good as possible is understandable given the investment of time and money that was made. And underneath all the egalitarianism and idealism, there’s the accountant’s bottom line. The month preceding our tour – November – demonstrated the highest ever productivity level for the firm. Enthusiastic emails from former sceptics have poured in and no one has left as a result of the move. Martin says the project went so well that everyone’s wondering: “What shall we do next?”