Opinion: Lessons learned from reopening our Shanghai agency, post-pandemic
The COVID-19 crisis has been a period of restraint that’s fueled a new sense of creative freedom in many ways. This crisis has brought on a wave of reflection, from our personal to professional lives, and, as an agency leader in China, it has forced me to re-examine the inner workings of creativity.
We started working from home right after the Chinese New Year holiday (January 25). By the third week of WFH, I realized that our productivity had not gone down at all. We were 100 percent operational. In fact, productivity had gone up. The quality of work also had not been compromised. On the contrary, we produced some great work during that period, earning compliments from the client and even winning a new piece of business. Everyone was very self-disciplined during the WFH period and together we made it through safely, and stronger as a team.
After more than 10 weeks working from home, we began the transition of moving back to the office. There were things we needed to adjust, and habits we needed to change. For example, I had to get used to wearing a mask for the whole day and learn how to breathe properly while presenting to clients. And I had to wash my hands often because it turns out there are many high-risk public areas at the office which we never noticed before COVID-19.
Even lunch was now a headache, as the restaurant I used to go to every day for years sadly was unable to survive COVID-19 and had closed down. These were inconveniences. But what really got my attention after going back to office was that I found our productivity and quality of work dropping as compared to our WFH period. This is an issue that triggered my deeper questioning. Why was this happening?
For now, I think there were two reasons.
1. The nature of creativity and its producers
There are indeed some common traits amongst those in the field of creative work. Top of mind, creatives are imaginative, playful and curious. They have varying degrees of rebellious spirit, resistance to rules and conventions.
In the past few years, we have been struggling to find full-time designers. Many senior-level designers in particular have switched to freelancing. One of the most significant benefits as a freelancer is the freedom to choose when and where to work. The biggest pitfall being income insecurity. The exact opposite is true of full-time creatives who have the financial security but no freedom to choose when and where to work.
COVID-19 has created an interesting scenario for many designers. There is the freedom of working from home with a stable, full-time income. I believe this is one of the reasons why our quality of work during the WFH period had not dropped but, on the contrary, had risen. Designers could choose to work during their best moment of the day. I also believe, in the future, this working model is how we can attract and keep talent.
2. The environment
While we were working from home, a project came up and we needed to brainstorm to generate ideas. We carefully selected four people for the brainstorm and used a videoconferencing platform to conduct the session. We limited the number of people knowing that more does not necessarily equate to a better output, and with everyone working remotely, we were more conscious of how we activated our resources. In 90 minutes, we produced several great ideas.
Once back in the office, we had a similar brainstorm session. There were nine of us in the session and we spent more than three hours on it, ending with zero good ideas. The lack of ingenuity and productivity were so low compared to the previous WFH experience. I was involved in both sessions and I saw the difference. The physical environment has so many distractions and interruptions, making it harder to concentrate. It almost sounds unbelievable, but it was totally true for us.
What have we learned?
There’s been much talk about COVID-19 as an awakening and recalibration of our lives. It has definitely been a wake-up call for me as a creative and business leader. Although we have only been back in the office for a few weeks, I believe the time is now for me to rethink our operation model. What are the most optimal ways of working for our team to create the best work? How would that impact the structure, talent pool, technology resources—and, ultimately, our business and operations model—moving forward?
Very often, the best creativity is borne out of constraints. The COVID-19 crisis has been an opportunity for us to reflect as creatives—what are the best conditions for allowing our creativity to flourish? Creativity is perhaps a very intimate affair, an affair with one’s own thoughts.
As we always encourage designers to think out of the box, the creative industry should really think out of the box and break some conventions this time. Looking at the nature of our work, there is no reason for us to follow the norms. We should leverage technology to recreate a working model that best fits the future of our industry. One size cannot fit all. We are in the era of personalization and it’s time to “personalize” a new working model for the creative industry.
Of course, there will be considerations of culture, collaboration and discipline, but as the saying goes, when there is a great idea, the rest shall follow.