Virtual working versus ‘the new normal’

Virtual working versus ‘the new normal’

COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on the way we work. Packaging design agencies, like all businesses, have had to adapt to rules and restrictions while trying to maintain meaningful client contact and quality service. Here, we speak with two agency heads,  Brett Goldhawk (Ziggurat) and Bic Bicknell (Brown&co) with contrasting views on whether the studio or virtual model works best.

So, how have Ziggurat and Brown&co been affected by COVID-19? How did you respond to lockdown?

Brett:

First, let’s talk about those five months working out of makeshift offices in our kitchens, lounges and garages. The transition was pretty straightforward – we dialled in remotely to our servers, used Google Hangouts, Zoom and MS Teams to communicate, and my Project Manager navigated the daily tasks seamlessly. And we absolutely did some of our best creative work during lockdown. But does that mean I support long-term remote working? No.

I believe we were successful because our culture is born of tenacity and collective spirit. We knew we were facing perhaps the biggest challenge of our professional lives, and every one of us stood up to it. We closed ranks, knuckled down, and supported one another. We dug in, worked harder and won new clients – together. We never missed a deadline. We laughed, cried, shared our innermost feelings, but we were also working towards the day we’d be back in the office.

We don’t just work together. We go to the gym together, do lunch together, socialise together after work – we’re friends. We like each other, and we have a culture of openness in a place where we listen and hear. Face-to-face interactions matter a great deal to us.

Coming back to the studio was a unanimous decision. Remote working is easier for experienced professionals, and for those with room at home and access to open spaces nearby. My team has some great upcoming talent, many of whom live in small rented flats, so I can only imagine how mentally tough lockdown has been for them! Also, we feed off one another – challenging, brainstorming, learning, adapting, failing and prevailing. Our office is a conduit to great work.

Bic:

I guess my response is better related to what we did in 2016, even though it was a decision, and not a scramble in the face of a global pandemic! We simply wanted to create a lean, agile and versatile way to pull together bespoke teams for each creative challenge – comprising individuals or small units who could work from wherever, whenever. Initially I was sceptical. I’d always preferred face-to-face over conference calls and video links – and I still think it’s important – but I soon became a highly vocal exponent of the virtual model. It’s still strange to me that we’ve taken on so many significant projects with major brands, done some of our careers’ best work and won several prestigious awards working almost entirely remotely – and with many people I’ve never met! But then the virtual model was never as simple as putting the office in the spare room or the hallway – we knew it would demand a new way of thinking, and some risk-taking. But it has really worked wonders for us, and inspired many of our clients to work in different ways, too.

While COVID-19 hasn’t affected us to the same degree as some studio-based agencies, it has certainly shifted attitudes and expectations among many designers, agencies and clients we’ve spoken at length with. Some didn’t like lockdown one bit, and many still prefer ‘going to work’. I totally get that, but people are clearly re-evaluating their personal and professional lives. And it’s brought their environmental impact into sharp focus, too.

Has lockdown changed the way your company thinks about ‘work/life’ balance? Have things like reduced daily commuting and flexible hours been welcome, or offset by the negatives of working from home? Do you think that, intrinsically, an agency needs a central location and studio?

Bic:

We’ve replaced the physical boardroom, studio and workshop space with a direct connection to each other and our collaborators through digital interfaces like Zoom and Miro.

So we’re either based nowhere or everywhere, depending on how you look at it. When I visualise Brown&co, I see flashing dots of creativity scattered (and moving) over a global map, connected digitally like the synapses in our brains!

We encourage our collaborators to work when and where they prefer, or however suits their lifestyles or commitments. Busy parents, or people on their travels, or just renowned talent that live in different countries – all can still contribute massively – so we simply factor this in when scheduling briefings, reviews and presentations.

Also, while ‘live’ collaboration remains central to the creative process, there’s no ‘9 to 5’ at Brown&co. Some people are more effective in the early hours, others late at night. It takes planning and discipline, but I think people enjoy work, and are therefore more productive and creative, when the time and place is more their call.  

From a management point of view, it’s about lending and earning trust – and to a degree, relinquishing control. And for the creative, collaborative talent that supports a virtual model, it’s probably better suited to more experienced and self-motivated individuals, but I believe the more ‘normal’ it becomes, the more disciplined people will become.

