Tom Gilbert
Mar 26, 2020

After 8 weeks in a Shanghai virtual brand design studio, light at the end of the tunnel

"China is coming out the other side...and wants to make up for lost time."

After 8 weeks in a Shanghai virtual brand design studio, light at the end of the tunnel

As the rest of the world begins to settle into a new daily routine and tackle the challenges of shifting a largely office-based business to a new working-from-home model, it feels like a good time to share some of the experiences that myself and the rest of our team here in Shanghai have learnt during the past eight weeks of working remotely, especially now that some of us are able to return to working together in the studio.

It’s true that crisis can bring out the best in people, and this has been evident from what I’ve experienced with my team and how supportive and adaptable everyone has been. Right from week one I really felt that team spirit, and we were all constantly checking in with one another to make sure that everyone was ok.

As things became more serious, these occasional informal messages became more of an official daily tracking of where we all were in the world, our health status, and what IT equipment we had with us or needed to do our jobs efficiently. This proved to be a good move when lockdown in China kicked in and the government extended the Chinese New Year holiday. It was then clear that we were in this for the long haul and we had to find a way of working remotely for the foreseeable, much like we are seeing our colleagues in London, New York and Amsterdam doing now.

The positives

Time. With less time spent commuting, travelling and socialising there really is more time in the day. Having downtime is very important and all those things that you never had the time for before suddenly become much more accessible. For me, that has meant finally learning how to play Mahjong with my in-laws.

Less travel. As well as helping free up some of your time, less travel has also led to financial and environmental benefits, both of which can only be a good thing.

Focus. As long as you hide your TV remote and games console during your working hours, with less immediate distractions around you there is an opportunity to focus more on your work and delivering for your clients than you might usually have in a busy, noisy working environment. And, of course, if you want or need a bit of that hustle and bustle, remember that your team are only a quick call or video chat away!

Even though my team are now able to start returning to work in the studio, what has become clear is that the way we work will potentially never be the same again, and that remote working will become more accepted in the wider workplace. But if this is to become the norm, then there are a few things we need to consider and still find solutions for.

The challenges

Meeting etiquette. If we were all in the studio and someone walked in looking like they have just got out of bed, it would raise a few eyebrows, so why is it acceptable for online meetings? 55% of communication is body language so, if we do a call without a camera, 55% of the communication could be lost or misunderstood. One thing that became clear for us is that we need to establish proper online meeting etiquette. This might seem weird now, but it will quickly become your new normal.

Multiple communication channels. Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, WeChat, Email, WhatsApp, a good old-fashioned telephone call… my list could go on, I’ve been using them all. They all have their pros and their cons but having to use so many different methods of communication can add more stress, absorb time, and actually cause communication breakdown in some cases. Standardisation is needed, so if you can stick to using just a couple of these and put some guidelines in place for how to use them, then you’ll find your communication becomes much more efficient.

Young creative talent. The practicalities of remote working are evidently making it more difficult for junior creatives and design students to progress as they have reduced access, or altogether lose, their day-to-day mentors. As an industry, we need to come together and find ways in which we can support and nurture young talent so that they (and we) do not miss out. Initiatives like the trial in Design Bridge's London studio last Friday, where designers held virtual portfolio review sessions for the students that they were unable to visit at university that day, is one way. What others are there?

The light at the end of the tunnel

What I want to share with my peers around the world is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. China is coming out the other side. In the last two weeks we have received a large volume of briefs and enquiries, especially from FMCGs brands and there is one other significant theme: they want us to respond faster! Yes, China wants to make up for lost time.

We have always described ourselves as “boutique with bandwidth”, flexing and sharing work across our studios when extra talent or expertise is required. To enable us to respond to our clients quicker and help brands bounce back ASAP post-pandemic, we also need to take the learnings from the virtual studio setup we are currently working with around the world and apply them to improve our ways of working in the future.

Is the virtual studio here to stay? Maybe.


Tom Gilbert is executive creative director at Design Bridge Shanghai

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