#WFH Diaries: Vivian Yong and Ian Toombs of Wieden + Kennedy Shanghai

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt lives across the globe, we're checking in with creative people to see how they're coping. Here's an update from Vivian Yong and Ian Toombs, executive creative directors at Wieden + Kennedy Shanghai—who actually returned to the office two weeks ago, as the outbreak in China happened much earlier than in other parts of the world.

Give us one-line bios of yourselves.

Vivian Wong: ECD of Wieden + Kennedy Shanghai, Chinese copy-based, originally from Hong Kong, moved to Shanghai eight years ago.

Ian Toombs: ECD of Wieden + Kennedy Shanghai, from Cincinnati, Ohio, always up for adventure and dedicated to creating an environment where people can make the best work of their lives in China.

Where are you living right now, and who's with you?

Vivian: In an apartment in Shanghai with my husband and two nosy cats. 

Ian: I'm in Shanghai with my wife Frida, our 5-month-old daughter Isabella Sofia, and dog Manolo, who eats anything and everything at all times.

What's your work situation like at the moment?

Vivian: The outbreak happened here in January, so our experience is three months ahead of the rest of the world. The situation here has vastly improved and our office opened two weeks ago. So there is light at the end of the tunnel! The new challenge, however, is working full days wearing a mask, as it is required by law to wear one when you go out. It's quite uncomfortable, so we are encouraging everyone to go home at 5.30 p.m. sharp.

When you meet people "mask to mask," you can't tell if they're happy or sad or utterly annoyed by you. That inspired our team to initiate the "You Can't Mask a Smile" project, where we photographed our people and swapped their smiles on top of each other's protective masks. We hope to bring smiles back to everyone. ;D 

Ian: COVID-19 hit China three months before the rest of the world, so to be honest, we're getting back to business. We reopened the office two weeks ago, but we're all wearing protective masks every day as required by law. We created "You Can't Mask a Smile" to make our neighborhood smile. :)))))

Describe your socializing strategy.

Vivian: I make sure everyone turns on the video camera in Zoom so we can feel each other. It heals cabin fever! I felt an endorphin rush when I saw my colleagues' faces on my first Zoom call after the lockdown. And I consider myself as an introvert.

Ian: Having meetings "mask to mask" instead of "face to face" is our running joke. But outside of work, with the rest of the world quarantined, I've had fun organizing global friend reunions. Last week I video chatted for three hours with the six dudes that I hiked the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal with four years ago, and it was awesome.

How are you dealing with childcare, if applicable?

Vivian: I don't have kids, so childcare is not an issue. Phew! But my cats are spying and interrupting all my Zoom meetings.

Ian: Our baby is just 5 months old, and my wife is a champion. The silver lining of the pandemic quarantine for my family was that is was like extended paternity leave. I was working at the same time, of course, but it allowed me to help out with the baby a lot.

What are you reading?

Vivian: The Old Man and the Sea. We have time for classics now, right?

Ian: Lincoln in the Bardo by the genius George Saunders. I've read every one of his books.

What are you watching?

Vivian: RuPaul's MasterClass on self-expression and authenticity, which is surprisingly philosophical and inspiring.

Ian: Curb Your Enthusiasm, every season, but in reverse order.

What are you listening to?

Vivian: A lot of Little Simz, Rhye and LCD Soundsystem. Also, sappy '80s-'90s Cantonese pop songs from Hong Kong, as I've missed home during this stressful time. 

Ian: This has been the best music-searching-playlist-making time OF MY LIFE. My friend Jeremy Cunningham's new jazz album The Weather Up There, Tame Impala, Destroyer, Danny Brown, Kaytranada, anything and everything by the Danish band GENTS.

How are you staying fit?

Vivian: Right after the lockdown started, I swore to myself that I wasn't going to lose shape when we finally got out of the cave, so I was swinging kettlebells and doing burpees every day. Occasionally I jog on the streets, also with a mask. At first it felt horrible. All I could hear was my muffled breathing sound. But then I imagined myself doing an astronaut training program and this was practice for me living on Mars one day. Then it became fun.

Ian: Next question, please. 😂

Have you taken up a hobby?

Vivian: Cooking. I was hopelessly bad at cooking and therefore hated it. But before food delivery fully resumed, I had no choice. I deliberately searched for the most straightforward healthy menus online. Now I am proud of feeding myself properly during the lockdown.

Ian: Learning to be the best father I can for tiny Isabella. :)))

Any tips for getting necessities?

Vivian: Online shopping and delivery quickly resumed in China, so it isn't difficult for us. What's great is that the delivery platforms here allow you to tip their staff, which makes it easy for us to thank those who take a risk to take care of us. 

Best work email you got since all this started.

Vivian: We were the first office to experience lockdown in the W+K network. One day the India office made us a funny video to cheer us up, and that triggered a domino effect of cheerful videos across all offices, each one more ridiculous than the previous. We felt so spoiled that day.

Ian: When COVID-19 broke out in China, the global W+K offices sent us videos to cheer us up and they were wonderful. When the virus spread, we sent videos back. It made the network feel warm and connected.

An aha! moment since all this started.

Vivian: I grew up in Hong Kong, an East-meet-West cultural melting pot and studied cultural studies in London, so I was always interested in cultural differences across regions. But during this pandemic I again witnessed the tremendous difference between the Eastern and Western mindsets. Almost every single step the West and the East have taken to fight the virus is different. It gave me new insight into working with the diverse talent in our office, and helping both Western and local brands in China.

Ian: Holy shit!!!! We can still make great creative work when the office is closed and everyone is working remotely using Google Slides, Zoom and AirPods?? I never thought I'd type that.

What's your theory on how this is going to play out?

Vivian: Until the invention of a vaccine we will continue to live under threat, which means we will have to learn to adapt to the new normalcy of life. We will continue to limit social interaction. We have to work flexibly. We will spend more time at home and therefore treasure our living space even more than ever. And these changes could be permanent. I believe we'll live differently in the future.

Ian: China is three months into the future of this pandemic. Things here have resumed—business, brunch, walks in the park. But my cautious side thinks there will be second waves. There's light at the end of the tunnel, but we need to embrace it with precaution and an extra-large spoonful of human decency and understanding.

See the full #WFH Diaries series here.

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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