Did you know that the science of personal space has a name? It’s called proxemics, and you can entertain yourself on the web by looking at a host of films showing how people maintain a sense of interpersonal space that is both psychological and cultural. This one from BBC 3 is an example.

I was reflecting on personal space recently. In a business context and not because I’m a weirdo. I was thinking about a client – a General Counsel at a large corporation – who was trying to fix various operational challenges in the legal department. Two problems stood out in particular. The troops in the team were complaining that they were: (i) overworked; and (ii) having to handle low-grade tasks. To compound the problem, their lawyers were frustrated to see some of the more interesting and strategically valuable work going to their external law firm – precisely because of the internal bandwidth issue.

I was part of a team brought in to look at a range of options to improve the situation, including technology, alternative resourcing models and process optimization. As we started to engage with the department’s team, at all levels in the organization, we found that a number of staff members were highly resistant to the suggestion that some of their work could be better managed through automation systems and lower-cost alternative legal support. They all felt they had too much to do, and not enough capacity to focus on strategic initiatives. But as soon as we got into the weeds of their day-to-day activities, there was always a reason why this particular task or that particular operational duty simply could not be parceled out to a self-service, automated or outsourced solution.

I realized that we were dealing with a professional version of proxemics. The set of tasks in question formed part of the individual lawyer’s domain – within their “personal space”, if you like. The idea of disentangling specific activities from the entire domain provoked at least 2 different defense reactions:

  • Either it felt threatening – if this goes then what’s next?
  • Or it was seen to be offering an inferior client service – I’m the go-to advisor for the clients and they need the convenience and reliability of an assigned expert who really knows the business.

Scroll forward 18 months. Processes streamlined, low-grade tasks lifted away from tired legal shoulders and strategic initiatives accelerated with new-found departmental bandwidth. Yes, personal professional space had been tampered with. Not invaded, but expanded.