Eliminating aisles full of files may seem difficult, but you'll benefit greatly from using office space efficiently.

Clearly, if you lease your office space, the cost of that lease is probably one of the single largest expenses you face each month (right up there with the cost of wages and salaries). Therefore, it makes sense to review periodically how efficiently you are using that space, given its cost. If you were to discuss space usage with retailers, they would undoubtedly point to their costs per square foot compared with their store revenue per square foot. Where the comparison falls short, consideration can be given to replacing the products for sale that occupy that space with something that would (hopefully) pull in a greater amount of revenue. In other words, for retailers it is possible to quantify and objectively measure the use of space. With financial advisors, it may not be as simple as that.
Storage is one issue to contend with. If the financial advisor's practice uses physical files (paper), space to is needed to house them. If the advisor prepares financial plans, comprehensive quarterly reports or other bulky filing requirements, the physical files can quickly grow to multiple sets of files per client. Many advisors have chosen to convert their physical files to electronic form to save space in their offices and to save money on the use of office space.
In one large financial practice we observed, it was discovered that physical documents housed in several lateral files throughout the office occupied more than 200 square feet. Because the filing cabinets (25 of them) were placed along the walls of corridors in the office, the shortened width of the corridors was potentially violating ADA accessibility rules. And, because they were not located in a lockable filing room, there were questions about the security of client information. However, the larger concern was the cost of the space itself. At $30 plus per square foot, the space occupied by those filing cabinets is costing upward of $6,000 per year. The question that needs to be asked is, "Is that a good use of that money?"
Another issue of space utilization is employee tasks and how efficiently they match up with the physical location of the employee's workspace. For example, if an employee is primarily responsible for scanning documents and/or printing copies of documents, yet their workspace is all the way across the office from the location of the scanner or printer, how much time and productivity is lost by requiring that employee to constantly march back and forth to those areas? Another example is the smaller office where the receptionist is required to answer the phone, greet clients and do other miscellaneous office tasks such as filing, making coffee, etc. In this example, does the receptionist have a wireless headset for the phone system that permits him or her to answer and transfer calls even if they are not sitting at the reception desk? Is there an announcing bell, tone or other noticeable way to know when a client walks through the door? If the answer to these questions is no, then not only does productivity suffer, but it would also likely make a poor impression on the client when someone has to run to the reception area to greet them (or worse, show up late).
Another topic of space utilization is building density, a space planner's term for measuring the amount of area employees are given to perform their duties. It is calculated as the gross square footage of a building (or designated office space) divided by the number of total employees (for all full- and part-time workers). The equation looks like this: Building density = (square footage of a building or designated office space)/(the number of employees). This number is important to note, as it has shrunk in recent years because of rising office lease rates per square foot. In other words, employers have attempted to squeeze more people into the same space.
From an efficiency viewpoint, the overcrowding of employee space can cause two distinct problems. The first is auditory interference. When employee density reaches the point that cubicles are made smaller and less soundproof, sounds from one cubicle spill over to the next. Try carrying on a phone conversation when you have to raise your voice to be heard above those who are talking right next to you. It is nearly impossible to concentrate on analytical tasks when you can hear every word of a conversation in the next cubicle. Additionally, if your employees are having trouble with this, imagine what your clients may be hearing on the other end of the line.
The second problem is visual interference. Consider a situation where two employees might share the same cubicle area. Anyone walking into that area to speak with one employee would surely interfere with the concentration and or task being performed by the other employee in that cubicle. One solution to both of these issues is to extend the height of the cubicles. Using cubicle walls that have some sound-deadening qualities will assist in this as well.
Client convenience and office workflow should also be considered when looking at space utilization. Take one financial advisor's office, where the reception area was all the way across from the conference room where clients would be meeting with their advisor. They were forced through a gauntlet of cubicles and other offices (and exposed to some of the messiest areas in the office) to get to the conference room. This is poor space design. Still, there are times, especially in smaller offices, when it is difficult if not impossible to have the perfect setup. But when possible, it is preferable to create a path for clients to travel to their meeting area that does not lead them through a main admin area.
The other area is office workflow. Just as the receptionist should not be asked to run through the office to greet clients, other employees should not be expected to perform tasks that carry them all over the place (when they could avoid it). One way to accomplish this is to group employees with complementary tasks. Rather than, say, lump all the admin people into one area and the paraplanners into another, while leaving the lead planner in some remote office location, some advisors group the team members adjacent to each other. This can facilitate better communication and create clearer channels of workflow without forcing employees to chase people down at opposite ends of the office.  
Before you start knocking down walls and rebuilding your office space, consider implementing some of these suggestions. For the most part, they are low-cost, simple efficiency ideas that could substantially increase productivity and client satisfaction. Ultimately, any change that is being considered should be weighed against the impact it will have on your clients.   

David Lawrence, AIF (Accredited Investment Fiduciary), is a practice efficiency consultant and is president of David Lawrence and Associates, a practice-consulting firm based in Lutz, Fla. (www.efficientpractice.com). David Lawrence is a sought after public speaker on a variety of leadership, financial and technical topics. For details, visit www.davidlawrencespeaks.com.