2020’s period of lockdown has been tough on many people for all sorts of reasons. And it’s led to a whole new way of working for many of us, as we find ourselves working from our front room rather than with our colleagues in an office.
This can be particularly difficult in the creative industries, where collaboration and working closely as a team is often key to idea generation and getting work done. We wondered how creative teams are coping in the new reality, how it’s changed the way they work and whether they have any tips they’ve learned from the experience, that they could share with us.
We made a list of the most effective and imaginative creative agencies we know, then approached a few of them and asked about their experiences of working together from a distance.
Specifically, we spoke to Dave Bell, Creative Partner at KesselsKramer in London, Kate Marlow, Creative Partner at Here Design, and Kate Congreve, Producer at Mother London.
Moving back home
As global businesses, agencies had seen what was happening elsewhere in the world, and had a good idea what was coming. So, they started preparing to move to a working from home model quite early. Though it still seemed a strange idea, until it became a necessity.
Kate Marlow of Here Design: We instinctively felt that working remotely was imminent, so a few weeks before it happened we stating making plans to have everyone set up at home a week before lockdown was announced. When it was announced, it took us just over a day to be functional again at home.
Dave Bell of KesselsKramer: We saw it play out in real time and the wave hit our Amsterdam HQ before it did London. But even with the knowledge at hand, it crept up on us all the same.
Kate Congreve of Mother London: We had started a little before lock down so there was some time to plan a little. I’m sure there were a few teething problems, but mostly it was pretty smooth.
Tech in hand
Agencies also have the advantage of being tech-savvy businesses, which means they tend to have the right people on hand to make the technological transition from office to home reasonably smooth.
DB: For those of us with decent wi-fi, it was relatively easy to adjust, thanks to our office manager, Lucy. for those with dodgy connections or kids or giant dogs, there was some frustration.
KM: Our studio manager, IT department and highly collaborative studio team worked to solve the logistical and technical challenges collectively. It meant quickly adopting new tools like Teams.
Meetings, meetings, meetings
Too many meetings getting in the way of actually doing the creative work is a refrain often heard at agencies. Has the move to working from home changed that for better or worse?
DB: We always said that meetings are the enemy of creativity. That’s why both our London and Dutch agencies have fairly uncomfortable picnic tables to gather around – you soon get the urge to end the meeting decisively and quickly.
But with so many tools now – Zoom, Google Hangouts, Slack –we are in constant dialogue and check-ins. Not a bad thing, we discuss more than we ever did. But every now and then you just need to cut off the connections and get down to the making of stuff.
KC: It makes you realise how valuable those watercooler conversations are, as now it has to be more structured. So yes, it feels like there is this need to have endless Zooms!
KM: Constant! We have senior management meetings at the start of each week, and then more if required. We have whole team meetings immediately after that on a Monday, where we share all the interesting, critical and inspirational news since last Monday. Then each one of our live projects has its own team meetings both internally and then with clients.
DB: We’re having more micro-check-ins. Not big meetings, more seeing how everyone is doing and feeling, how the work is coming along. Since we have become isolated from our colleagues – and some have families, but some are alone – we find that we need to pay more attention to this.
Routine is useful: as long as you find one that’s workable and doesn’t drown you in process and rigidity. Meetings on screen tend to be pretty productive and short. No-one wants to stare at a screen for longer than is necessary.
KM: I think what’s required is a combination of different forms of communication to ensure fluidity. Yes, we need to be connected, but digital meetings need to be focused, have an agenda and a timeframe and have only the required people in them. If we need to call someone we do.
The new etiquette of meetings
It’s not just the time spent on meetings that can be difficult to get right, but having meetings onscreen with people rarely in the same room has meant getting used to a new way of interacting.
KC: It’s harder over virtual meetings, for sure but I think people are getting used to the etiquette, so you can hear everyone and you all get a chance to voice your opinions.
DB: A lot of our clients are international – Boston, New York and beyond – and our sister agency is in Amsterdam, so we’re used to working with faces on screens.
KM: You need to understand how etiquette works. You need to allow other to speak without interruption, and when it’s your turn remember not to waffle and waste time.
DB: We all started looking pretty sharp and spruced up. After time, the hair became unkempt, the bedsheets in the background were unmade, the kids were running rampant and setting fire to their pets. But when we settled into it, the dynamics returned.
Working together apart
At the heart of what agencies do is creativity and creativity often thrives when people collaborate and get the chance to exchange ideas and gain inspiration from other creative minds. But how does that work when everyone is sitting at home on their own sofa?
DB: Isolation is useful if you’re writing a novel or becoming a zen master, not so much when you are a bunch of people who want to throw ideas at each other’s heads. Creativity thrives on the kind of energy where you’re in close proximity to other people creating.
KM: At first I think we were concerned as to how we would be able to get maintain creative excellence when we weren’t all able to be together. Yes, of course the dynamic changed, but once you understand the benefits of digital tools for collaborative work then you learn to work through the challenges. A combination of Teams, Zoom, Miro, Slack and old-fashioned telephone calls. I’d say it’s still evolving, but our eyes have been opened to the potential of different tools.
Surprisingly, it has become a very focused, efficient way for us to work.
KC: It is much harder, but the chat features on Zoom have been useful. Or WhatsApp for quick messages. It’s all about over-communication, but also giving people the time to think, too.
DB: I think creatives are so used to working with multiple devices and sharing ideas and inspiration and jumping on WhatsApp and having many plates spinning, it’s not really been a barrier. It has certainly sped things up, though sometimes things need to germinate for a while. It’s good to get out of the bubble occasionally –go climb a tree or hunt squirrels or topple a colonialist statue.
