New Catalysts in Creative Work Culture
Redesigning studios and collaboration
sketches by James Rogers
The biggest surprise after our studio dispersed about a year ago was how quickly we were up and running remotely. After months of being out of the office, the discussion pivoted from when do we come back, to do we really need so much office space?
It was no doubt a relief to many that productivity didn’t nose-dive as much as anyone had presumed it could. With this outcome, there was a clear inflection in both client and vendor strategies — presumably because everyone realised that workers were demonstrably just as responsible outside the office as they were inside.
I’m sure many offices have had surveys, which run somewhat along the lines of, “Do you want to come back”, and, “If so, in what form”. Overwhelmingly, our responses indicated that people are opting for some amount of their week to be spent remotely working. Indeed some indicated that they never want to come into an office full-time.
The unplanned benefit to businesses is clear. Office space is a major cost, finding employees, relocating them, and paying them local rates all adds up. In a globalised creative industry such as visual effects, the potential competitive benefit this could bring would be significant to businesses that sit on either side of the coin: those with the location advantage or those who have cost competitiveness. You can read all the positives and negatives into that as you like, but I would add that just like water, the economics will find their own level.
So to that end, is dispersed working the new normal? Is being remote just as efficient as being together, especially in a creative industry?
Well, yes and no.
In creative work there are complexities and nuances that go beyond the pre-pandemic model, which is one often based on physical proximity to clients; and the inverse, post-pandemic model, based on a dispersed workforce. At the crux of these is the assumption that the workforce is just as productive when together, as it is remote.
On the surface, this would seem logical. With a few tweaks to our systems and processes, things should logically be the same. Some boutique businesses adopted this as a model eons before the pandemic and have been very successful at it. However, at scale, our human quirks bring a complexity that technology, equipment and telecommunications can’t readily solve. While it may seem everything is good in the short term (for example, this past year), there are difficulties that creative teams in any industry will need to surmount.
The primary and most difficult to quantify quandary is how effectively a single creative is working remotely. I have the advantage of overseeing a number of different teams at the same time, and have observed that some people thrive in a remote setting, and some—it has to be said—just can’t be productive. That in itself could be for any number of detailed reasons — which I am not going to solve here—but my point is that remote working is a major change in work discipline.
Some can do it, some can’t. For many, it is an aspect of their work personality that nobody paid attention to. It simply wasn’t a factor.
Suddenly, sustaining remote work is a large slice of your effectiveness as an employee.
Curds and whey
If you make cheese, you start with milk, add a catalyst, and end up with curds and whey. Both the curd and the whey have usefulness in of themselves and can be turned into a number of value-added products, cheese and protein notwithstanding. However, there is no going back to milk. The change is irrevocable.
Even though the main ingredient is the same, we regard milk and cheese in quite different ways. Each variety might have a complexity or characteristic that is unique.
It’s not right or wrong, they are just different. Before and after.
The last working year has seen a quiet but seismic disruption to the industry, the kind that is usually wrought by new technology. It’s been overshadowed by the health crisis, which was the catalyst of the change. We are used to technological disruption, to the extent that we look out for it, anticipate it. But this is different.
As a tech-reliant creatives, this change disrupts the way we think, process, cajole and communicate. It is interpersonal disruption. While training and adaption will no doubt make a difference over time, I think it is clearly obvious that the way we work, and our productivity, will be subject to different metrics going forward. It’s unlikely we will be going back to how things were.
I hope you like cheese.
For people new to the industry, and new to a creative workplace, the learning curve can be steep. Sometimes it is softened by workplace training programs, but generally, a significant amount of learning is done on the job. It is unlikely to be a totally structured course, and in fact, is more accurately thought of as ambient learning. But it is this very learning that creates company culture, infuses and distributes ideas and approaches, and reinforces systems and workflows.
It not something you can necessarily import or recruit. It is born of the workplace.
In a studio environment you are just as likely to learn from someone talking about a project, or by sitting where you can lean over and see how something is done. You might hear someone complaining that they can’t nail some aspect of a brief; or someone else might be evangelising about a new technique or technology.
Whichever way, it isn’t knowledge you have been invited specifically to learn, it is knowledge that you absorb just by being surrounded by people in a studio. This is something that is incredibly hard to do remotely; if in fact it can be done at all.
The current remote version of this is somewhat clunky. Contrived. I can log in to a teammate’s computer and observe or comment on what they are working on, but that needs to be done via request or invitation. It is an organised and specific event, usually with very specific aims or solves. I can use the internal chat system or video call someone too, but again, it isn’t an ambient occurrence. It requires both parties to be engaged.
Happenstance hardly gets a cameo these days.
If there was one thing that causes me most concern at the moment, it is how to informally bring new knowledge and training into the remote workplace. It doesn’t matter if it is a big or small studio. Ambient learning generally gave larger companies some advantage. The bigger the population, the more knowledge there is to distribute or draw on. On the other hand, smaller companies could be more selective and deft due to their size. It evened out the differences. Now both face the same problem, and it is going to change how a whole spectrum of people are valued, recruited, and most significantly, retained.
Evolution or reinvention
In many ways, the pandemic brought a war effort mindset to many industries. We just have to get through this. Bulldozing through and making do was the right approach to what we had initially thought would be a few weeks, maybe months, but definitely not a year.
If studios are thinking of implementing a more remote workforce, there are challenges in both balancing the makeup of our crews, as well as the way our teams work together.
Fully-remote, or semi-remote—there has to be a change to the technique and approach we have to creative work, to an extent that isn’t currently accommodated in our traditional studio work/learning model. There needs to be an understanding that some people work well in isolation, and others do not. It doesn’t make them a less valuable worker either way, they are just different.
We need to work out how to accomodate that, identify and teach appropriate skills, especially in the short term.
Each one of us in the collaborative arts must embrace this as an aspect of what we do. The way we operate, how we assess ourselves, our internal lists of strengths, weaknesses, patience and commitment. These should all be adapted to a different mode or track of working.
I don’t think it is impossible for us to work fully remotely or part-time remote—if the last year has taught us anything, is that we can make it work, and it can be incredibly effective. By force of nature, covid has changed our approach and practically demonstrated a way to envisage our future studios.
I do believe that work from home has a natural flexibility and a more mature approach to work, especially creative work, as opposed to rigid work hours. However going into an office/shared space based on project-phase or needs, should also be a part of that. Contact time is also a chance to be intensely productive.
Now is the time to plan, promote and develop those pathways. The pandemic gave us the dress rehearsal. The catalyst has already been dropped into the milk, as it were. It’s up to us to actively cultivate and develop our curds and whey… or non-dairy alternative.
Originally published on Medium