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Out in the open

How design can change how you work – for the better.

McCarthy Tétrault’s new Quebec city office features a hub where teams can gather in a café setting.
McCarthy Tétrault’s new Quebec city office features a hub where teams can gather in a café setting.

Say goodbye to the private office with a view: the latest open-plan offices offer everyone natural light and city views. The concept is gaining in popularity – 70 per cent of U.S. office workers have open-plan spaces – but is it right for law firms? 

Bill Dowzer of BVN Donovan Hill thinks so.  The Australian architect, who has transformed legal workplaces in his home country for the last 10 years, recently completed his first Canadian project – McCarthy Tétrault’s Quebec City office – and is now redesigning the Vancouver offices of McCarthy’s and Miller Thomson.

He believes that open-plan offices offer law firms a chance to collaborate in new ways.

“The fundamental opportunity of a more open environment is the speed of transfer of knowledge between lawyers,” he says. “We see this as a potential for osmotic learning, not just one-way between a junior lawyer and a senior partner, but in reverse in other aspects such as the use of technology.”

Fans of the open-plan office say it increases creativity and collaboration, improves communication, creates more opportunities for mentoring and helps save money on real estate square footage. Detractors counter that noise and interruptions reduce productivity (a study by the University of Sydney faculty of architecture found 60 per cent of workers in open-plan offices cite lack of privacy as their biggest frustration.)

Author Susan Cain, a long-time critic of open-plan offices, says our workplaces are designed mostly for extroverts who need plenty of stimulation; they don’t consider introverts’ need for quiet.  “Solitude is a crucial ingredient of productivity, and one we want to bring back to the workplace,” she said in a 2012 Ted Talk called The Power of Introverts.

But there are ways to adapt the open-plan concept to accommodate different work styles: think open spaces for discussion, communal work hubs and private spaces for getting things done.

“The key aspects of privacy and the need for concentrated work can be dealt with by the quality of the environment, that is having the appropriate technology to allow mobility in and out of the office to choose the settings for individuals to perform the tasks required, says Dowzer.

Architect Bill Dowzer’s office design tips

1. Engage your people in the decision-making and design processes. Owning the outcome brings success instead of resistance.

2. Identify the main business drivers; establish project principles to focus the project and governance; determine key factors of success.

3. Establish a partnership with your project consultants; a relationship based on a fee tender alone does not always make for the best team.


The Law Society of Upper Canada advises that when working in an open office environment you must still meet your professional obligations, especially with respect to client confidentiality. All client information must be kept away from prying eyes and out of reach of those not entitled to see it.

Design reads

1. Susan Cain Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

2. Ron Friedman The Best Place to Work: The art and science of creating an extraordinary workplace