A year ago this week the UK went into its first lockdown. Like most savvy businesses, Clearleft had already closed our studio and started working from home. Also like many businesses, we've yet to reopen our office.
I remember clearly the looks on people’s faces when I announced we'd be working remotely until the end of April. There was a combination of surprise, disbelief, resignation and even horror (perhaps due to the looming spectre of home-schooling). Just as everyone’s experience has been different over the past year, so everyone's initial reaction was different too.
We didn’t have to make a huge cultural shift in order to work remotely. We’re a small enough company that we all know each other and what’s expected of us. We’d built up enough trust, and working from home was already allowed without question. That said, working from home was an occasional thing: to let in a plumber, deal with some childcare, and frequently - presciently perhaps - to get stuff done. And it was working from home - it wasn't remote working, which as we’ve all come to realise is a different beast entirely.
We managed to adapt to the situation fairly quickly. A culture of autonomy and generally mucking-in helped, as did an assurance that everyone’s job would be safe for the coming months even if it meant us losing money in the short term (we didn’t). All this meant we could get on with the job of supporting our clients, who were certainly nowhere near close to working remotely when lockdown happened, and needed all the help they could get.
We knew we were doing something right in terms of remote working when one of our staff, who had been on sabbatical in South America when the pandemic struck, managed to make it back to Europe. While everyone else worked from home in or around Brighton, Tom found himself working from Spain initially, and then from London. And no-one really noticed, apart from a surprising change in decor. And that’s the point - you can remote work from anywhere provided you can negotiate timezones.
The UK is now in its third lockdown, but with a successful rollout of the vaccine, a way out and a change is approaching. Once lockdown is lifted, hopefully in a few months, will we become fully remote? I doubt it. Remote-first, whatever that means? Perhaps. We've certainly loosened our hiring policy - we no longer require people to permanently work from our Brighton studio. This enabled us to hire Christianne, our fantastic new head of events, who is currently based in London. That said Brighton is within commuting distance of London, so it’s certainly near enough to pop down every now and then, which will probably be beneficial.
For now our beloved 68 Middle Street stays closed, but we’ll be partially reopening in June as a broadcast studio for UX Fest and as an early test of Covid precautions and an assessment of everyone’s appetite for being in relatively close human proximity. Come July, by which time hopefully all Covid restrictions will be lifted, we’ll open more fully.
But how will we be working come July? We don't exactly know, but that's fine because we can try things and quickly adapt to changing needs. After all, we managed to go from studio-based to fully remote in a matter of days.
A few things seem certain. We've regularly talked and periodically surveyed staff about how they are coping with remote work, and their attitude to returning to the office. People's circumstances and feelings all differ. These are difficult times - at some point we’ve all felt sad, lonely, claustrophobic or tired. But there have also been plenty of rays of light, with working from home being liberating, productive and flexible. What we do share is a common inclination to be in the same space as other people, at least for some of the time.
That may be a general reaction to being cooped up during so many weeks of lockdown after lockdown, but there's a keen desire to talk and work face to face, if not permanently. We’ve all had the time and some budget to get set up for remote working, and we’ve come to appreciate the benefits it can bring. We definitely don't want to lose those. But we're all human, which means we're sociable creatures at heart. Furthermore Clearlefties are - by design - a nice bunch of people. We're the kind of people we want to spend time with, so it’s only natural we’d want to come into the office together.
All of which points us towards a hybrid way of working. Part remote, part in the studio, with all of us in one or other mode part of the time, but probably at different times and differing amounts. The key to getting this to work will be to ensure that neither mode of working advantages one person over another. We'll need to ensure that while working remotely, someone isn’t excluded from decisions or collaboration, and minimise the fear of missing out on informal conversations. We'll need to improve our setup to better enable remote people to participate in meetings where multiple attendees happen to be in the studio. Likewise we need to ensure that if you're in the studio you can participate fully in remote discussions and activities - right now we have a large open plan studio that can get pretty noisy. And we'll need to track and assess this so we can keep making improvements in working practice and environment.
Meanwhile our clients will be asking themselves similar questions. Perhaps some will go back fully into the office; some may go fully remote. But one great thing that has happened is they - and we - now have 12 months hard-earned experience of working remotely. As designers and consultants we won’t have to travel as much as we used to in order to research and collaborate, which is great for many reasons including productivity, work-life balance and the environment.
In light of the ongoing tragedy that is the coronavirus pandemic, it would be trite to trot out an aphorism such as 'never let good crisis go to waste'. However with the vaccine presenting a light at the end of the tunnel, we have an opportunity to emerge in a better place than 12 months ago. If we get it right, we can take advantage of the collaborative and social spaces in our studio, as well as the peace and convenience of working from home (or indeed a villa in Spain). In doing so we'll improve both our working practices and our home life - small victories in the grand scheme of things, but worth grabbing while we can.