Brett:

We’ve always had the perfect balance. Short hours if we’re quiet, sunshine hours in the summer months, after-hours when projects require. Flexibility and trust are central to our culture. I appreciate that lockdown has made many people realise commuting isn’t fun, and working from home gives them much more private time and they are far more productive. Personally, though, I struggled with separating work from home life. When is it family time? When am I ‘at work’? And because work was in my home, it felt like a constant presence, and I didn’t necessarily like that. For me, there’s no better feeling than coming through the front door at the end of a long working day to a hug from my daughter. Also, when she returned to school I was working alone in a house that – pre-lockdown – was always vibrant and family-oriented when I was there.

There are considerable overheads for operating a conventional studio, especially in the heart of London. Are there any financial lessons we can learn from lockdown? And how will you remain competitive as we enter a global recession?

Brett:

London is the heartbeat of the UK, so it’s depressing that many big businesses are staying at home, while market traders, independent shopkeepers and SME suppliers continue to struggle, and countless family businesses are going bankrupt every day. There’s an argument that big business has been destroying towns and villages for decades, with people flooding to the big cities to work. I come from a family of greengrocers, bankrupted in 1995 by multinationals undercutting our prices, so I get it – but this ‘new digital normal’ is only going to accelerate regional decline, not redistribute the wealth as purists would have you believe. Of course, the albatross around our neck is always rent and rates. In Central London they’re extortionate, and some form of reform is needed. We are a lean and agile agency ensuring our fees are in line with the creative agencies of Bristol and Leeds for example – not to mention the purely remote teams such as that of my ‘frenemy’ co-writing this article!

We focus a lot of time and effort on our pricing models, ensuring we flex between high-level strategy and ‘design as a service.’ Having an equal and mutually beneficial relationship with our clients is paramount to our success – and pricing is a key component of this partnership. I’d argue that having higher overheads than remote agencies and out-of-town studios simply reduces our profit margins. It certainly doesn’t raise our client fees. 

Bic:

The assumption has always been that London is the place to source or provide great design. But it’s just not true – and never really was. And quite rightly, more people are questioning their willingness to travel at great expense, five days a week, to work in large, chaotic and polluted city centres. Some spend well over two hours every day just commuting, which seems normal until you stop doing it! And if people choose to move home, or start families, I think it’s a shame their options are restricted by ‘where they work’. Early days, but perhaps lockdown has shown that we can work differently and enjoy a better quality of life.

I know from experience that setting up a design company conventionally is a huge emotional and financial commitment. Finding and securing the right location, ticking off all the tedious paperwork, and then sourcing and paying for furniture, computers, coffee machines and stationery. And then you’ve still got to be happy!

Starting a virtual agency from scratch was a challenge, but our initial outlay and ongoing commitments have been negligible compared with the bricks-and-mortar approach. It also makes a lot of sense from a scalability point of view; we can expand and contract far more quickly and effectively, and it doesn’t matter where our top collaborators are. We run at far higher efficiency and flexibility, and the cost savings benefit our clients and our bottom line. I also think that, even with COVID-19 out of the equation, a shambolic Brexit and general uncertainty across the business world makes the virtual model increasingly compelling for business owners, employees, freelance talent, and clients.

Do you think it’s possible to be as creative in a virtual environment as it is in a conventional studio? Is direct human interaction essential for solving problems and generating winning ideas?

Brett:

When I entered this industry 20 years ago, I had little idea how much I’d come to love it and enjoy my accidental career path. Working with strategy and creative teams to solve problems, build successful brands and push boundaries for our clients is so rewarding. I see myself as a captain of a sports team and my favourite aspect of any team is the locker room camaraderie.

Any great captain understands the importance of body language – the collective adulation when winning a game, the enjoyment of a well-played move you’d practiced in training, a quiet word when the shoulders slump, a rocket up the arse when they don’t track back. The office is our grass pitch. We come to play every day! For me, working remotely is like playing FIFA 20 on the Xbox; it’s fun, for sure, but just not the same as lacing up your boots and doing it for real.

If you haven’t worked it out yet, I still believe firmly in the power of the office. Chit chat. Togetherness. Collaboration. Face-to-face conversations. Problem-solving in real time. A smile, a frown, laughter and pain – you get it all!

Bic:

Encouraging different disciplines to verbally share and expand on each other’s ideas while physically collaborating on sketches and other hands-on visual stimulus, was my prime purpose for many studio-based years.

But not all creative minds work that way, and far from all creativity comes from it. A buzzing design studio doesn’t always trigger the ‘light-bulb moment’ at the conceptual stage of a design challenge, and I think the creative ‘boiler room’ approach can often be overworked and creatively stifling.

