When Vaqas Farooq, Head of Shoosmiths Manchester, told the audience at our Mix Inspired event earlier this year that ‘the desk is dead’, there was an audible gasp in the room. Vaqas went on to share more of his views and opinions – and, as we listened, we decided that we needed to meet this man again, with our Mix Interiors hats on.
Shoosmiths’ Manchester team has moved into its new home at the XYZ building in Spinningfields, transferring the law firm’s entire 190-strong team into an agile working environment. Fortunately enough, Vaqas is happy to spare more of his valuable time and to walk and talk us through this remarkable project.
The new office concept was developed in collaboration with Claremont, following close consultation with employees. Claremont’s brief was to work in harmony with the look and feel of the industrial feel of the XYZ building – but to also give Shoosmiths its own clear identity within the space.
The space incorporates no less than 11 different types of workspace along with a variety of breakout facilities. This comprises five neighbourhoods for the firm’s five practice groups, with a third of the space dedicated to collaborative working. The story, however, goes far deeper than this.
So, before even looking at the space itself, we begin by asking Vaqas about the light bulb moment that led to the dramatic transformation of the way this business looks, feels and operates. ‘I was in Birmingham at the time – in very typical offices, I suppose you’d call them,’ he recalls. ‘We started off being in silos and then the ‘amazing’ open plan thing happened. Every time new people came in there was this massive jig around. I thought this was all really tedious. Also, people would come to work, sat in their own little fiefdoms, for hours on end – particularly lawyers and professional services. They might be sat there for 10 or 15 hours – and that’s not right. It’s not healthy, it’s not conducive to collaboration.
‘I didn’t know what the answer was. The light bulb moment was when I was sat with our board, asking to take this office to the next step of our journey in Manchester. I was asking for a £5 million commitment. Our CEO suggested ‘agile’. Knowing lawyers weren’t used to this concept, it would be quite a task to implement. Around three months later I had something of an epiphany. I had talked to a lot of people – creatives, designers, architectsυ and people who had embraced agile, such as PwC and Marston’s. Something suddenly ticked. I realised there was a whole new world out there and the legal industry was ignoring it. This happened almost overnight. I just thought we needed to start again. We needed to start doing what our clients are doing.
‘That started a two-year consultation with all our colleagues here about what agile means to them – and this is the culmination. This is really what agile means to them.
‘We want to change the way that lawyers work and utilising the latest technology to support this new approach. Technology is absolutely key to all of this. Wherever you sit down in this space there will always be a screen that you can wirelessly connect to. You have to be able to walk around with a laptop and always be on the system. You have to be completely free of wires – and everything has to be turbo-fast. We don’t have desk phones here – you can’t be agile and have fixed phones. So we have phones built into our laptops and we’re using Jabber – which has gone down a storm. It allows us to share documents while talking to one another, it allows us to have video cons – Jabber itself has revolutionised the way we work here. It really has freed everyone up.
‘An agile workspace is only about 40% of what agile really means. Agile, to us, is principally about our ability to trust our people to work, to deliver and not be obsessed whether they’re in the office or at a desk. So what we’ve said here is, ‘We’ll trust you. We’ll give you great technology and a great workspace. In return, just make sure you fulfil your responsibilities. Hit your KPI’s – as you must – and beyond that, just work it out for yourself. You don’t need to feel constrained.
‘In return for giving that trust you get an increase in productivity, people are happier and their health and wellbeing is improved.’
We knew it was worth talking with Vaqas again.
We start our tour at the entrance to the 5th floor reception area. The lobby makes a strong visual statement while also welcoming visitors into this space. The angled reception area has echoes of the ground floor concierge while the raw industrial elements of the lift lobby continue into the space, with the use of concrete, timber, white and black tones, which link with the XYZ building’s palette.
The client suite has a strong architectural look but still manages to have a feeling of warmth when combined with the natural walnut and oak finishes. The space is truly multifunctional. Clients are welcomed to the reception space and encouraged to make themselves at home, use the business lounge area and the informal meeting spaces, grab a coffee from the well-equipped bar area and use any of the available quiet rooms. This υ business lounge extends to the floor above, on the 6th floor, via a beautiful sweeping spiral staircase. This gives a sense of a working connection to both floors – with clients encouraged to use the space and, indeed, work here all day if required.
The client meeting suite offers 15 bookable board/meeting/training rooms, ranging from a multi-functional 120-person seminar room to four-person meeting rooms.
The Shoosmiths brand is re-enforced in the client suite circulation space, with the infinity logo recessed into a backlit bespoke walnut veneered wall. Reference is made to the heritage of Manchester throughout the meeting rooms, with all being named after key milestones in Manchester’s history, ranging from Emily Pankhurst to the Haçienda club. Each room has a large black and white piece of artwork to reflect these dates. Subtle reference to the cotton spinning/weaving heritage of the Spinningfields area in the 19th century is made in the abstract glazing manifestation and the large cotton weave image in the spiral stair’s upper lobby.
The 6th floor working space, although not planned from the outset, we’re told, is now a completely adaptable and agile space. While the floor accommodates 233 base workstations, it can easily cater for up to 280 in various work settings. Workstationsυ are arranged in banks adjacent to window space, giving people as much natural light as possible. The floor is broken into departmental neighbourhoods, with only some of the desks ‘belonging’ to full-time users, while the majority are used on an ad-hoc basis.
‘We’ve created areas for desks – but no one ‘gets’ a desk,’ Vaqas reveals. ‘Each practice group will have their own neighbourhood where their PAs will be located and there will be necessary storage designated in those areas too. Beyond that we have given up a third of the floor space to a collaboration zone, so there’s lots of different types of working environments in which to work.’
The middle section of the 6th floor provides a spine, giving access to various agile, meeting or support spaces that include the Decompression Zone – where staff can offload coats or collect personal possessions from one of the 280 combination lockers – as well as high density storage and print hubs.
An informal ‘garden’ area features a large collaborative bench table, small 1-to-1 quiet rooms and eye-catching ‘railway carriage’ meeting pods. Designed to be a relaxed informal meeting/work area, the zone features stunning artwork, distressed timber finishes, ‘grass’ carpet and natural moss walls.
Other standout facilities include a large confidential project room, an ‘old club’ inspired library area and a large multifunctional group room – called the XYZone.
And we still haven’t finished! A mix of 12 further acoustic meeting/work booths, meeting pods and quiet ‘monk cells’ are located across the floor, while two large breakout areas give access to tea/coffee making facilities and microwaves.
Vaqas and the team at Shoosmiths have really pushed the envelope here and, together with Claremont Senior Designer David Day’s vision, the result is a workplace that perfectly embodies the modern, agile law firm.
We’ll leave the final words to Vaqas. ‘We are hugely excited to be here. The move signals a new era for the Manchester office, the culmination of years of consultation and development work.
‘Shoosmiths prides itself on doing things differently and on the quality of its client and employee experience. By investing in modern, bespoke, agile offices we will ensure that we continue to blaze a trail on each of these fronts.’