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One year in to lockdowns, working from home and life changing as we know it. Simon Jones, Founder & MD of The Agency Collective member Studio 24, put together some reflections on what his agency has been up to and what the future might hold.

Staff flexibility

The most important thing we’ve done in the past year is to be supportive and flexible with our team. We’ve always had flexible working hours, but this took on a new meaning during the pandemic.

I worked with other members of the team to put in place clear working practices to help us prioritise and structure our work while everyone is working from home. We gave everyone in the team an additional 5 days holiday to help manage personal responsibilities, or just to take some self-care time off. We support staff with time off sick at full pay, to ensure no-one feels they cannot stop working if they contract COVID-19.

We have a lot of parents at the agency, so we’ve been flexible when people need time off or need to switch temporarily to part-time working. This has put pressure on our commercial work, but it’s more important to support the team – especially at times like this. We haven’t used much government support, though have used furloughing in a few instances to support team members who need to reduce their hours due to childcare.

Our new studio, more on which below, has been designed to help support hybrid working and is COVID-19 secure. At present we let individual staff make use of the office if they need it, which has been an occasional lifeline.

Impact on mental health

We’ve all found it difficult at times during the pandemic, with the reduced social connections and difficulty getting downtime when you work in the same place you live in (and pretty much everything else is closed). Personally, I’ve found it hard at times – I’m used to working with a team in the same physical space. I thrive by collaborating and socialising with my colleagues, all of which is greatly reduced when your only interaction is over a small computer screen and Slack chat.

We did a number of things to help support the mental health of our colleagues. We now have two mental health first aiders, Claire and Emma, who regularly check in with the entire team. We use FridayPulse, a tool to help share and discuss issues around working and team wellbeing. Some really useful discussions have come out of this, which have helped everyone.

W3C

In March 2020 we started a flagship project to redesign the website for international organisation and web standards body W3C. This is a prestigious, exciting and challenging project – made doubly so in the middle of a pandemic.

W3C work to create an open web for all, this aligns very well with our core values so it’s a really rewarding project to be working on. We’ve been working on the project for exactly a year now, keeping the community updated with progress on our working in the open site.

The scope of the project is unsurprisingly large, there are a lot of stakeholders and some stages of the project require a lot of time to gather appropriate feedback.

The Coronavirus pandemic has had a noticeable effect on this project. In the early stages of the pandemic our agency leadership was understandably distracted by operational issues and supporting the team. We’ve had a fair amount of disruption to available staff time at different times, which has unavoidably pushed some project stages.

The whole team is still really excited about the project and we look forward to the positive impact this work will have once we launch!

A new studio

After 11 years at St. Stephen’s Place we decided to make the move to a new office. When I first started looking at this (in Jan 2020) our requirements were very different, I was looking to expand to a larger studio more suitable to help us grow. By March, this had changed to looking for more flexible office space to accomodate fewer people.

We found a fantastic new studio location at Chesterton Mill, not 5 minutes from the old office. This new studio is designed to fit up to 10, with space for a social/meeting room. Once the lockdown is over and it’s safe to go back to work, we expect the majority of the team to have a mix of home and office working. We plan to review this in a year, to see whether we need to switch back to a larger studio or whether this strategy is working for us.

We also worked hard to ensure no critical services are dependant on the office, helping our move to more remote working. Alan Isaacson did a great job managing all this: moving our phone systems to an internet phone provider; moving company files to Microsoft OneDrive; setting up a secure office firewall we can connect to via VPN to secure wifi networks; and a backup deployment service (in case staff cannot connect to the VPN). We setup standardised desks with adjustable monitor arms, ergonomic office chairs, and Thunderbolt 3 docks to make it simple for staff to plug in and go when they are in the studio (the docks also provide power to laptops). Everyone has their own keyboard and mouse to help avoid having to sanitise keyboards every day (and many staff have ergonomic keyboards and mice).

The office move work was spread out over a few months to make this more manageable. It was hard work but a really positive thing to do in a pandemic and something that had been a really motivating step forward.

I look forward to welcoming the team to the new office!

Donating office equipment

As part of our move we had to get rid of a lot of old office equipment, laptops and monitors. We decided to donate these locally wherever possible and had great success with this.

We donated a lot of computer gear to Netherhall School, who had been running a campaign for computer equipment to help students learn remotely. We donated 3 iMacs, an HP Chromebook, 10 monitors, keyboards and mice, office chairs and a conference camera!

Julia Sang helped organise donating lots of other things to local charities and organisations. We donated our meeting table, desks, chairs, paper shredder and server cabinet to Symonds House Nursing Home who are using these items in their visiting centre to allow families to meet their loved ones, as well as keep people connected to their families and friend online.

Cupboards and bookcases were donated to Cambridge Hope into Action who furnish houses for homeless people being moved into accommodation.

Scrubs for Cambridgeshire / Helping the NHS took our double and quad office desks to use as sewing and cutting tables to make scrubs for the NHS.

Other highlights include:

  • The Elizabeth Coteman Fund received office furniture.
  • A Community group supporting a family who has just moved into new accommodation received the fridge and some other furniture for their house.
  • A woman who has set up her own business during Covid made use of a desk, filing cabinet and some other bits to get her home-office set up.
  • Many people used the office chairs we gave away because they are working from home because of Covid and don’t have suitable chairs to sit on.
  • A newly opened special school, who took the Christmas tree for the children to enjoy, as well as a whiteboard.
  • The whiteboard, business books and sofas went to a woman who is homeschooling because one of her children is very vulnerable to Covid, and she also runs her own business.
  • Coding books, single desks, speakers, cables, ringbinders, fans, coffee table, bowls, cups, plants, paper, a radio, children’s toys and other bits and pieces were happily distributed amongst Cambridge residents.

It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to give back to the local community.

Client meetings

We’ve had a lot of Zoom meetings over the past year. These can work really well, but it’s fair to say we’ve all got Zoom fatigue.

Emma and I had our first face-to-face meeting for a year last week with the wonderful folk at Ely Cathedral. The cathedral is a huge and beautiful place, so it’s easy to keep socially distanced. Building good client relationships is such a big part of what we do and meeting in person is essential to that. I look forward to more client meetings in the future!

The future

It’s important to get back to normal, once it’s safe to do so. Everyone is clearly desperate to be able to socialise and do normal things once more. The successful vaccine rollout gives us a lot of hope for later this year.

We are tentatively planning to allow more people in the office once restrictions ease. We are planning for a hybrid working model, with staff both working remotely at home and in the office when its more useful to work together (or people just need a break from home). We have two permanently remote staff in Belgium and Portugal, we pay for co-working spaces to allow for some separation of home and work.

I think this hybrid model will become more common, with many businesses realising there is no need to force everyone to be in the office 9-5 every day. However, I do think working together in an office is important for many businesses and the office isn’t going away any time soon. While full remote works for some, it is a big change to both culture and working practises that won’t suit all.

The digital industry is clearly more important than ever, with our ever growing reliance on the internet. Our work is designing solutions for clients built on the web – with a clear focus on usability, accessibility, privacy and security. With so much online it’s essential what we create on the web works for all.

Look forward to meeting you down the pub to chat about this more, one day soon…

This article was originally published on the Studio 24 website, check it out here.

Simon is the Managing Director and Founder of Studio 24, who help clients to make sense of digital strategy. They create human-centered websites and develop clever apps with open source technology, analysing data and optimising performance to help clients succeed on the web.

The Agency Collective

The Agency Collective

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