What will working life be like for designers after coronavirus?

As the UK government eases lockdown measures, we speak to designers about what they’ve learned during this time and what returning to work might look like.

While details are still unclear, the government’s announcement about an easing of lockdown measures has inevitably made companies think about the return to work. Some industries which cannot work remotely have already returned to work.

We talk to designers – from a mix of international and smaller studios – about what they’ve learned from lockdown, if it’s changed any working practices for good, and what a return to work might look like for their studios.

The “new normal” is not uniform

Echo’s founding partner and creative director, Andy Capper says that while remote working has become “second nature”, it is important to remember that it affects designers differently.

He says: “Realistically as a London based design team, we’re not going to be able to safely attend the studio for some time to come, yet already the new normal of remote working has become second nature.

“I think we also have to be mindful that we will all have had very different experiences of working from home during lockdown. I can call one room my ‘studio’ and when I do down tools at the end of the day I shut the door on work. What about my colleagues who’ve not been in this business as long? Many are working from studio flats or flat shares, where their desk is the kitchen table or they even live, work and sleep in the same room. I imagine the division between work and personal life is difficult to manage. This is equally true for my colleagues with children who are juggling their job role alongside the roles of teacher, entertainer, cook and nurse. Perhaps they will be itching to see the studio reopen?”

The creative “benefits” of lockdown

Capper does say that it has changed his working day, providing a flexibility that he has found stimulating.

He says: “While the zero commute has the challenge of ‘always on’, it also offers the benefit for a designer like me to be able to walk away from a project for a few minutes, or maybe an hour or so, when the creative juices aren’t flowing allowing me to reset. Some of my best work over the last month has been done when normally I’d be on my way in to work. I’m also lucky to have a very compelling office – a sun-filled outside space; and as the weather has improved here in London, my studio has become a green-filled, inspirational environment in which to work.

“Many of the same means of creative stimulation remain. The image searches for mood boards through to virtual gallery visits, but for me it’s the opportunity to slow down a little, make yourself unavailable (sorry guys I do sometimes hit the ‘unavailable button’) and without the hubbub of a frenetic office, mine a deeper seam of thinking. I’ve never been one for meditation, but I feel a stillness in the air that’s leading me to some different styles than I would have developed in the office. I wonder whether we will see an evolving aesthetic in design and art created over this period?”

“The world is in beta-mode”

Designers seem upbeat about some of the opportunities that lockdown could offer. Taxi Studio’s managing partner Kate Lenton, hopes that it’s a chance to refocus.

She says: “It’s not very often that life hands you the chance for a total re-set. This is a big opportunity to ditch the old habits, look at the ways of working that don’t feel right or relevant anymore and only carry forward the things that facilitate what we value the most – health, happiness, family, friends, balance, creativity. The world has been in beta-mode and that has been quite liberating. We’ve all given ourselves permission to fail and space to experiment (and we’ve learnt a lot). So, when we get back to the studio, we’ll be making changes – how we work, where we work, what we work on, how we travel and where we pour our energy. More Simplicity. Less Complexity. More Agility. Less Process. More Balance. Less BS!

“The biggest learning for me has been trying to reproduce the natural creative process when we’re all apart. You can structure your day, chat on Slack and review work on Zoom but the logistics, the platforms and the planning aren’t the issue – it’s the raw creative thinking and the unstructured bouncing ideas off each other that’s harder to achieve.

“The magic that happens when you get the right brains around a (real) table, the laughter in the kitchen, the post-pitch pub table, the squeezes of encouragement before a call, the chance idea that develops from passing a piece of work on the wall, or on someone’s screen. That’s the stuff that gets you up in the morning, that’s why we’re all in this game and that’s the stuff that good agencies (and good work) are built on.”

“There is a need to have a 3-D experience at work”

Saffron CCO Gabor Schreier says that the consultancy’s international framework has been conducive to remote working.

He says: “At Saffron, we have always worked as one global team, so we were used to online meetings, collaboration through messaging tools and creating work when you’re not in the same room. This meant that the new ways of working in ‘lock-down mode’ were not so new for us, and has meant we have continued to deliver for our clients, and partner with new ones.

“But we are still human, and there is a need to have a 3-dimensional experience at work and have creative sessions together. Culture, inspiration, discussion and human interaction are still relevant. They cannot be completely replaced by web tools, because that’s how you build your culture and team spirit.

“We’ve proven we can maintain a global brand consultancy from our individual home offices across the globe over the past 2 months. Long term, nobody knows what will happen, so we have focused on planning a gradual return to work over the coming months, based on the latest available advice. Alongside procuring protective personal equipment (PPE) and new desk layouts to provide social distancing, we will have to use a system that allows people to return to the office on rotation to work together when they need to. There is another issue for companies around equipment, technology and mobility. At Saffron, everyone was sent home with their equipment so they could have everything they need. If they are to move between the office and home, designers who use large computers will need extra equipment if they are split across 2 work locations. And longer term infrastructure considerations like accessing shared servers will have to be considered.”

