WFH Lessons We've Learned This Year

By Rod Roodenburg
October 26, 2020
Many companies all over the world have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with rapid and decisive action to mitigate the spread of the virus. This is Ion's story in the transition to "working from home".

Our firm counts itself among the lucky ones, continuing to work effectively for a number of reasons. Were we especially prescient or have a disaster plan prepared for such a world-changing event? Not so much. But we did have a robust digital network, with VPN (Virtual Private Network i.e. secure remote networking) access to our design studio servers, already in place for  staff. We have been using a number of digital collaboration services for years. As we quickly shifted from working in our studio to working from home (WFH), there were a few technical issues to overcome for some, but overall the experience was relatively seamless. 

“As we quickly shifted from working in our studio to working from home (WFH), there were a few technical issues to overcome for some, but overall the experience was relatively seamless.” 

But here is the catch: it’s not only about the technology. Shifting from being among friends and peers in an open office environment, to the relative isolation of your home, is a fairly significant change and challenge. For my part, WFH has been an interesting social experiment, one where I believe I have pushed the limits of human tolerance – my wife’s that is. With both of us occupying opposite sides of the dining room table, and our video conferences and phone calls inevitably clashing, it wasn’t long before we channelled the glares of Kasparov vs. Karpov. With our marriage still intact, I’m back at the office on a daily basis for the most part, except with no one to blame for unwashed mugs. It’s pretty quiet here most days, when you are used to a bustling office, so our staff video conferences help me to get caught up socially, as much as they help sort out the work.

In truth, we had some areas of our business areas slow down, in particular south of the border, but fortunately we remained busy enough to keep going. With our client base primarily consisting of cities, municipalities and government agencies, many of our clients were well prepared and anticipated some of the issues to come. We were able to offer additional support, in some cases filling gaps specific to COVID-19 communications, or being an additional resource for other communication needs. We offered free services to clients who needed support and were perhaps not quite as prepared to manage the rapid changes required. 

“Shifting from being among friends and peers in an open office environment, to the relative isolation of your home, is a fairly significant change and challenge."

But whatever challenges we face in our work, the human side of the equation is of equal importance. Ion partner, David Coates, brings this balance into focus: “Given I never really stop working, the pandemic WFH  situation has been a fairly easy transition. The major benefit is being able to multitask in ways not possible when tied to the office. Being able to focus entirely on tasks without distractions is very valuable to me and a surprising benefit. Daily Zoom Coffee Chats provide a connection between staff and are super important to maintain the team spirit as well as provide a forum for sharing ideas informally.” He goes on to say what most of us feel, that “the downside is not being able to toss jokes or paper airplanes across the office or have the ability to quickly brainstorm in person or spontaneously go for lunch together.”

Designer, Richard White, affirms with his personal experience, that “even though the transition can be bumpy and uncertain at times, we are very lucky to work in an industry that runs well remotely. I would venture a guess that most, if not all, graphic designers have operated a freelance business from home and are well suited to the task. As a studio, we’ve been able to stay connected and even bond as a team throughout this WFH stint by leveraging different online tools, and our clients for some time have been on-board with these platforms, like Basecamp, for managing projects. We make sure to check in daily just to say hi and see some friendly faces, and it really helped through the early quarantine days to connect with our colleagues, and even share a beer on Friday over Zoom."

“It's often difficult to stop working as the time and space where work is defined has been blurred and you're relying on yourself to set those boundaries.”

Optimism is a good character trait in our business if you are in it for the long haul, and so Richard adds that “a positive I’ve noticed is that we’ve allowed for flexibility. Every one of us has the freedom to take care of some things around the house when we’re feeling the creative block and can make up the time later on. It’s really empowering to feel productive in different aspects of your life during the day, even something as simple as having the time to clean up your apartment when you’re on a coffee break is a huge benefit to WFH.” Richard offers a reality-check to say “one challenge with that freedom is avoiding distractions. Having roommates that see that you’re home and available to chat can be difficult, especially if you both have video calls scheduled at the same time. Again, communication is important here and we make sure to give lots of notice of upcoming calls to avoid any disruption.”

For some of us, it’s been a seamless transition. Brand Strategist Casey Hrynkow confesses, “For me, working from home is as natural as breathing. My husband, Gerry, will attest to the fact that, when I'm in the zone, I'm an immovable object. I do like being able to get up and deal with some minor bit of housework while wrestling with an idea. Those physical sidebars are vital to creativity, I think. I also live 90 minutes out of Vancouver, so doing things virtually is the best fit.” Consistent with a lot of reports from dedicated workers everywhere, Casey goes on to say: ”If there was a downside it would be that, from a mental standpoint, I work until I sleep – and even well past that point sometimes. Gerry is quite dismayed that I am still writing on my laptop at 10 pm when we're watching Sneaky Pete!”

Designer, Candace Pawson, has twice as much as most to think about at home, and tells her personal story: “Being on maternity leave prior to the pandemic, the WFH arrangement has allowed for a more gentle transition back to work. While it was a rough start without childcare for our twins, Emma and Zoey, it has allowed me to see them more than if I had physically returned to work. Whether it’s saving over two hours a day commuting from Richmond or just being able to take breaks to see them throughout my day, I have flexibility to make more time for them. My husband, Chris would say the same. We've been there for some important firsts that we would have otherwise missed and I'm so thankful to have been home for it.”

Candace admits that she misses the in-person interaction of seeing everyone at work: “With the kids and household stuff keeping us busy, our social bubble has stayed relatively small no matter the phase of reopening just because we don't have time. Work is the only real chance for social interaction besides my mother-law, who has been providing child care at our home since mid-June." 

“Not everyone is equally prepared or has the capacity for new technology integration.”

Candace feels “it has also been challenging to balance time. Nana isn’t always available so there’s days where my husband and I take turns watching the kids and working, which means being interrupted or working late nights. Even when childcare isn't an issue, it's often difficult to stop working as the time and space where work is defined has been blurred and you're relying on yourself to set those boundaries.”

Back to business: our firm was already familiar with working long-distance with clients throughout North America and overseas, and we quickly ramped up our facilitated group workshops, combining our current online tools with an expanded set of interactive solutions. Our survey tools and other evaluation methods were ready to go within a few days. We like to think of ourselves as a digitally progressive design firm, always looking for better ways to do our work and serve our clients. We have a retreat planned this fall to further improve our own interactions, while exploring how we can maintain the personal and friendly strategy workshop experience people have come to expect from in a more digital format.

“Business leaders have become more open-minded in embracing new approaches to communication.”

The reality is, while you yourself might be “ready to go” we have learned that not everyone is equally prepared or has the capacity for new technology integration. But the main take-away is that we are finding people and businesses more willing to try to collaborate in different ways. Business leaders, in our experience, have become more open-minded in embracing new approaches to communication, and most countries with a moral compass have placed health and wellness above economic interests for the first time since forever. WFH is quickly becoming a common acronym, and has become just a part of the new business normal.

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