March 2022, specifically March 17th for the studio and 23rd for the UK, marked two years since the start of the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown and changes to the way most of the world worked. Ahead of the official government guidelines announced a week later, we decided to move the studio from “bums on seats” that we had operated since conception to a remote, working from home setup.
The process was actually relatively straight-forward, with much of our development, outside of the physicality of needing high-end PCs and headsets, takes place on the cloud; all our storage, builds, systems and whatnot are stored and operated remotely so from an operations point of view, we were able to flip fairly quick.
As we cross this month into our third year of operating remotely, we thought we would take a look at how it’s changed work, and home life and how our clients have adopted and adapted to new ways of working.
Operationally, switching to remote was a process of ensuring that the team were comfortable and setup to work from home, in regards to to working environment, hardware, internet access and shared tools for communication. However it’s always much more than just that, we had to make sure people were comfortable and mentally prepared for the change as well.
Depending upon the discipline, some were more pro or against working together in a space, so some were happier to be remote than others, whereas others needed on-demand, quick fire access to the team or individuals. To find this balance and addressing of individual needs, we held regular one-to-one check-ins with the team and whilst the senior leadership team have always operated an open and transparent path to communications, ensured that everyone felt and understood they could approach any one at any time with any issue or concern. We have to give a huge thanks to our Head of Production who led the charge on ensuring everyone was happy whilst juggling the changing project needs.
We already used Slack internally but upgraded the subscription package to support multiple user video calls and greater message history, and organised our channels a bit more effectively. Of course we added some less-work-orientated channels too for fun stuff, like catses, doggos, garden pics and general social gathering organisation.
Similarly, we got used to holding meetings on Zoom, like most other organisations and soon burnt through the customisation options. After a few weeks we’d tired of custom backgrounds, videos that made us look like we were on a beach or flying a plane and whatnot and mostly stuck to straight video. We are also more than happy if people didn’t want to be on camera so didn’t have any cams on rules etc.
One thing that took a bit more administration and organisation was legal agreements and paperwork to have residential addresses included to be allowed to have access to prototypes and dev kits for devices that hadn’t been announced yet at home, rather than only securely at the studio. Because we were working with Oculus Quest 2 before it had been announced, we had to ensure it wasn’t accidentally seen in a Zoom call background and other inhabitants wouldn’t leak information about it. Obviously because of lockdown and the guidelines, it wasn’t so much of a concern about visitors to the house potentially seeing things they shouldn’t do but precautions were taken anyway just in case.
We already worked in an agile way but thanks to our amazing Head of Production, and joining us later on, our Senior PMs, daily standups and huddles were scheduled and became part of daily remote life, with shared screens, JIRA epics manipulated and projects running smoothly as before when we were face-to-face.
Anyone who runs an agency will know the importance of margins and chargeable work hours. To allow for the fact that many of the team were parents and having to juggle work and home and school life all within the same space, we reduced our targets to accommodate. This enabled greater flexibility and allowed for school runs, or home schooling, plus all the extra demands on the team wfh. Life always carries on no matter what but some typical key events in life were accelerated or more important now as a result. Now we didn’t have to be in Brighton, some took the opportunity to move elsewhere, to be closer to family or places with lower cost of living.
Like most people at the time, we had no idea how long the requirement for remote working from home would last, a couple of weeks, months, a year maybe? We did know that December 2020 was the end of our lease in our old physical studio space, with the building being renovated into residential use, something known and factored in when we initially signed. Not knowing how long we would be remote or who would want to work in the studio again, we started looking at flexible options towards the end of 2020, with many to view and choose from in and around the Brighton area.
We had met the original land owners and designers U+I for what became Plus X, where we are now, many years ago at a Digital Catapult Brighton 5G Testbed Accelerator event. The concept of modern buildings, designed with flows of space, air, light and wellbeing in mind is something rare in Brighton. The additional benefit of connections to University of Brighton and typical things like location, cost and options made it a no-brainer.
We applied to join the BRITE programme, to help us productise SkillShield, were accepted and moved into a private studio space within Plus X in November 2020. Plus X is a typical coworking space in other regards, with phone booths, meeting rooms, shared kitchens etc for use, with additional function rooms like a photography studio, a podcast suite, immersive lab, a fully-fledged fab’ lab and of course, the wonderful rooftop terrace open air space.
