According to the authors of Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity, we take 2 million breaths at work in a typical year. Twelve months ago, this would have been a piece of pointless trivia but in the midst of the pandemic it has new pertinence: in November, a Resolution Foundation survey found that more than one-third of workers had an active concern about COVID-19 transmission at work, despite the significant steps most organisations had taken to mitigate the risks of infection. It seems unlikely that we will ever think about the workplace in quite the same way again. How is the crisis likely to impact the chambers of the future?

Although many barristers had been operating at least partly remotely prior to the pandemic, the switch in March 2020 to working from home – barristers and staff alike – was on such an entirely different scale as to present a new chambers operating model. And we won’t go back to the way we were once it’s all over, whenever that may be. A Future Forum study reports that 72% of participants want to split their work between home and the office in the future, with over 50% of participants from the legal profession saying that they could work entirely remotely ‘with little or no difficulty’. Many employers seem to agree: a Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors report reveals that 93% of respondents envisage scaling back their office footprint over the next two years. Given Bar Council findings that, even by August 2020, nearly a third of chambers responding had either given or were considering giving partial notice on their lease, it seems we’re likely to see a similar trend at the Bar.

Of course there has been extensive discussion in the media and elsewhere about the importance of bringing people together at work for development, for collaboration, for engagement, and for morale. These are issues with which all businesses are currently grappling but perhaps they are particularly critical for the Bar as a profession in which both the collective term – a set of chambers – and the name of many individual entities still derives from the nature of their premises and even their actual address. Amanda Pinto QC, 2020 Chair of the Bar, noted the ‘very important role a physical chambers plays in all barristers’ careers’. Given the unique structure and culture of a set of chambers as a collection of self-employed sole practitioners, a concrete base may be particularly important for even the most cohesive of sets.

Scores of studies, both before and since the pandemic hit, have reached the uncontroversial conclusion that, while there are many advantages to remote working, there are numerous limitations too, not least in terms of the communication which is so central to how we work at the Bar. The shortcomings of video conferencing, for example, are highlighted by research cited by The New York Times on the effect of a pixelated screen on our perception of ‘an intricate array of minute muscle contractions, particularly around the eyes and mouth, often subconsciously perceived, and essential to our understanding of one another’.

So the office environment is far from over but it’s clearly going to be different. Chambers will need to look hard at how to make their premises work for them. In circumstances where experts predict that, despite the advent of vaccines, social distancing and other measures will remain in place well into the future, it’s likely that more sets will seek to retain smaller premises while making the space work harder as a hub.

Now they are no longer a default destination, our premises will have to become more of a draw: we are going to need to encourage people in, competing with the convenience and comfort of working from home. This is particularly true for senior members, whose presence is so important for the training and development of more junior colleagues. More sets will be rethinking the traditional chambers layout – people aren’t going to want to travel to a place where everyone is dispersed in different rooms, down different corridors and a confined clerks’ room means you can’t go in to catch up for social distancing reasons.

Instead we’ll be wanting open spaces to foster community and communication. While, pre-pandemic, the authors of Remote: Office Not Required (David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried: 2013) dismissed the workplace as ‘an interruption factory’, we will now be planning our premises to facilitate those spontaneous but often very productive conversations between colleagues. We’ll perhaps introduce different zones for different tasks: a report commissioned by WeWork recommends a combination of personal workspace, hot-desks, collaboration areas, phone booths, quiet spots and formal and informal meeting rooms. This may eventually lead more sets to consider moving out of the Inns, to buildings which are more likely to offer the flexible space that literally give more room to manoeuvre.

These open spaces will also assist in meeting what are likely to be a new expectations for a healthy working environment: even post-COVID we’re going to be significantly more conscious of the risk of infection, if only because we have focused on the fact that steps designed to protect us from the pandemic will also reduce the spread of other illness such as colds and flu. Healthy Buildings (Joseph G Allen and John D Macomber: 2020) cites pre-COVID research which – astoundingly – found that 57% of all sick leave for more than 3,000 workers across 40 buildings was attributable to poor ventilation, for example. The authors comment that, ‘in the post-COVID world, buildings will be seen as a first line of defence against disease’.

Better ventilation will be crucial, combined with improvements to other elements such as humidity and temperature. These and other elements of biophilic design have apparently ‘been shown to reduce stress, enhance creativity, increase clarity of thought, improve mental well being and expedite healing’. This may seem a grandiose claim but the authors point out it is simply a logical development of measures which casinos have been taking for decades, circulating fresh air and keeping the temperature low to keep people awake and gambling for longer. They carried out a double-blind study to test the impact of enhanced ventilation on cognitive function. When subjects were in an optimised indoor environment, with high rates of ventilation and low concentrations of carbon dioxide and other harsh compounds, there was a dramatic improvement across all nine working skills tested, including activity levels, application of information, and strategy.