KM: We always have a collective briefing session at the start of a project and, much like in our studio, this is also a forum for the sharing of ideas. We’ll then all go away and research and think, as we would usually. We’ve been using Miro (visual collaboration software) to share collaboratively, edit and evolve ideas, which has been a brilliant way of working together while we are apart.
DB: The good thing about distance and talking about ideas via screens is that it’s not always the loudest voice who speaks – everyone can get a chance. And there are no flip charts and some guy with a squeaky magic marker to contend with. So, if you like brainstorming, and you’re a quiet soul, the screen-based version is great. You can throw ideas in the chat, or switch off your camera and let your thoughts spill without fear.
Has this new kind of out of office experience turned out to have unexpected positive sides?
KM: Yes, for sure. It has allowed us to respond to the crisis in our own way, and that’s meant we have been driven in new directions and been challenged creatively, which although driven by fear and uncertainty, is also incredibly galvanising.
KC: In some ways. I think it will make things much more flexible which can really help if people are unable to travel to a particular meeting or even a shoot.
Not having to travel everyday has been beneficial and allowed for much more flexibility with family life. It’s really quite amazing how much we have been able to do and achieve in these circumstances.
DB: It has had its moments, and I think most people have learned a lot. It’s learning how and when to switch off, that’s the key to surviving and thriving from it.
A few months into the universal working from home experience, has anything new or unexpected been discovered?
DB: Working from home used to seem like a euphemism for ‘I’ve got a raging hangover so I’m not coming in today’. Now it’s valid, productive, and really good for mental wellbeing. Especially when it’s a choice and not a necessity.
KC: It’s important we all feel that we are part of a conversation or thought process. Also, I think we have all learned that this is possible, and that we can have a more flexible working culture.
KM: What it has taught us is that it is possible to collaborate remotely, that individuals across the country can be creative in isolation, and that we can use time very effectively.
DB: Confinement sometimes can feed creativity, like a good brief. There’s something about being locked down that lets out a stream of thoughts and ideas. Many people have described the fact that their dreams have become more vivid. The same goes for the thought process. It only works, again, when it’s short burst, not if it feels like a prison.
What can’t be replaced
No matter how well we adapt to our new working environment, there are certainly still some things about office working that we miss.
KC: Yes, that feeling of belonging, Mother has such a family culture, the fact you’re not seeing most people every day and we have such a great working environment, that is certainly irreplaceable with remote working. Also, creative reviews and retouching review are much harder when remote.
KM: The sense of conviviality, community, some of the fun. The culture. It’s reminded us of the things that we previously took for granted. That nothing compares to being together in person and having those spontaneous moments when ideas might spark unexpectedly. We think the ideal would be a way to blend both experiences together in the future.
KC: It makes you realise how valuable those watercooler conversations are as now it has to be more structured. So now it feels like there is this need to have endless Zooms!
DB: We have a lot of plants and a life-sized plastic horse. They are irreplaceable.
Tips for making home working work
Does anyone have suggestions for making sure everyone gets the most out of working from home?
DB: It might sound counter intuitive, but know when to leave people alone. There’s a danger to always checking in, checking up, going on Slack, messaging. Distance creates a need to be in contact even more. Sometimes working remotely should also allow the positive experience of having space to think.
KC: Try to do fun things that aren’t just work related. Also, messaging just to check in on people. A quick hello or humorous gif can mean a lot if you’re working on your own all day.
DB: Be disciplined and know when to walk away from the screen. Don’t labour it. It’s better to work in short, strong bursts of energy. So maybe the first two hours in the morning are the most productive, for idea generation, then maybe an hour of making shit. Then meetings. Whatever works for you.
KM: We launched our own internal radio station Hear Here after the first few weeks, where we air a show weekly, made and produced by us. It’s a few hours of talk, music, thought pieces, cocktail inspiration, poetry and everything beyond. It’s been a nice way to add back some of the culture of the studio. We’ve discovered things about each other through our radio station that we might never have known had we never worked apart.
So, start a radio show, listen to each other and spend more time off-screen. Write a colleague a letter, call them for a chat and don’t talk about work or CV. Being connected will lead to better understanding and better work.
A new way of working for the future
Now that working from home has become a normal experience for almost everyone in the creative industry, do we think it will permanently change the way we work?
KM: For sure. As we reacted to lockdown, we thought this was a holding pattern till we got back to work as we knew it. But I think it’s clear now that this will change working habits in the long term.
KC: Now we know it’s possible to do so much remotely I think
there are definitely good parts that we should try to maintain. I wouldn’t want to do everything remotely though. I miss being on set or even just popping out for a coffee!
DB: It’s always been valuable to meet in person, see each other face-to-face. But if this enforces less travel for meetings that last one hour and less jumping on planes, all power to the future. This shouldn’t mean you care less about that project or client or meeting. It should mean you care more about your impact on the climate. And now everyone realises that this way of working can work. I also think people might work better, work less, work healthier. Realise the importance of non-work and stepping away from a desk. I hope so.
Founded in 1996, KesselsKramer is a communications agency with offices in London and Amsterdam. They work in branding, publishing, filmmaking, product development and art and event curation, in all forms of media from print to digital, from billboards to television, whatever is appropriate for the job in hand.
Started in 1996 by a group of creatives who fancied living a more independent life, today Mother has offices keeping that spirit kicking in New York, Los Angeles and Shanghai as well as their first base of London.
Here is a creative agency based in London Fields, who provide their services to clients as diverse as Somerset House, Glenfiddich, Ladybird Books and Chiltern Firehouse. Their purpose they say, is to create things that are both beautiful and useful.
Image provided by KesselsKramer.
Earlier this month we spoke to Lucinda Chambers, co-founder of Collagerie, about how she is dealing with a new way of working. You can read the interview here.