Viewing the “office more as a place to balance work from home”

What might office life look like in the future? Schreier says it is about a change in focus.

He says: “We will probably have to start seeing the office more as a place to balance work from home: a place where we come to work together for specific tasks we can’t perform that well at home. Just think of the equipment and tools that need to be shared. If we see each other less, we have to make it count by being more prepared, listening more carefully and relishing that time to be together creatively. It is also important to build in ‘blackout’ time, where you’re not constantly communicating online, and can focus on a piece of work or take a break.

“Many of our clients, like Facebook, are technology companies who were already working in the same way as us, but some of our clients have had to adapt to new situations, fast. As we begin new relationships with new clients, it will be more difficult to begin a relationship on screen, than maintaining existing ones. But now the work has to be the means with which you show who you are and what you mean. Your storytelling has to be more precise, and you have to anticipate the communication challenges in how you present the work online.”

How will designers feel “comfortable”?

Different sized studios will have varying approaches for returning to work. Lauren Robinson is a designer at Manchester-based studio Youth. She says the team has been brainstorming ideas for how the office might work following the government’s advice.

She says: “We’ve explored the fact that it might need to be certain teams (no more than 2 at a time) which go into the office when completely necessary. For example, when we need to go through samples, have crits on projects or design development days. Making sure we all have enough desk space and if we can position ourselves in a way that gives us all enough distance from one another that makes us feel comfortable.

We are now a team of 6 and had just signed for a new office which gives us the luxury of 3 floors compared to our 1 small room. Due to space becoming such a vital part of keeping us safe this studio has never felt more needed and we’re really pushing to get this fast-tracked and ready for us all to move in once we’re able to. It’s gone from wanting a new office because of adapting to our growth and liking the idea of having extra space for such things a samples library to essentially needing that office because more space is a necessity. We’ve ordered in PPE for when we start having to make our way on to site again to ensure everyone at Youth, and our clients and colleagues feel as protected as they possibly can. Brew rounds will be a tricky one… every man for themselves now!”

“There’s a nervousness around interacting with people”

Robinson says that lockdown has meant a change of focus, but while a shift to digital can be efficient, there will be difficulties – especially for Youth studio which works on interior design.

She says: “The realisation that digital meetings are just as effective as having a face to face meeting is something we’ve picked up on. Not to say we’ll rule out all in person meetings, these are important to build client relationships, present fixtures and finishes.

“Including clients in the stages of picking finishes for example is something that probably won’t be as easy if everything turned too digital. We find clients enjoy this part just as much as we do sometimes and it gives a real sense of pride and inclusiveness after all the initial hard work of getting a project off the ground.

A big part of our job is to also be on site throughout our projects, this is something that inevitably we cannot really change, nor want to. But as a company want to ensure the right and correct precautions will always take place. There’s a nervousness related to interacting with people, which is such an unfamiliar thing to us all, and we as designers make spaces for people and cultures to grow and thrive.

We’ve already started to feel the effects of the current situation on how we’d typically approach a new projects. Encouraging social hubs within building for cultures to grow is something we really encourage and embed into our designs – we’ve now had to start digging deep into different ways cultures can grow through spaces that don’t encourage so much social interaction and ‘closeness’.”

What have you learned from lockdown? What might a return to work look like for you? Let us know in the comments below.

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  • Neil Littman May 14, 2020 at 8:38 am

    No different for me to tell the truth as I have been working from home for many years but I have spoken to friends who know of agencies that were just about to take leases on new properties and might be reconsidering whether to take the risk of these outgoings or not.

    I think a lot of agencies will need to think again about their working practices and whether they need to micro manage people in physical studios or trust them to be responsible remotely. I think a solution is to have a mix of remote working and physical meetings on a much less regular basis. It is amazing how empowered people become when the had the responsibility to look after their own actions.

  • Stephen Marck May 18, 2020 at 9:36 am

    I agree that there is a need to have a 3-dimensional experience at work and have creative sessions together. Culture, inspiration, discussion, and human interaction are still relevant. These things cannot be completely replaced by web tools, because that’s how you build your culture and team spirit. Even if you work as a Freelancer it is counterproductive just to sit at a desk in one room. You have to get out and explore what is going on in the world to make sure you are getting that creative stimulation.

    I am worried that this is what is going to be expected that this is just another example of our basic human rights being taken away. And with contact tracing, it feels like we are heading towards a Police State!

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