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Work space: GE legal lights its way forward

The building is called WeWork South Station, and it’s across the street from Boston’s South Station. The usual clichés of start-up spaces apply: The lobby is lined with reclaimed wood and there’s a serious coffee purveyor on the ground floor full of millennials texting and peering at their thin MacBooks.

A large backlit map of old Boston dominates one wall, and if you look closely, you’ll see double doors that are part of the map. Through those doors is the office of “Current, powered by GE.” It’s a captive start-up of the venerable General Electric Co., the industrial colossus founded by Thomas Edison in 1889 to manufacture lightbulbs. GE has gone on to bigger things, but recently, its top brass have decided to act more like a start-up.

This is no mere rearrangement of office space. The company has moved its executives, including the legal department, from an office park in suburban Fairfield, Connecticut, to downtown Boston. The aim: to get energized by the urban environment.

Right now, its lawyers are working out of temporary offices surrounding South Station, but the company is building out its headquarters nearby, in what Boston calls the Innovation District. And the Current spaces are a far cry from the individual offices and reception anterooms of the old headquarters. They’re loft-like, with exposed brick and tall windows. Current’s space is at ground level; employees can, when Boston’s notoriously cool weather permits, perch in the plaza just outside the door.

“If they wanted to continue being the innovative company that they are, they had to move out of Connecticut,” says Susan Hackett, a legal department consultant and former general counsel of the in-house lawyers’ group Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC). “You can’t innovate with that suburban attitude.”

There’s something else going on at Current: No one has an office. No one has a cubicle, either. It’s first come, first served at communal tables. That means lawyers can find themselves sitting next to 20-something coders or marketers. And the millennials that they’ve hired are not especially impressed by anyone’s title.

“The first few days, we’d meet there,” says Janine Dascenzo, general counsel of Current, pointing to a long table. “We got here earlier than the coders usually did every day. But one day,” she continues, “we got in and found that a few people had already taken ‘our’ space.” She says when someone asked what was up, one of the young people cited the rules: You get to sit where you want. Sheepishly, Dascenzo says, they went elsewhere to talk.

GE’s experience is part of an ongoing trend in American business. Taking its cue from the playrooms of Silicon Valley companies, old-line America, Inc. is refashioning its work space. Companies are literally tearing down walls and putting in more communal space. The intention is to foster more collaboration, to flatten hierarchy. Or so the backers say (or hope). The conservative legal profession has been slower to make the move, but corporate legal departments, once considered laggards, now lead the way. Why? “They’re often modeled more consistently with the rest of an organization’s workplace,” says Steven Martin, a principal of Gensler, which designs open-plan spaces for companies and law firms.

… the Current spaces are a far cry from the individual offices and reception anterooms of the old headquarters. They’re loft-like, with exposed brick and tall windows. Current’s space is at ground level; employees can, when Boston’s notoriously cool weather permits, perch in the plaza just outside the door.

More pragmatic observers and designers will also tell you that common space is more flexible and can be reconfigured as the employee mix changes. But some surveys indicate that the distractions of communal space reduce productivity, make it hard for some to concentrate and talk or act confidentially. For example, in an analysis of more than 100 studies, the International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology found that workers in open offices cited noise as a distraction of such environments.

Dascenzo concedes the point, but says that after a couple of weeks, she got used to the background noise. Besides, the company is taking its remodeling to a different level, and it doesn’t just involve office space. The company goes through these cultural revolutions about every generation, and the latest one is supposed to transform it into what its promotional materials call “a digital industrial company.” To that end, GE sold off most of its financial unit in 2015 and refocused itself on newer industries – and the move.

“It’s a good booster shot for GE,” says its general counsel Alex Dimitrief about being in Boston and the new office setup. “It’s an effort to make us more horizontal, and make us a less formal company. I don’t sit in a fortress anymore,” adds Dimitrief, who graduated from Harvard Law School in nearby Cambridge.

