By Tom Jarvis

Sheehan Phinney’s inviting Boston office break room, boasting a sweeping view of the city. Courtesy Photo.

With many law firms returning to in-person or hybrid work after two years of isolation and stress caused by the Covid-19 pandemic—combined with the staffing shortages created by the so-called Great Resignation—employee wellness is a growing concern.

While there are various ways for firms to address wellness, one of the more tangible— albeit less obvious—is the office itself.

When thinking about employee well-being in a law firm, office design may not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, our environment is a factor in our mental health, which ultimately affects productivity. Drab colors and poor lighting can contribute to feelings that lead to depression and anxiety.

Redesigning offices with a focus on employee well-being is becoming a worldwide trend—and some New Hampshire law firms are following suit.

When Concord firm Pastori Krans moved into their new space in 2020, they hired Warrenstreet Architects to make their vision come to life.

“Our office definitely thrives on making sure that our morale stays up, and a collegial office experience is key,” said Office Manager, Britni Landry. “We thought the glass is inviting; even though we’re behind these walls in individual offices, it’s inviting to others. It’s an open, airy, ‘let’s have a chat,’ collaborative area.”

According to Landry, Warrenstreet worked with firm partners, Terri Pastori and Heather Krans, in a concerted effort to make sure employees would feel comfortable in their new workspace.

With employee comfort in mind, a large window layout was created to allow natural sunlight into glass-walled offices, making the space feel open. The glass offices have strips of frost to provide some privacy, making them less like fishbowls. They were also mindful of acoustics so workers in adjoining offices don’t hear each other. Moreover, their signature orange and blue brand colors provide a vivid splash of color to the space.

Landry also recalled that it was important to the Pastori Krans team to keep some of the history of the building where the office is located by incorporating the exposed brick into the design.

The building, part of what was once referred to as the Commercial Block, was built in 1868. The team was so captivated with the history of the building that firm Associate, Ashley Taylor, wrote an essay about it. In addition, two framed photos can be found in the reception area of the building, one from the late 1800s and the other in 2021.

“We absolutely love our space,” Landry says. “We get compliments every time a client or vendor comes in for the first time. It makes us want to come to work and love the space that we work in.”

The redesigned Manchester reception area of Sheehan Phinney, depicting the hybrid design of modern meets traditional. Courtesy Photo.

One area that firms are attempting to address with redesigns is employee burnout. The World Health Organization recently acknowledged the legitimacy of burnout by adding it to the International Classification of Diseases. According to the WHO, burnout, “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

The effects of burnout can also spill over into personal relationships and family matters—and many lawyers are working longer and harder than ever these days.

Belgian architects, Space Refinery, claim that modern office design is a long-term solution to employee burnout. They indicate that modern office design is all about creating spaces that are multipurpose, with acoustics to reduce noise, and of biophilic design, which is the use of nature and lighting to connect the occupant to a natural environment.

A recent study of 7,600 global workers by wellbeing specialists, Robertson Cooper, found that when offices incorporate plants, natural light, and water features, they were linked with 15 percent higher levels of employee well-being.

Paul Voegelin, Chief Operating Officer of Sheehan, Phinney, Bass & Green understands the importance of modern office design and combating burnout. He and the rest of the Sheehan management team redesigned their Boston office in 2019, their Portsmouth office in 2021, and are currently in the planning stages at the Manchester location with global architect firm, Gensler.

“Burnout is the result of many factors,” Voegelin says. “One significant factor is how much people enjoy coming into the office. Office space can encourage or discourage collaboration depending on how it is designed.”

In their redesign, Sheehan Phinney took the offices away from the windows and put them in the middle, creating naturally lit hallways with views of the city. The offices themselves are made of glass walls that let natural light flow in but have creative frosted shading and sound attenuation to create some privacy during focused work.

“It’s a dynamic difference when you’re allowing that sunshine to come through the space. It’s the unspoken message that everybody matters,” Voegelin said. “Employee satisfaction was indeed the most significant consideration for us in undertaking our office renovations. We’re all in this together, from receptionists to legal assistants to attorneys.”

Another important aspect of the Sheehan Phinney redesign was the break room. The team decided to place it in the corner along the wall, with windows overlooking the city on both sides. Voegelin said “it created a very nice collaborative area for folks to sit. We definitely saw a difference in how people interacted in that space.”

The planning involved with redesigning the offices was a little tricky at times.

Voegelin, along with managing partner, David McGrath, worked very closely on gathering data on industry trends while balancing the needs and wants of every employee.

“We knew there would be a culture clash between the older attorneys and the younger attorneys,” Voegelin said. “So, we did a lot of polling—independent surveys done by the architects. They said it’s quite common in this industry. But success depended on addressing that culture clash, which led us to a hybrid design.”

Voegelin hopes that the Manchester redesign will be as successful as the Boston and Portsmouth endeavors were.

“[T]hree years in on the Boston redesign and folks still talk about how much they love it.”