Womble Bond Dickinson is a name synonymous with the North East. With roots dating back more than 200 years, the law firm has long been a cornerstone of the region’s professional services landscape. Against this backdrop of the firm’s commitment to the region, the business has announced major plans for a new office that will transform working practices. Swapping its traditional Newcastle headquarters for space on the city’s landmark Helix development, the company is laying the foundations for the post-coronavirus era, which will complement flexible working arrangements with innovative and collaborative office space. Steven Hugill speaks to Nigel Emmerson, the firm’s real estate partner and office head, to find out more
The COVID-19 pandemic will leave a myriad legacy on our lives, not least in the way we approach work.
With lockdowns and associated restrictions having forced the great majority of us to exchange office desks for the home study or, in many cases, back bedrooms and kitchen tables, coronavirus has expedited the move to agile and flexible working.
Gone has the rigidity of the 9am-5pm day, so too the daily commute and long-accustomed requirement of physically operating from a place of work.
Instead, thanks to advancements in technology, flexibility has become the new functionality, remote has become the new routine.
Things will, in some cases, pivot back towards where they once were, but for the majority, as we move through 2021 and into next year, the pliability to which we have grown so accustomed will only perpetuate.
Central to this watershed transformation will be companies’ acknowledgment that the creation of a hybrid environment – which complements face-to-face working practices with remote endeavours – is a necessity and desirable for many clients and employees.
One organisation already well down the road with such a focus is Womble Bond Dickinson.
A Newcastle native for more than 200 years, the transatlantic law firm announced in late February its switch to the city’s flagship £350 million Helix development.
A partnership between Newcastle City Council, Legal & General and Newcastle University, the Helix – which stands where Scottish and Newcastle Breweries’ bottling plant once operated – is a hothouse for collaboration that includes the National Innovation Centre for Ageing and the National Innovation Centre for Data.
Leaving behind its recognised St Ann’s and Trinity offices, Womble Bond Dickinson will house its 450-strong workforce in up to 47,500sq ft of space in The Spark building from 2022 onwards.
With plans to design its new home to accommodate – and actively promote – greater physical collaboration alongside remote working, the firm says the hub will have agile flexibility and innovation at its core.
It will carry great symbolism too.
In the decades before beer flowed on the Helix site, cradle-to-grave pitmen of the Elswick Colliery were cleaving coal to sustain an industrial revolution.
In its move to the innovation hub amid the changing business landscape caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Womble Bond Dickinson is performing its own kind of industrial evolution.
“The pandemic has challenged conventions of office working and is pushing businesses to adopt more flexible and innovative working styles,” says real estate partner and office head Nigel Emmerson.
“The Helix ticks a lot of boxes for us; it is a centre of innovation across Europe for industries including data and life sciences, which are both areas we work in, and also offers a collaborative ecosystem for public and private companies.
“Our move to Newcastle’s Quayside in 1998 brought great benefits to our business and our clients and we hope the move to The Spark will be equally transformative.
“We hope our new office will be a place where we come together with each other and our clients to collaborate, communicate and socialise and a place which will be the meeting point of the organisation.
“The office isn’t dead as a concept, but it will be different in terms of some of the activities which take place – it won’t be a static place where people perform the same tasks in the same place every day.”
Such malleability, says Nigel, will be reflected in the design of Womble Bond Dickinson’s new home, which will factor in processes to create a hybrid environment that reflects modern-day working practices.
He says: “The office will include spaces such as collaboration areas, quiet library rooms, a café deli and workshop areas alongside desk space.
“It comes back to flexibility; we are creating an activity-based space that will support collaborative working and provide the most appropriate environment for a specific task.
“The new space will cater for people who like to work in different ways and will allow them to flourish.
“The provision of up-to-date technology will also be an important part of the new office.
“In particular, we are doing a lot of work on how part physical and part virtual meetings will operate effectively.
“These hybrid meetings will be the common way of proceeding in the future and firms that have the IT systems and capability to deliver them will do well.”
Nigel continues: “An example of our use of technology is DocuSign, a prominent platform in the legal sector.
“During the pandemic we were able to use the technology with confidence and ensure business could go on as usual while our lawyers continued working from home.
“This has been incredibly important for many of our teams, particularly those working on real estate and corporate transactions.
“The expectation is that the use of e-signatures will continue and become the norm.”
However, while technology will continue to be integral to Womble Bond Dickinson’s future relations with clients, it won’t, says Nigel, supersede the personal touch, which for centuries has lain at the heart of the legal sector.
“Fundamentally, we are a people business. We use IT to make our lives easier and our clients’ lives easier.
“Clients instruct us because they like us and recognise our expertise, and the technology will complement that going forward.”
As well as retaining such an essential part of the business, Nigel says its office move will preserve another cornerstone – its proud North East origins.
Despite its influence now stretching across the Atlantic into the USA following a 2017 combination between Bond Dickinson and Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, Nigel says the company remains committed to its roots in the region.
“We have been in the city since 1786,” he says.
“We are very proud of our history but incredibly excited about our future, which very much includes our move to The Spark.
“It was a conscious decision to be in the city centre; it is important for us and our staff, and we believe for the city as well.
“A thriving Newcastle leads to a thriving North East, and if Newcastle is doing well, then there is a bigger opportunity for the rest of the region to do well too.
He adds: “Being based on such a landmark development demonstrates our commitment to the region.
“Ultimately, it is about bringing our national and international expertise back to this region to benefit the businesses, organisations and people of the North East.”