Dascenzo and her nine-lawyer team at Current are, in many ways, the “proof point,” or vanguard, of what GE wants to be. She’s a 20-year veteran of the legal department, having worked at the aeronautics unit, headquarters and then at GE Lighting, the old company’s oldest division.

“I learned a lot at GE Lighting,” she says. “You can encode so much into an LED bulb. They’re really computers on a chip.” Current is in the Internet of Things business, and its products aim to have LED lighting talk to furnaces, for example, to optimize heating and air conditioning in large buildings. Says Dascenzo, “You can only place a few thermostats in a given area. But you have lighting everywhere. It’s the ideal infrastructure.”

From smart LEDs to lawyer conversations, Current is working in vastly different ways from the old GE. On the most prosaic level, lawyers have no personal area.

They do have cubbies, much like young children in nursery school do. They mix in among their business- side colleagues, and sometimes help themselves to the beer tap in their corner bar area.

But has design transformed how they work in more concrete ways? Dascenzo says yes. GE lawyers were always involved earlier in the product cycle than in other companies, but she says that now they’re an integral part of planning. For example, someone at a communal table will blurt out an idea, and that will prompt a lawyer sitting nearby to search for prior art. And they have fewer meetings – and shorter ones. “We don’t have Outlook® invitations flying around, with their 30-minute default setting,” Dascenzo says. “Now, we can just talk to someone five feet away and take care of a question in a few minutes.”

Any drawbacks? “I sometimes get tired of carrying the office on my back,” says Dascenzo, who lives within walking distance of Current, and lugs her laptop back and forth every day.

The changes run deeper, however, than richer interaction. Dimitrief says they’ve committed to working faster and more informally. Product changes, for example, once required nearly 10 sign-offs, from a few lawyers, to finance, to marketing. It’s a matter of trusting people to do their jobs, both lawyers say. Dascenzo quips, “We haven’t had any catastrophes. No one’s died.”

WeWork South StationThe legal department, known for its geek tendencies and developing homegrown computer tools, is learning to let go, both lawyers say. They’re using off-the-shelf contract software, modified, naturally, to suit their needs. But buying existing software rather than spending months developing their own was a huge cultural change, Dascenzo says.

GE isn’t the first company to put its lawyers in an open- plan setting. Others have done it, but without the dramatic and self-conscious move from a suburban setting to an urban one. And many in Silicon Valley, for example, have always been free of the walled offices beloved of their professional ancestors.

Consultant Hackett remembers a visit to Sun Microsystems back in the 1990s. She was visiting with a group from ACC, and they met up with then-GC Mike Dillon. After some introductions, Hackett, who was standing around a long table, asked Dillon if they should continue their conversation in his office. “I don’t have one,” she recalls him saying. She was shocked.

General Electric also isn’t alone in choosing more chic digs in a revived urban neighborhood. The US lawyers at GSK, the UK-based drugmaker, moved to Philadelphia’s Navy Yard a few years ago as part of a corporate move to the riverfront and open spaces. “I was skeptical at first,” says associate general counsel Brennan Torregrossa. But then he realized that he could just walk up to someone and chat. “One conversation could be 22 emails,” he says.

Legal departments do have their special needs, and in-house lawyers make sure they’re in at the planning stage. “Everyone who’s against open space brings up the privilege argument,” says Hackett. But it is a real concern. So these arrangements usually feature conference rooms and other spaces for private conversations. Current’s temporary space features telephone booths for private calls, as well as small conference rooms. But the walls are all glass.

It’s too early to tell how GE’s experiment will work out in terms of cold cash. But Dimitrief and his team are already enjoying being able to talk more freely among themselves and with their business-side clients. For example, he can talk to CFO Jeffrey Bornstein whenever he wants. Before the move, he’d have to send an Outlook invite and hope for the best. “I was right next to Jeff and there was no way I’d even know if he was in town,” Dimitrief says. “Now I run into him 90 times a day.”

Meet the author
Anthony Paonita

Anthony Paonita is a New York City- based writer of legal affairs and business. Previously, he served as editor in chief of Corporate Counsel, and a senior editor at the American Lawyer.

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