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Are empty offices the future for animation studios?

Wider talent pool access, cost savings and greater employee happiness are just some factors Portfolio and Cloth Cat say are undeniable benefits of moving to a permanent work-from-home model.
July 24, 2020

Thousands of animation employees started working from home in March when physical distancing measures went into effect around the world. Thanks to huge leaps in technology over the past five years, animating an entire show away from a studio is more than doable. In lockdown, many studios have finished productions, met deadlines and even started new development projects from the comforts of their homes. 

However, while remote work the industry has accomplished has been lauded, many are asking, how much longer can this last? Some believe questions about the effectiveness of WFH have been laid to rest forever—we’ve done it, we can keep doing it, what’s the problem? Others see the issues that have cropped up in the transition as proof that the model can’t work long term. And many of us land somewhere in the middle. 

Over the next three weeks, Kidscreen will explore the long-term viability of the entire animation industry working from home. Today we’re exploring the argument that WFH works well and will inevitably stick around.

Boundless borders

While the technology has been steadily improving over the past decade, the animation industry has been slow to adopt a work-from-home model. But the pandemic put the transition into overdrive, and at  many studios kick-started the shift to a decentralized workflow.

The backdrop for the change may have been less than ideal, but many can’t deny the benefits a work-from-home approach offers. And a number of prodcos, including Cloth Cat Animation in Wales, are now looking at how they can keep that momentum up. Cloth Cat is best known for its work on Shane the Chef and Luo Bao Bei, and managing director Jon Rennie (pictured above) says he has decided to scale back on the company’s physical office space. Instead, he’s planning to continue using cloud services and downsize the studio to a smaller space in the future.

The flexibility offered by a WFH model will give Cloth Cat the ability to deal with “the coming storm,” says Rennie.

“It’s clear that funding and commissions are going to be severely reduced in the next few years, so we need to be ready to deal with those challenges,” he says.

While Cloth Cat is arguably the largest studio in Cardiff, its distance from studio hubs such as London has made finding top talent a challenge in the past. But without the need to be physically present in offices anymore, Rennie says it’s easier to make remote hires and integrate these new team members into series workflow that’s already underway, or on new series that will be started (and maybe even finished) by teams working entirely from home.

“It’s turned into the opportunity to say we can hire whoever from further afield, and possibly from outside the country,” he explains.

Lisa Olfman, CEO and co-founder of Toronto’s Portfolio Entertainment, worries about how working remotely will affect new junior hires, and how they will learn skills they would otherwise pick up organically in the office (which is now sitting empty, as pictured below). But on the flip side, “aside from the tax credit considerations, this also allows us to consider a talent pool outside of Toronto or outside of our borders, [since] commuting isn’t a factor,” she says.

Beyond the broader pool of talent, the work-from-home approach means Portfolio is no longer limited by its physical space, which will help the company grow quicker, says COO and VP of finance Trent Locke.

“It certainly gives us the ability to scale up and expand,” says Locke. “We were confined to four walls; now we’re not. We know what our pipeline limitations were before, and now that we’ve proven we can work remotely effectively, we can double our pipeline just by doing what we’re doing right now.”

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Staff satisfaction

One of the biggest benefits of transitioning to a work-from-home structure has been the boost in staff happiness, adds Olfman. What’s more, she says the team’s productivity hasn’t suffered while everyone settled into their new routine.

“For our team, the majority are completely fine with working from home as long as they have the tools,” says Olfman. “They have the bandwidth, and they have a space where they can work without too much interruption. That isn’t the case for everyone, but if they have those two things, they love not having to travel to workespecially our commuters.”

Portfolio is planning to keep one or two pipelines running remotely even after lockdowns are fully lifted in Toronto, regardless of what happens in the future.

Meeting ease

A shift to home offices will also improve the external meeting process required to get a show made, says Cloth Cat’s Rennie.

Based in Wales, Rennie is already used to “working remotely” when it comes to client participation. But in project team meetings prior to lockdown, it was easy for everyone physically in a meeting to forget he was on the conference line, he says.

“Everybody around the table would have cups of teas or coffee and biscuits, and I was there on the call getting rather bored because I actually wasn’t really involved in the conversation,” says Rennie. “Now, everybody is the same size square on a screen. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in London or in the wilds of Scotland,  you all have an equal voice.”

Check back next week as we explore why some producers and studios feel like it’s time to get back into the office.

About The Author
Alexandra Whyte is Kidscreen's News & Social Media Editor. Contact her at awhyte@brunico.com

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