Inside Atlanta Agency Dagger's Three-Phase Reopening Plan

Outlined by svp of operations Missy Taylor

Is your agency or company managing a reopening process? We'd like to hear from you about what your plans are.

With all 50 states beginning to ease restrictions on at-work activities for non-essential businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic, Muse is checking in with creative companies to hear about their reopening plans.

Today, we speak with Missy Taylor, senior vice president of operations at Dagger in Atlanta.

What's your broad plan for reopening the agency? 

At Dagger, we have the ability to work effectively in a remote capacity, which has given us the flexibility to take a slower, phased approach to reopening the office. Based on what we currently know about Covid-19 and the recommended precautions around it, we currently have three phases planned:

Since video production is such an essential part of our business, Phase 1 is to resume in-person shoots, starting June 1. Phase 2 will be when we reopen the office for a small portion of our team—we're estimating for some time between Independence Day and Labor Day. Phase 3 will be when reopen the office to more of our employees, although that start date is yet to be determined. We want to get an idea first of how well the team adapts to the new policies so we can make any necessary adjustments before we bring more people in—and even then, our aim is to avoid having the office be unnecessarily full.

What specific precautions are you taking?

We've spent a lot of time researching safety precautions and guidelines for employees to follow, and we've put in an enormous amount of effort to procure the supplies we need in order to reopen with confidence. We're very fortunate to be in a position to do so.

We're providing everyone at Dagger with a few things: two reusable Dagger-branded face masks, a travel-size bottle of hand sanitizer, and a thermometer for daily temperature checks which will be mandatory for all employees entering the office. Hand sanitizing stations will be in dozens of places around the office, and every employee will be given a small reference map so they'll know where the nearest station is.

We're approaching cleaning and disinfection from every angle possible: Our office will undergo nightly disinfectant fogging, hand-washing dishes will be prohibited (dishwasher only!), deliveries will be sanitized with a UV light before they're brought through our doors, and we'll have air purifiers in the conference rooms.

We're also taking steps to reduce the amount of common touch points around the office. A Belgian 3-D printing company called Materialise did a very good deed for the world and publicly released their design files for hands-free door handle attachments, which our senior 3-D motion designer, Daniel Barnes, 3-D printed for us to install on every door handle.

We're also focusing on other common touch points: We're removing the dry erase markers from each meeting room and providing every employee with their own individual set, putting away all of our shared lounge furniture, and disabling any touch screens around our space.

The most challenging thing we've had to consider is physical distancing. We have an open seating layout, and there are multiple seats per table, so we aren't exactly able to move our desks into different spots to create more space. Our plan is to update the seating chart to move people around and utilize the few empty seats we have, and once we enter Phase 2 of our reentry plan and partially reopen, everyone will have an open seat on both sides of their desk in order to give them six feet of space.

The rest of our policies around physical distancing are much more straightforward: reduced seating capacity in conference rooms, one-way routes for each door and our hallways, and if we order catering, it will be grab-and-go only (no buffet lines). We also will not be allowing visitors into our office, which we believe has an additional benefit: If an employee wakes up with the sniffles but has a client coming into the office, more times than not, they will force themselves to get out of bed and drive into work. If we don't allow visitors, then people will be less likely to put that pressure on themselves and will stay home until they feel better.

Of course, we'll post signs all over the place with the new policies and requirements for entering. It's a lot for people to remember without any reminders!

Do you expect a portion of staff to keep working remotely?

Definitely. Phase 2 of our plan will start with any in-office work happening on a volunteer basis and will be limited to a maximum of 25 percent capacity. This will allow us to accommodate those who either won't be able to come back to the office for a variety of reasons or won't be comfortable coming back as soon as we reopen our space.

There's constantly new information about Covid-19, so it's hard to say exactly what Dagger's Phase 3 will look like. Even if we get to a point where the infection rate is low enough for the CDC to remove physical distancing guidelines, I don't think Dagger would jump in head first. We'll continue to implement gradual processes simply so we can err on the side of caution and avoid recklessness.

When do you expect production to open up that will allow you to shoot again? Will it look a lot different than it used to?

In-person productions can resume in Dagger's in-house studio starting June 1. We have implemented a number of extra safety precautions specific to shoots to ensure the health and safety of our team, crew, talent and clients. We're following AICP guidelines closely, but at a high-level here's what we'll be doing:

• Masks will be required for all in attendance, except for OCP, which will be provided by Dagger.
• An on-set medic will take the temperatures of everyone involved before and during the shoot.
• We'll increase the quantity of cleaning supplies and frequency of cleaning.
• All attendees will be required to read, fill out, and sign a pre-shoot screening document. 
• All pre-production will be conducted virtually, including digital pre-production books for the cast and crew.
• Remote video access will be provided for clients or those that aren't needed in person to limit on-set attendance.
• Hair and makeup artists will be encouraged to video chat with on-screen talent to offer remote direction in lieu of close, physical contact. 
• We'll map out and enforce dedicated department work zones to maintain six-foot distancing guidelines. 
• Call times for all talent and production crew will be staggered. 
• Grab-and-go meals will be available as necessary, avoiding buffet-style catering.
• Health policy signs will be posted amply around the studio and other work spaces. 

These new precautions will definitely change how shoots are run, but our team is confident that the end result will not suffer.

What other limitations will the agency have to deal with that didn't exist pre-pandemic?

We anticipate limitations related to business travel, collaboration and networking. However, we have yet to see the impact of working in a post-quarantine, present-pandemic environment on our team's mental health. I expect many people will have some levels of increased anxiety or stress in coming back to the office. We are planning ways to best support our team with this in mind and will be providing a subscription to a meditation app, resurfacing a list of our healthcare provider's in-network counseling options, and providing flexible work schedules to allow for appointments.

What have you learned from WFH that you'll retain as an agency going forward? 

Our new ways-of-working and communication methods in quarantine have actually spurred quite a lot of innovation from our team, but five learnings rise to the top. 

Video meetings are 100 percent better than phone meetings. Joining a meeting with video is one of our quarantine guidelines and has been instrumental in keeping our team connected. Similarly, "quaranteaming" is a program we implemented when WFH started: The entire agency gets together in small groups of four to five and spends 30 minutes on a Google Meet socially chatting. Remote coaching during quarantine has also proven to be very impactful, leading us to include coaching integration as part of our Q2 goals.

We've also prioritized taking a break in the middle of the work day. Making room in our WFH day for lunch, going outside, taking care of kids, etc., has made the collective group more productive. It has also added a much-needed balance to an everything-at-home routine.

Finally, we've discovered that remote productions really do work! We directed our first fully remote shoot in quarantine and it was a huge success. The processes and protocols we implemented are certainly some that we'll carry with us as we move forward.

Have any particular processes, tools, platforms or services proven useful for the agency during quarantine?

We can't live without Google Meet and Slack. We weren't an avid video-call culture prior to March 13 (the beginning of quarantine for Dagger), but now every meeting is a video meeting. We even conducted our annual "Daglympics" (think an old-school field day) remotely via Google Meet. 

Slack has also been, and continues to be, the central hub for all internal communication at Dagger. Our organized channel list and direct messaging guidelines make communicating with other Dags simple and frictionless. We even use Slack to celebrate each other at the end of each week in a routine we call Pupdates. Pre-pandemic we would pass a beach ball around the circle, calling out individuals that we were proud of. We now pass the virtual beach ball in our "Pupdates" Slack channel and it's still one of the most positive and impactful "meetings" we have at Dagger each week.

Broadly speaking, what kind of work are your clients asking for right now, and how will returning to the office help you deliver it?

Clients are always needing new content to keep up with the pace of remaining relevant in a modern advertising landscape. Specifically, they are looking for video content where they can regain some of the momentum lost in the face of Covid-19. Thus far, we've been customizing appropriate stock assets, employing animation techniques and holding virtual shoots. All have worked well, but none are quite as effective considering the deeper level of direction when crafting ourselves. Once we are back open, we'll host scaled-down productions in our in-house studio, where we can capture original footage to create that deeply crafted content. The process will require a bit more time and effort but will result in the same high-quality work our clients have come to rely on and expect. 

Where do you see the industry and its creative output in 6-12 months? 

While we are acutely aware of the disruption our industry faces right now, and will continue to face as more and more of the impact of Covid-19 comes to light, the pandemic is spurring a new kind of creativity in our industry. It goes beyond simply being mindful of the climate and consumer mindsets. It affects production and how we make things. It affects 360-degree campaigns and the extensions of concepts that may have made sense three months ago but no longer do. For advertisers, the pandemic has necessitated a kind of inventiveness that's going to change the way we think about things—maybe permanently. 

In this industry we're used to change happening at a somewhat gradual pace, but now we've gotten a taste of change that happens all at once. In the next six to 12 months, we're going to see the output of that adaptation. Creative output will push boundaries, give goosebumps and make us say "wow." 

Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd was editor in chief of the Clio Awards and editor of Muse by Clio from 2018 to 2023.

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