This has been our hub space ever since, providing flexible options for the studio and team. We carry out regular staff sentiment surveys (anonymous) to gather a sense of how everyone is feeling (they can of course come direct to their line manager to raise issues). As the various lockdowns came and went, with restrictions easing constantly, it was important to understand how comfortable people were with remote or in-person working, attending meetings, or maintaining distance entirely. Most of the studio were happy to maintain a flexible approach, mostly working from home and coming into the studio for key meetings, reviews or a change of scenery.
We’ve hired a number of people over the last two years, with our new approach enabling us to cast a wider net during recruitment. Understandably, those who have joined the studio and live beyond a commutable distance were wishing to remain remote and we aren’t going to require anyone to move to Brighton like in the before times. However some people wished to be able to return to the physical studio as soon as possible, preferring to work there for a variety of reasons. With our private studio space in Plus X we are able to offer this and have accommodated a number of the team to be permanently setup there. Our membership allows for as many coworking space places as our private space allows, so a greater number are able to come in at a whim and work anywhere in the building as they desire.
When we first moved into the building late 2020, there weren’t many other members enlisted or other companies there, so we rattled around a bit when we were able to get in. Now however there’s a thriving community of startups, established companies with hubs like ours and a fully working cafe supporting people with learning disabilities, to add life, chance connections and a busy sense of excitement to Plus X. And finally the surrounding buildings in development are nearing completion, so soon enough the whole area will have completed the transformation, with more options for lunch and post-work activities.
Two years on, we have a number of the team who are in the studio every day, as per their choice, and we regularly hold meetings together when necessary but create a blended approach with individuals dialling in from outside the studio, streamed and mixed with a room of people.
Whilst we’re not one of those companies of that size which can house cinemas, ping pong tournaments, street food speciality days etc in the guise of keeping the team onsite for longer out of working hours, so they’re on-hand should any live services go down, we like to ensure there’s a healthy connection with each other of course.
Pre-pandemic we’d have a big party together twice a year, Summer and Christmas, with a smattering of impromptu smaller gatherings outside of work, like a board games session, some go-karting, a pub quiz etc. Of course we had to find things to do together remotely, to ensure beyond just standups and meetings we were still feeling a sense of connection to each other, even more so for those who were joining us fully remote having never met anyone face-to-face.
Escape rooms were popular amongst the team already, something about the mix of gamified logic and thematic narratives being linked to much of our work a natural choice of entertainment. Thankfully a couple of local escape room companies created fun, collaborative online digital versions, which we teamed up to play together. Later on physical setups across whole buildings, to allow space and distance, were opened to remove the smaller, tighter single room versions.
Sticking with the gaming angle, and with many of us having high-end PCs for development work, we were able to foster a group of digital board games to play together, or other popular social games like Among Us. Gathering on a Friday afternoon, it’s been a great way to enable people to relax, unwind and get together outside of project development requirements.
With our own social multiplayer Quest game, Loco Dojo Unleashed, coming out in 2021, we also gifted a number of other VR experiences and applications to the team to add further options to the mix. Walkabout Mini Golf has become our favourite way of getting together in VR to chat, catch-up and even occasionally sink a few balls as we knockabout on the crazy mini golf courses.
Back at the start of the pandemic, we had already looked at 40+ applications that allowed virtual remote meetings, review sessions and social experiences. We tried a variety but ultimately settled on and expanded upon our use of AltSpace VR, now owned by Microsoft. From gatherings to all-team standups, we have been building out our own custom space to meet in, bringing a touch of the familiar to proceedings to help ground us together online.
However this is all very digital, adding to the increased screen time many of us are experiencing and sometimes we just wanted to close the lid of the laptop and get away from pixels for a bit. We’ve been sending out Great Food 2 U vouchers to team members to allow them to choose from a range of street food diner kitchens and have pre-prepared food boxes delivered to their homes, to either cook together or just for their friends and families, away from work entirely.
Of course it wasn’t just us who had to adapt. Every one of our clients and partners were also going through the same process, typically at a much larger scale of business and workforce to transition from office to wfh. As many of our projects are for L&D, training and simulation, there were some urgent discussions around deployment and delivery.
If no-one was in an office and everyone was working from home, traditional enterprise training sessions delivered in a classroom setup were no longer possible. Organisations had typically procured devices to be stored in a pool together for use by individuals or groups as per the training session requirement, but these were kept by the L&D teams, not individual employees. Employees took home work-provided laptops to wfh with but not VR headsets, so other methods were needed. In some cases where the experiences were asymmetrical, it was still possible to hold group-based training but instead of being in a room together, the non-VR learners were on Zoom to collaborate with the immersed learner.
