Eight years ago, when we started Contrast DesignWorks, the playbook was pretty straightforward: if you wanted to be considered a “real” agency, you needed an office. It could be big and fancy. It could be small and quirky. But you had to have a front door and your name on it.
Now, being an integrated marketing agency located in the Bay Area added its share of challenges, mainly: commuting and costs.
We had team members in San Francisco who, if you asked them, would tell you they’d never heard of anything south of SFO. And, there were South Bay team members who would have given up their firstborn child if it meant not commuting into SF and then paying $30/day for parking.
Our solution? Spaces in both locations. Our San Francisco office quickly became home to most of our design team. It was a point of inspiration (and beef sticks from the well-stocked kitchen) where the city’s energy infused itself into our work. The city was a great spot to recruit and develop talent, too.
Our South Bay office evolved into a hub for our client services and copywriting teams. The prime location gave us access to walkable group lunches and afternoon team workouts.
To bridge any gap between the offices, events for the entire agency became an opportunity for each group to showcase the gifts of their areas – cable car rides and late night karaoke sessions in SF and sunny lunchtime picnics in idyllic Los Altos. Our offices were exactly like we had always imagined. The universe was in harmony.
And then, COVID.
Looking back, it seems like overnight we went from rumors of toilet paper hoarding and wondering why traffic on the freeway was so light, to being glued to Zoom in our t-shirts and sweats. Companies everywhere were forced to adapt quickly. There was no playbook for this.
We made a concerted effort to maintain team spirit with everything from daily plank sessions to weekly virtual happy hours but the world was changing. With no immediate end to the pandemic (and remote work) in sight, some team members (myself included) were interested in moving out of the Bay Area.
Like others, our new reality was very expensive and very empty office spaces. On top of that, client work slowing as the economy took a downturn was <insert sad trombone sound effect here>. With everyone working from home, our monthly lease payments on the offices we so loved felt like an anchor dragging us down.
At CDW, we pride ourselves on being nimble for our clients. As their needs change, we can quickly adapt to help them. We laughed at the irony when we realized our office space solution was to be nimble for ourselves.
First on the chopping block was the SF office. (Sorry, San Francisco. We still love you.) Next we consolidated at a new space in Los Altos that would have room for everyone. COVID was coming under control and we could all go back to normal, right? We’re optimists after all.
It didn’t take long to realize, there was no more “normal.”
The new space was significantly underutilized. We had to face the reality that the team had grown accustomed to (and honestly, really good at) working remotely and there just wasn’t the desire to come into an office regularly.
Pivot again. A co-working space! A never-ending supply of flavored seltzers and snacks was a welcome refresher. Just enough room for the few who were jonesing to get out of the house on a daily basis plus room to flex for our newly minted Third Thursdays—one planned day a month when everyone made a point to come into the office. We started to regain our stride.
As a creative agency, it’s hard to replace the energy of being in the same room together. Whether it’s feeding off of each other’s ideas, giving feedback, or just hearing a teammate laugh, we started to remember the parts about working together in-person that were such a key element of our culture.
And then the building owner terminated the lease.
So, here we are. It’s a chance to reinvent and reinvigorate ourselves again. Another office space? And if so, where? What size? Co-working? Or, back to virtual with once-a-month in-person meetings in a rented space? Will team members commute from the East Bay? Is the rent too expensive? Is this the right location? What do we really need to do great work?
If you’ve seen the news, the answer for many Bay Area companies is to force everyone back to the office. Maybe that’s the right answer for them. But being in this business means we’re always looking for new, better, innovative, creative solutions to business challenges. And there’s no question we plan to approach this challenge in the same way.
How many times do you get the chance to reinvent how you work? We’re not letting this one pass us by. We’re focused on creating a new environment where our team’s magic thrives. If that comes in the form of four walls and a roof—great. If it means we buy a couple RVs and drive around California brainstorming in the back and doing client presentations from rest stops? We’re game for that too.
As long as our next office—physical or not—can foster growth and exploration, provide a healthy work-life balance, and build a deep sense of belonging, then we’re winning.
So stay tuned for updates on where we land next. And if you have a lead on a great space, hit us up!
Grady Baker is a Founding Partner, and Head of Strategy and Operations at Contrast DesignWorks. He’s also starting to get tired of packing moving boxes.