With the demarcation between work and home blurred as never before, we may also see the trend for the ‘hotelisation’ of office space reaching the Bar, with far more care going into creating attractive surroundings and providing first class facilities in order to present a modern impression and to attract the best people.

This is partly about more natural light, more colour, more planting and more soft furnishings, in order to make chambers more inviting while at the same time facilitating social distance. While many sets have invested in the design of their premises the style adopted has typically been imposing but impersonal. If that feels out of kilter after months of meeting virtually from our kitchens, we may see the emphasis shift to creating a more welcoming atmosphere, with more personality, perhaps in some way reflecting the purpose of the organisation which current management theory has identified as so important to the motivation of the millennial generation (see, for example, here).

It’s also about providing the best amenities and services to encourage people into chambers, including outstanding in-house IT support and hardware. We’re likely to see investment in top flight digital capability within the physical workplace so that we can cater with greater sophistication for the virtual cons which will no doubt continue long after the pandemic, for example with studio-standard cameras, lighting and sound, always-on video channels and virtual whiteboards. Cyber security and disaster recovery plans will be prioritised anew and the chambers’ digital presence is set to become even more important. For example, with fewer cons taking place in person, the website will replace the reception as the set’s shop windows and will accordingly need to pack a more powerful punch.

There are many miseries arising from the pandemic which none of us would wish to minimise. The fact that it has triggered a worldwide workplace experiment is of course no consolation, but let’s gain what we can. The challenge for the Bar has long been how to modernise while retaining our independence, character and cachet: it’s always been important to be cutting edge without homogenising into yet another business. But as the World Economic Forum comments in its 2020 Future of Jobs Report, ‘we find ourselves at a defining moment: the decisions and choices we make today will determine the course of entire generations’ lives and livelihoods’ . In emerging from this crisis we can all afford to consider all the options – remote or physical, traditional or modern, in or out of the Inn. After all, 20 years ago we didn’t even have con rooms.

Catherine Calder’s next article for Counsel will focus on the implications of the pandemic for chambers’ cohesion, dynamics and development.

Case study: modern vibe with chambers core

Of course, different solutions suit different sets, but Serjeants’ Inn adopted a number of the measures contemplated by this article when we moved out of the Inn in 2013 and, for us, they work well.

We are based in purpose-designed premises on a single floor of the former Reuters building on Fleet Street. By moving here, we decreased our floor space by 20%. This reduced our overheads significantly and brought everyone, including the staff team, together in one non-hierarchical layout. It’s largely open plan and we combine own-desking, desk-sharing and hot-desking options: 60% of our tenants now hot-desk when in Chambers.

It is Martin Dyke, my co-Chief Exec, together with our Joint Heads of Chambers Angus Moon QC, Michael Horne QC and previously John Beggs QC, who deserve the credit for the modern premises which are so fundamental to how we work at Serjeants’ Inn. The most recent development is the addition of a common room with sofas, air plants and photographs. Although this takes up expensive space and was difficult given our recent expansion, we knew it would aid collegiality and facilitate the exchange of views and ideas within the set. People also use it for relaxing, for example with meditation, pilates or playing the Nintendo Wii. It assists occasionally as an extra meeting room too.

London-based with a national practice, we have long experience of hybrid home/Chambers working not only for our barristers - who live all over the country - but for members of the staff team too. As with many sets, the pandemic has precipitated the wholesale shift to paperlite working which we had been trying to achieve for some time, to the extent that we have not yet needed our junior clerk to return to work in Chambers except on an occasional ad-hoc basis (he’s occupied instead organising e-bundles from home).

We have an intranet and other channels of communication, including an online anonymous feedback facility for the staff team. Investing in media equipment and posting updates on our cases on screens around the building keeps everyone informed and serves as a reminder of what we are working to achieve.

For us, this set-up dramatically improves efficiency and cohesion across the entire Chambers team. Most importantly however, our barristers say it enhances our legal product. In an open plan space they are able to consult and compare notes freely among a far wider selection of their peers than was feasible in the charming but circuitous and compartmentalised building we occupied before.

Finally, it’s key that even if Serjeants’ Inn doesn’t particularly look like a chambers, it still firmly feels one. While our premises play a vital part in our ethos and success, it’s our cases, clients, counsel and staff which make us the set we are.