Nobody could have guessed at the beginning of the year that within a few months our entire lives would have been turned upside-down by a global pandemic. Companies all around the world have had to quickly figure out how to operate on a remote working basis, and it hasn't always been easy.
While the mechanics of running a business during this lockdown are straightforward – ensuring everyone has the hardware and software they need, and nailing down video conferencing, chatrooms and systems to send large files, for example – keeping things running smoothly and ensuring staff are coping in isolation is a whole other matter.
For design agencies, often based around small, close-knit teams in regular communication, this can be especially challenging. It's a whole new working world, and often we're having to make the rules up as we go along, but the creative industries are rising to the challenge. We spoke to five studios to find out how they're coping with the lockdown; here's what they had to say.
"This is hard," says Joy Nazzari, founder at dn&co (opens in new tab), "and the first step is accepting we need to ease anxiety in order to make room for good thinking.
"At dn&co, we've been able to find small opportunities from the lockdown challenge. We've improved our workshop process and they have been surprisingly effective by way of repurposed interactive conference-polling apps. The necessary structure of video conferencing has resulted in ordered, thoughtful and democratic feedback from our clients that has propelled many projects.
"With new technology has come more presentation practice, making us feel and look sharper, coherent and professional. Yes we're doing Zoom workouts, quizzes and drinks like everyone is, but maybe it's actually the 1-1 calls without the noise of the studio that's giving us closeness with colleagues — and you hear the quieter voices more clearly.
"But the most striking difference has been at an industry level, where it's really heartening to see how many studios have banded together in private Slack channels to share strategies for survival. The way it has brought agencies together will be, I hope, a lasting legacy of this terrible pandemic."
For a global agency the size of Superunion (opens in new tab), adapting to the lockdown is a much bigger challenge than for smaller studios. Executive creative director Stuart Radford notes that isolation and collaboration are two opposing forces; however the agency has learned three useful lessons to help keep things moving.
Build a virtual studio
"We've started using Milanote (opens in new tab), an online platform that enables us to share ideas/images and comment and add content in real-time, so we can review projects in one place, just as you would on a studio wall – let the collective chin-scratching continue!"
Keep up the 'What do you think of this?' chats
"Structured reviews are important but they're no substitute for ad-hoc studio chats. A random 'How about this?' starts a conversation that makes a massive difference to the work and is one of the most rewarding parts of the process. So, we're encouraging 'What do you think of this?' calls – randomly and regularly."
You can't isolate a strong culture
"Lockdown is a real test for agency culture. It's been heart-warming to see 'Superunioners' finding any excuse to hang out: quiz nights, birthdays, team and Friday night drinks. Unexpectedly, some great memories have been made in this weird and difficult time – full credit to our people!"
03. Noughts & Ones
Like many agencies, Bristol-based Noughts & Ones (opens in new tab) is relying on Slack and Zoom to keep its team talking, but also making sure to inject a little levity into the process. So its Monday morning kick-off call includes a 'Show & Tell' segment where everyone shares a project they've been working on over the weekend. "The first couple of weeks have been very plant-focused," says founding director, Tom Locke. "Who knew we were such a green-fingered team!"
Optional beers for the end-of-day team call are a welcome way to close off the working day; Noughts and Ones also organises a game every Friday, and its sent a care package of coffee and snacks to every team member, something it plans to do regularly.
"Overall," says Locke, "I feel that the experience has been really quite positive for us as an agency, as it has got us focused on our own (and each other's) workload and communicating super clearly. We're also having to really thinking outside the box in terms of how we can 'add value' to our clients.
"In terms of working with clients that are struggling, it's all about supporting them however we can in term of positioning – we're also exploring how we can facilitate collaboration and partnerships between some of our e-commerce clients that fall into the non-essential category with others that fall into the essential category. We're starting to see some really exciting and innovative conversations happen!"
Like so many agencies, the team at Rose (opens in new tab) has found the adjustment to lockdown life to be disorienting and dislocating. Studio partner Simon Elliott tells us that the team have been brilliant in how they're coping and responding, and explains that one way they've found to cope with their newfound circumstances has been to create a daily 'Cultural Coffee Break'.
"Many of our clients (past and present) are in the cultural and visitor attraction sector (including English National Opera, Bletchley Park, National Portrait Gallery, V&A, Tate, The Photographers' Gallery, Natural History Museum, Science Museum, The Old Vic etc)," says Elliott. "And in light of them all having had to close their doors indefinitely, we thought it would be nice to create a series of mini virtual tours on Instagram to share some of the many shows, exhibitions and events for theatres, galleries and museums we've been involved in over the past two decades, for our followers to enjoy during the lockdown.
"We also hoped it might ensure the many amazing arts organisations and cultural institutions out there remain in people's thoughts throughout this difficult time, and can still be supported somehow, if not in person.
"For our team, it's provided some welcome respite from the crisis, to keep them mentally active and agile, and given them an excuse to delve into our archive and discover some of the many projects we worked on before their time at Rose."
Rose's Cultural Coffee Break happens every weekday morning on its Instagram account (opens in new tab).
05. Magpie Studio
Another agency turning to Instagram to keep team spirits up is Magpie Studio (opens in new tab). "A strong studio culture has always been a priority for us," says creative partner Ben Christie, "so it was certainly a challenge to adapt to an entirely new way of working overnight.
"Once we'd found our feet, we wanted to put a message out on our Instagram (opens in new tab) and LinkedIn to say that we're still here, still strong and still working together successfully as team.
"For us, happiness fuels creativity – it's great for general wellbeing and contributes to a positive team spirit which, in turn, produces better work. So, amongst the hard graft, we also have a lot of fun in the studio.
"It made sense that our post reflected this by being upbeat and making people smile. We also wanted it to have a family-like feel, so the Brady Bunch reference seemed to hit the spot.
"It was great fun to make and a perfect excuse to get the whole team involved. We're already thinking about the next one!"