The chief executive of Hardwicke Chambers shares her experience of going open plan.

When I arrived at Hardwicke as practice director in 2009, the different groups of staff were in lots of separate rooms: ‘clerking’ (as it was then known), fees, marketing, typing, finance – all were segregated. Whether intentional or not, the world seemed to stop when the creaking door of the clerks’ room opened and the clerks looked up at the intimidated intruder. 

One of my first initiatives was to get the walls taken down. Everyone was then in the same, open, room – a single overall team. In 2012, just as I became chief executive, the whole team relocated to a more central – and fully refurbished and refitted – area within the building together on the ground floor: a new and beautiful ‘Practice Room’. That provided a great opportunity to change the way we worked more generally.

So why did I pull the walls down? I did it to help bring the staff together as a genuine team, better able to communicate and meet the needs of our barrister members internally and our clients externally, and to give greater job satisfaction to everyone employed at Hardwicke.

Meeting our shared objectives

All staff, whatever their particular role, now see themselves as part of meeting joint objectives, not least because they are aware in a direct and ongoing way of what everyone else is doing, and of how their own role fits in to our overall business objectives. That recognises the value of everyone in the team, increasing self-esteem and job satisfaction. Nobody is left out, or isolated.  

Gone is the previous false sense that the ‘clerks’ room’ was the hub, the power-house, which left others feeling peripheral. Gone too the blame culture which flowed from breaking everyone up and keeping them separate: the barriers have come down organisationally as well as physically and in their place there is now a sense of shared responsibility, a new cohesion – everyone pulling together and helping each other out as needed.

We have a new recognition that none of the functions exist or can properly operate in isolation: people who undertake marketing need to be aware of what practice managers are doing, practice managers need to understand how chambers is financed, and so on. Everyone is valued and recognised for their contribution, and with a greater respect and understanding of what others are doing.

No longer do we just rely (as you must when physically separated) on emails and formal meetings – information is now also shared constantly and informally. By being aware of what others are doing information is absorbed constantly. That helps give us all a much better shared understanding of what our barristers need from us, of their career aspirations and so on; and also – of course – of the needs and expectations of our diverse and growing client base.

There are times when privacy is needed for a particular meeting or discussion, so we have a sound-proofed meeting room immediately adjacent to the practice room to use as needed and other more discreet meeting rooms in our newly refurbished client floor. We have our full 25-strong staff team meetings standing up – it helps focus minds and discussion and doesn’t allow anyone to sit in a dominant position!

As chief executive, I sit at the heart of my staff team, at the elbow of the overall ‘L’ shaped room so I can be aware of everything that is going on. I face the door so I can see and greet staff, barrister members and clients as they come and go (barrister pigeon holes are in the heart of the practice room). Of course that can sometimes disrupt my workflow so I work flexibly at home if I am doing something where I need uninterrupted space, but that is completely outweighed by the benefits of being in touch and at the heart of things – better there than hiding away in a chief executive’s office.

No smelly lunches

The new refurbishment has also allowed us – deciding together as a staff team – to adopt new ways of working. Policies like ‘no food at the desk’, and ‘tidy desk’, have kept our smart new room looking its best and keeping it as a shared endeavour. We all now welcome clients and visitors into our work area with a sense of pride. It helps build relationships with clients and others. It keeps the practice room as a good and congenial place to work.

As the walls came down, so too did the social and cultural barriers between the teams. The open plan space allows us to mix up the seating plan, so the different people sit with each other: fees and finance and marketing and senior practice management, for example. It is much easier to develop a sense of community in this way. 

Now we share jokes, make coffee for each other (the kitchen is right there, off the Practice Room) and help each other out across disciplines. People share different approaches to problem-solving, often because their experience and backgrounds differ. Conversations flow from pop stars and celebrity chefs to fine art and politics in the same breath. People learn and share this way. Bringing the walls down has helped improve job satisfaction, contributing to making Hardwicke a fun place to work, but importantly one of shared endeavour – all of which helps improve the service we provide.

So has it worked?

Of course, other things have contributed to us functioning as a strong team: our new appraisal system, improved job descriptions, team building and training events, a staff mission statement, open recruitment and so on. But taking the walls down has made a crucial contribution.

So has pulling the walls down been a success? Certainly. Hardwicke is a better place to work and we now work better, together, and more effectively to meet the needs of our barrister members and current and would-be clients. I would recommend it.

Amanda Illing is chief executive of Hardwicke Chambers