How a Hybrid Work Model Has Helped a Creative Studio Through the Pandemic

Robb Wagner of Stimulated Inc. decentralized his Los Angeles studio

By Kyle O’Brien

Early in the Covid-19 lockdowns, questions of returning to the office typically revolved around proposed dates and mask protocols. But as the pandemic continued into its second year, it has become a highly complex—and potentially volatile—topic at companies around the world.

For many organizations, it’s no longer about a return to normalcy; it’s about defining a new normal and finding the sometimes elusive balance between productivity and your team’s emotional well-being.

That’s why Adweek has launched a regular interview series called Open Plan. In each Q&A, we’ll ask company leaders how they’ve changed the way they think about offices, remote work and the many transitions ahead.

For this installment of Open Plan, Robb Wagner, founder of Los Angeles creative studio Stimulated Inc., talks about how he created a hybrid model for the workplace and put less emphasis on brick-and-mortar locations.

Adweek: How has the pandemic changed how you view workplaces?

Robb Wagner: My view of the workplace was not actually changed by the pandemic. It was changed by the great recession 10 years earlier. That was the global paradigm shift that made me realize my brick-and-mortar creative studio was more of a liability than an asset. The great recession was the sonic boom that shook me from the mindset that owning a building in a major city while struggling to keep our Herman Miller chairs filled with the talent we needed was not any kind of a long-term success strategy.

It caused me to imagine a new way of working, without the burden of running a big, physical studio. I invented a hybrid workflow and decentralized my company by keeping a core in-house team and growing my global workforce of digital specialists. I developed and implemented a remote workflow technology along with a set of rules and procedures to automate the tedious, repetitive tasks that came with hybrid work at scale. Because I caused my own disruption 10 years ago and was already prepared, my view of the workplace remained largely unchanged during the pandemic.

How have you changed the office environment since the pandemic started?

I took decentralization one step further after the pandemic by applying the hybrid model to my core in-house team. When we were locked down, my core team worked from home instead of at our studio for the first time. This was seamless because they were able to use the same workflow we use to automate the work of our global teams.

When restrictions started lifting and we all got vaccinated, there was a moment when I considered calling people back into our studio. I floated this idea past one of my best digital artists. What I gleaned from our conversation was that his being home gave him and his family stability that he wasn’t ready to let go of. With kids learning from home, or going back to school for the first time in 16 months and the general instability of the world, I understood his personal need. I wasn’t ready to lose him as an employee, so I made the decision to extend work from home indefinitely for this artist and other members of our core in-house team.

However, some of our core team members, like our animatic and finishing editors, still need to come into our studio every day. Their work is more interactive and collaborative, which makes them less productive working independently. But for any employee able to stay productive in the work from home environment, I’m happy to let them have the work-life balance they need.

How has it changed your view on working hours and what will you do to implement that?

The work-life balance conversation has heated up since the pandemic changed our fundamental lives and work. Businesses need a happy, mentally balanced workforce to thrive. We need to find ways to not only help our businesses thrive, but also our stakeholders, employees and partners.

Speaking personally, one of the most soul-sucking experiences of my lifetime is battling through traffic to get from one side of Los Angeles to the other. Therefore, I am hesitant to ask people to do that. After missing 10 years of my kids’ lives working too many hours, I’m acutely aware of overworking people. It’s simple for me. When it comes to work that needs to get done, it has nothing to do with hours. If we do our work well and we finish early, we go home. If we’re in the middle of a big delivery and we have to stay late, we stay late.

Adopting this approach to work hours is even more important with our younger employees. They want to be engaged by their work, and sitting around for the sake of being on the clock disengages them. To sum it up, I’m taking a more empathetic approach to working hours.

Do you believe in flexible working and if so, how do you define it?

I believe in getting work done in the most effective way possible, period. Here’s what I mean: When I first took my creative studio hybrid, one of our best in-house artists decided he wanted to join our remote workforce instead of driving into our studio every day. He wanted to work from home. This artist was at the top of our in-house pay scale, earning a healthy weekly rate working at our studio every day. He was worth the expense because of the creative quality of his work and his output.

By contrast, our remote artists are paid by the job, not by the day, so giving up the stability of a big, weekly paycheck was a gamble for this artist. But his gamble paid off, exponentially. By working from home, this artist tripled his weekly pay, compared to his previous weekly paycheck.

One of my business managers asked me why I was paying that artist three times what I had paid him before. I explained that he is doing great work, ahead of schedule, for the budget that we could afford. I saw this as a win for our creative studio and the artist. Good for him. Good for us. We got great work done, on time, on budget. We didn’t dictate how and when the artist was going to do the work. That’s how I define flexible working.

What has been the biggest challenge about remote working?

Unquestionably, the biggest challenge about remote working is workflow. I’m talking about working at scale, not one-offs. Anyone can use a freelancer site to find an artist and get a job done. What people don’t realize is how much work that entails. You start by sourcing talent, scheduling calls, explaining jobs, emailing links and sharing assets. Then you move onto managing files, searching emails, reviewing work and communicating feedback over multiple channels. Now, multiply that times 10, 20, 30 or even 100 jobs and it’s easy to see the complexity of remote work at scale.

This is the reason I developed a system to automate remote creative workflow 10 years ago. I wanted to take my creative studio hybrid, but quickly realized that it was next to impossible to manage workflow at scale. Further, there were no off-the-shelf solutions that helped. I had to create my own workflow to automate every step of the process, from pairing the right artists with the right jobs to seamlessly receiving their final deliverables. On any given day, we have dozens of artists creating digital assets, and we work on auto pilot. Without a system to automate workflow, remote creative work at scale will be a challenge.

If you could change one thing only about how the industry works—whether about the office, working patterns or anything—what would it be and why?

The one thing I would change about the industry is shifting the emphasis to preparation. For example, by being wildly creative at the beginning of the project, not in the middle or at the end, you will get the best work done. Too many creative directors try to put their stamp on work in the middle, or even at the end of the project. This only slows down the work and waters down the end product, because it takes time and effort away from executing a creative idea.

The better approach is to be wildly creative at the beginning of the project, write rock-solid briefs that will inspire artists to give you their best work, automate their workflow, then let them do the work and hope they exceed your expectations. This is the formula I’ve found most successful. I would like to see the industry learn how to do a better job of asking artists for what they want and then letting them do their best work, because it benefits everyone in the process, not to mention the product.

How do you plan to do this?

First, I have written The Hybrid Creative Playbook to help educate creative stakeholders at global companies on how to succeed doing hybrid creative work at scale. Second, I am consulting creative stakeholders at global companies on how to implement the concepts in my playbook, within their organizations. Third, I am offering a digital asset creation service that lets global companies instantly become hybrid, without any learning curve.

Republished from Adweek