Back in early March, a friend posted an article on LinkedIn that profoundly resonated with me. With just a few words, the piece from ICF Next captured in a nutshell everything I had been feeling but hadn’t quite managed to enunciate. Simply put, that as our lives abruptly changed, for businesses who were able to operate, the three key responsibilities we have are to our clients, colleagues and the wider community.
Running a business for all these years, I’ve never really fancied working from home. I’m the kind of person who likes to have somewhere to go in the morning. Moreover, I tend to think that the creative process works better when surrounded by the team, kicking around your ideas in person. However, choice went somewhat out of the equation in early March when swiftly, well ahead of lockdown, on gut instinct, we decided to avoid public transport and run our studio entirely remotely.
In the time since, we’ve learned a lot, primarily just how much you can get done sitting at your kitchen table. There’s an efficiency that comes from your calls being scheduled not random, from carving out time to do one thing at a time, rather than half a dozen jobs concurrently. Most of all, we’re operating successfully and our clients old and new have wanted to press ahead with work, something I’m profoundly grateful for.
In the spirit of the ICF Next article, I’d like to talk about what we’ve been working on in the last three months and, with great care, what we’re planning next.
The first part of the ‘clients, colleagues, community’ theme I want to cover is that middle one: the people I am responsible for.
Back in March when the situation in London was changing rapidly, I made the decision that we should all start working from home. I remember discussing it widely among friends and others — and reactions ranging from a suggestion that I was overreacting (an opinion that quickly dated…) to an urging to act immediately (which I did). But what it came down to for us was the situation where it was relatively easy (a short bus trip) for me to get to work, but considerably a more lengthy trip for my team. They were coming in every day from north east London: the situation had gone from a strange news item from China to something we needed to act on — and now.
Some years ago, my former colleague Rob had asked to work from home occasionally and I looked into how we might be able to put all our work online so it was easily accessible. After investigating a few options, I landed on Dropbox for Business and, while it took forever to initially transfer all our work to the cloud, it ended up being an incredibly useful tool day to day. Cut to March 11th 2020 — and this preparation we had made so long ago suddenly became business critical.
What it meant was that we could pick up our laptops, head home and start working the next day, essentially as if we were beside each other. Throw in communication and project management tools like Slack and Asana, and we were talking (almost) in the way we might at work.
Three months down the track, the next step is to figure out how we take meaningful rest/leave days, but, starting with more regular long weekends, we’re beginning to figure that out.
It’s safe to say that working totally apart from everyone has been an enlightening experience — I’ve definitely missed the camaraderie of the studio and working remotely took a little getting used to. I love our studio space, it took years to achieve it and leaving it behind, however briefly, is sad. However overall, I’d say it’s meant we’ve got more work done, with fewer distractions. It’s hard to say if design is a team sport or not, as designers are strange beasts — they thrive when left in the dark! However, ideas, really good ones actually, have come quickly and this blend of quality and efficiency has meant we’ve got more done, sooner, which unsurprisingly, clients like.
I’ve given a couple of recent case studies of how lockdown projects have worked — branding and a website for a Chelsea style guru; a green energy startup working on a new wave of battery technology — and the slickness and simplicity with which this was managed has astonished me. It’s safe to say this period of mandatory remote working and its implications on client communications has changed our working practices forever. I would never have thought of doing a video chat with a client by default, rather focussing on the relationship-building process by visiting them in person. With that no longer a possibility, so much time, staggering days and days of time, is saved — on both sides. Call me not just a convert, but a devotee.
Since mid-March, so far we’ve completed six websites, three identity projects, two brochures and countless other small ongoing jobs for longtime clients. I’ve met people on Zoom, written proposals, agreed terms, deadlines and got things done. All without setting foot in our studio or seeing my team. It is possible — and outcomes can be great. An interesting question now which many people are posing is: which is the better way?
I have always believed that for any business, supporting good causes is incredibly important and it’s something I’ve done from the outset. In terms of the ‘clients, colleagues, community’ mantra, this is the linchpin for me. Knowing which charitable or philanthropic projects to choose has strangely never been a question I’ve had to choose between, as funnily enough, great opportunities have come up, usually when I wasn’t looking but the time was right. Donating money is both the easiest and hardest answer to the community moral question, because though funds take a moment to send… that isn’t always possible when a small business has a tight cashflow. The way I’ve resolved that question over the years is by giving our time. By offering collective skills to organisations that really need, but can’t afford them, we create something and help someone. A deeply satisfying combination.
One of the landmark charity projects we worked on that applied this theory was for Aspyre Africa, a charity raising up and providing skills to young people in Senegal. Aspyre’s branding and website, along with the incredible video that jumps out at you as soon as you arrive on the site, showcase a wonderful organisation at work, which continues and grows to this day.
The endeavour which is our longest-lasting and most satisfying charitable collaboration is for the Shine School Media Awards, a project which I’ve been Deputy Chair of over the past five years. This annual programme encourages secondary school pupils to create a website, podcast, magazine or newspaper. The primary aim is to find and raise up the best from a generation of young people who see self-publishing as their natural way of self-expression, encouraging them into a media career.
Within the lockdown we found particular satisfaction working with our client, legendary picture framing experts Bourlet, on promotional materials launching a competition for children stuck at home to create a piece of artwork inspired by their circumstances, to raise money for the Cavell Nurses’ Trust. The competition is over now, but raised several thousand pounds for the charity and hopefully kept more than one or two couped-up kids occupied!
For now, we carry on at home, but it’s my great hope we can start to reopen the office from late June or early July. I miss the place, miss having somewhere that is a workspace, but also and most importantly, it is vital that it is a safe place — and travel to and from it is straightforward. When my clients and colleagues feel content to return, I want to be there to meet them. Ultimately, this is how the best relationships are forged and we all gain together from that.
‘CLIENTS, COLLEAGUES, COMMUNITY’: RELATED LINKS
Some background on the work discussed in this article, along with the ICF Next piece that inspired it: