Inside the Reopening Plans at The VIA Agency in Portland, Maine

Changes include an upgraded HVAC system

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 Leeann Leahy, CEO of The VIA Agency in Portland, Maine.

What's your broad plan for reopening the agency? 

Maine is opening up now, and many businesses are heading back to their offices on June 1. We are taking a "wait and see" approach. We have been operating pretty well virtually, so we are not in a rush to get back (as much as we love our beautiful building!). So we are going to give other companies who can't perform well virtually the pathway to go back first. 

Having said that, starting in early July, we are likely going to start holding some small meetings in the office ... things that are just better in person. Like: creative concepting, internal reviews and discussions about creative work, and framing out the story of a deck. These tasks are OK when we do them virtually, but we do think they are optimized when we can be together. So, rather than just move bodies around because we can, we are going to take a purposeful approach to going back first for those parts of our work that will most benefit.

Having said that, every move is entirely voluntary, and any associate who wishes to keep working from home may do so and continue to participate through Zoom and other platforms. Ultimately, when we are all back in whatever form that takes, we will broaden our work-from-home policy so associates have flexibility. Listening to what employees need and what suits the business is our primary goal, rather than just filling seats again.

What specific precautions are you taking?

So many. We have optimized our HVAC system so it is a clean filtration system. It will circulate fresh air throughout the building all day and night. We, of course, have purchased masks, gloves, sanitizer (both surface and hand) and wipes ... all sourced as much as possible from local businesses. We are shifting seating around so every associate has a safe and comfortable workspace. We are mounting touchless hand-sanitizer dispensers throughout the building and in high traffic areas (by bathrooms and printers). 

We will have touchless thermometers available on site, but we are creating a "check-in app" that will ask associates to check their own temperature and other symptoms daily and confirm with the system that they are healthy. We are changing the flow of traffic in the building and making certain hallways and staircases one way. Luckily, we don't have to access an elevator to get to most of our offices, but for anyone who does choose to use our elevator, we are implementing a "one rider" policy. We are changing out our keypad entry to card pass so that there are less points of contact and we are using one area for entering the building and a different two for exiting. We will also be renovating our bathrooms so everything is touchless and incorporating additional cleaning cycles throughout the day. 

If you have any other ideas, send them our way!

How much of your staff will keep working remotely?

According to our survey, we have about 9-11 percent of employees who will not return until we have a widely distributed vaccine. Either they are immunocompromised, they are a caretaker, or they are just concerned—we will honor their needs. But we have heard from our employees that the great majority want to get back to work in some capacity, as long as it is safe to do so, and we fully expect that in the future everyone will work from home one or two days a week depending on their role and business needs.

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?

I think it is amazing what we have done over the last few months as an industry. At VIA we have done full in shoots for at least three clients. Sure, they don't have 50 people on set or craft services, but we have casted, propped, lit and shot work. So the lessons of the last few months will carry forward in some capacity. As production opens up and we are given even more flexibility, we will also be required to find more efficiency in the process.

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

I think the industry will have to understand what clients have been asking for a very long time ... leaner more efficient teams and processes. At VIA, we made this shift four years ago to a flat organization arranged as client PODs where there is no account management gatekeeper, and certainly no hierarchy getting in the way of getting great work done. It has served VIA well in this pandemic and it will serve the industry well to get on board with the idea that the right people collaborating to get to great work is better than more people.

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

We, as many agencies, have found a great deal of empathy and patience for one another in this time, and I certainly hope that we bring that forward with us. We have a richer, fuller understanding of the lives of our co-workers, and it makes us better teammates. The same is true of clients. We have had the joy of meeting their kids and dogs and seeing their homes. More than a distraction from a Zoom call, these are the reminders that we are humans in a human business and that is a wonderful gift that is not to be squandered.

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

Zoom, but you already knew that. I would also say Miro has been great, Google Docs have gotten an even greater workout than they did in the past, and the good old-fashioned phone call came back in fashion. Also, nature has been a great inspiration to us all and I hope we use that even more going forward.

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 asking for all sorts of work depending on their situation. We are very lucky that many of our clients' businesses have been considered essential during this time and so we have continued to help them support us all throughout the quarantine. Now we are listening to the consumer for where to go next with each brand. And consumers' needs and expectations for brands and how they behave are changing. We have to be attuned to that and help our clients go beyond their advertising to really live all those brand purposes we've been crafting for the last few years. Those who do will be best served in the marketplace.

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

I actually think that while it will be very tough for the industry for the next year, now is the time for an enormous burst of creativity. I am excited to see what independent agencies pop up now that startup costs are revealed to be lower. I am excited for brands stepping beyond the data and reaching out to consumers' hearts, and I am excited for the future of VIA.

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards and the founding editor of Muse by Clio.

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