Many of our clients paused their VR-based training sessions or the scaling up plans and looked at other ways of deploying immersive learning experiences. At the time there was a lot of talk within the L&D sector how to re-purpose and refactor existing tools and methods. However we aren’t a traditional elearning company, creating templated click-next content, and we wanted to avoid delivering PowerPoint presentations over Zoom, so it was a great challenge to work closely with our clients to allow them to continue to innovate without having to fall back to simpler methods we distance ourselves from.
We often talk about the scale of immersion, with VR being towards the upper end but we operate and create content across that whole range. Our clients pushed us to see what could be achieved and applied from the lower to mid-range of the scale, driving what could be done within a browser at scale. This has led to a fantastic new framework tool created to build powerful 3D and video content for a browser but also to enable our clients to take that initial innovation and turn it into everyday business-as-usual for their internal L&D teams.
As the restrictions lifted and organisations defined how they were going to operate moving forwards, many of our clients stated that they would never return to requiring everyone to be 100% in offices again. So we worked closely with them to ensure hybrid and blended learning worked with a mix of physically present and virtual learners. Similarly when they were re-using VR training applications, the best practices around device management, hygiene and operation, to allow them to deploy effectively to their employees, no matter their location.
Events are crucial for us, as a chance to demonstrate our latest immersive learning experiences but also to meet with existing and potentially new clients and partners. Like many learning companies, there are some key reasons for attending big events in UK and abroad, including generating leads, raising awareness and often having a chance to talk or present to the attendees about relevant topics.
Since lockdown until mid-2021, all physical face-to-face events shifted online virtually through a variety of means. In 2020 we exhibited and partook in many of them, from 2D web browser-based booth representations with interactive hotspots linking to videos, to fully realised 3D worlds available again through the browser or VR headset. This was new territory for many event organisers and exhibitors, resulting in some kinks to iron out and bumps along the way to creating successful events worthwhile taking part in.
As mentioned, we create content across the spectrum of immersion, from mobile and web, to AR and VR, to full motion platforms and installations. The content deployed on the higher end is hard to showcase via video or chat, it’s far more effective to be able to put a headset on an attendee than trying to describe the experience. So for some of our demonstrations and work, virtual events just did not provide valid means of doing so.
As restrictions eased throughout 2021, we attended a couple of face-to-face events that had been postponed or rescheduled from 2020. It was a glorious return of old and much welcomed, however we were very cautious about confirming bookings until the last minute when things were still up in the air a bit, and so probably lost out a bit on promotion and positioning. Whilst the event has been moved back a couple of months, we are going all in for Learning Technologies 2022 at ExCeL, London in May and cannot wait to see you there!
We were always hot on hygiene at events with immersive technology devices that were being shared between attendees but our processes are even more risk reduced and safe now. From paper masks to silicone inserts that can be swapped out and cleaned easily, to a full UVC light cleaning cupboard, we have a range of methods to ensure devices are safe to use and share at all our events.
Moving forwards, many things will stay the same for many of the studio team, mostly working from home with occasional trips to the space in Plus X as necessary. We don’t plan on returning to being a “bums on seats” studio again, now we have a number of the team working around the country and have gotten used to working remotely. As we continue to grow, we’ll continue to offer the flexibility the space offers, allowing people to choose the best working balance for them, depending where they are located.
Although the government guidelines have been removed, we still operate with sense around testing before meeting up, distancing, hygiene and ensuring we isolate if testing positive. With the numbers as they are, even if the current variant symptoms are milder than before, and all our team are vaccinated and boosted, we want to make sure we are encouraging safe behaviours around each other and our clients.
We’re glad to be able to meet clients again and host demos and workshops at Plus X, or come to you. We have monthly virtual socials with quarterly physical meetups, often allowing those who have joined us since March 2020 to meet the rest of the team in the flesh for the first time – funny how Zoom doesn’t convey a sense of height very well! In-person events are back on the calendar as we plan out the usual ones we’ll be exhibiting at but also it will be good to get out there as regular attendees too once more.
Over the past two years we’ve delivered 50+ projects for our clients, on-time, within budget and to our usual high quality standards so we are confident that the change to remote working hasn’t negatively impacted our output. Client feedback certainly backs up and confirms this. We look forward to continuing to design, develop and deploy many more exciting projects this year and beyond, those planned and those waiting to be discovered.
We’re always happy to talk to you about how immersive technologies can engage your employees and customers. If you have a learning objective in mind, or simply want to know more about VR, send us a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.