Let’s be clear – the ‘virtuals’ don’t just sit at home. I’ve always encouraged getting out and about for inspiration, doing ‘supermarket safaris’, having creative sessions in museum and exhibition lobbies, brainstorming on the beach, on a campsite in Devon or in a café in Cape Town (if I’m already there, of course!). And today, I might have that revelation just walking the dog after lunch, and I can record it on my phone, or call a colleague and bounce it around. I’m not saying it’s better. I simply think many people find a more varied and flexible day-to-day more inspiring.

Yes, there’s a lot to be said for the continuous social interaction you get at the office, and the relationships you develop – and the Friday afternoon wind-down, drinks, etc. But that doesn’t suddenly disappear. We still gossip, laugh, debate, get shirty with each other and make up again, and meet socially. But we go to each other’s environments instead of neutral, noisy ones, and find out more about our respective lives and what makes us tick, and that has been such a great ‘side-effect’ of the virtual model.

So, what does the ‘new normal’ look like for Brown&co and Ziggurat?

Bic:

For Brown&co it’s much the same as the ‘old normal’. Before COVID-19, we were already seeing clients embracing key aspects of the virtual model, and we’re hearing nothing but positive feedback on their experiences with us and other virtual services they’re adopting – begrudgingly or otherwise!

The financial savings inherent in virtual working mean better time resourcing, and reduced travel and subsistence costs. So for me, it’s likely there will be either a proportionate reduction in fees, or clients will rightly expect more creative bang for their bucks. I’m not saying clients think ‘we’re paying for central London office space’, or that city-centre agencies charge accordingly – I’m just saying that model might become harder to sustain, despite the positives Brett describes.

For many economic, environmental and lifestyle reasons – and for better or worse – emphasis is shifting away from location and premises. We’ve already proven you can win prestigious awards without offices in specific postcodes.

So the transition will take time, but it’s underway. Of course, bricks and mortar will always have a place, and I imagine we’ll one day find the ideal balance between the two. And there will always be debates, like this one, to ensure we find that balance and continue questioning its value.

Brett:

We are widely hearing that the ‘new normal’ is all about flexibility, allowing your team the freedom to come into the office or work from home. This creates one very distinct challenge… when will you ever have your perfect team together in one room at the same time? I’ve tried those meetings where some people are together in a room while others dial-in, and all I can say is you always adapt to the lowest common denominator; in this case, it always becomes an online meeting. We have developed a solution at Ziggurat, and it’s really quite simple – we move as a team. If someone has a desire to work from home, we all work from home. At the moment it’s around 1 day in 10. It does break up the commute, people can recharge a little, and we can properly prepare and plan to go digital for the day.

This is an interesting question for me. Serendipitously, one of our clients is a Workplace Tech Consultancy. During lockdown I was asked to write them a global trend report around the future of the office; I covered areas such as automation, the generation gap, diversification, our socially connected world, digital empowerment and communication overload. It’s clear to me that things will never go back to the way they were. Face-to-face human interaction is part of my DNA, and humans are tribal so it’s in everyone’s DNA. And in the two years before lockdown I visited clients in Toronto, Chicago, Sau Paolo, Mexico City, Buenos Aries, Barcelona… the richness of culture inspires me, makes me a better strategist and a more rounded person. I won’t give that up without a fight!

One momentous change that really does get me excited, though, is the new desire for businesses to work with smaller, more engaged teams. Having the Managing Director and the Junior Designer on the same call, sharing their knowledge, ideas and perspectives is so rewarding for our clients – large agencies just can’t do that. Small, independent agencies really do care about your success, respect your budgets and understand the pressures your people are under. And they show empathy, inspiration and ‘go the extra mile’.

So whoever you agree with here, the very least you should be doing is picking up the phone to speak with one of us!  

Brett Goldhawk

Brett is Managing Director of Ziggurat, a brand and packaging design agency based in the heart of London for over 35 years. He and his teams know the pros and cons of working in the city pretty intimately, and COVID-19 was a big deal for Ziggurat, as it forced them to work remotely for five months. Now firmly back in the office, Brett remains a strong advocate for studio-based agencies.  

Bic Bicknell

Bic is a director and co-founder of Brown&co, a virtual branding agency built firmly on the principles of remote working and global collaboration networks. In 2016, Bic and co-founder Dave began curating talent from all over the world to help support the brands, categories and markets they work with – and while lockdown wasn’t fun, it certainly didn’t force any reappraisal of their model.

Sub-Editor
ADMINISTRATOR
PROFILE