Inside The Refinery's New Offices in Sherman Oaks, California

Moving during a pandemic created new opportunities

Finding a new creative home is never easy. I remember the first days of The Refinery, when we worked out of the home of one of the owners. Four art directors in a spare bedroom. Production and accounting in the garage. "How long are we going to be here?" we all asked. One of the owners answered, "Just a couple months." It was closer to eight.

Yes, finding a new creative home is never easy. And now, 14 years after that time in a house, it's even harder, working as we are through a global pandemic. What happens when all your plans for a new space are thrown into question amid ever-changing safety guidelines? You identify opportunities and find solutions. It's what creative agencies like ours excel at.

Let's jump back a year. Our agency had grown into a family of 150 people partnering with clients on digital, AV, and print deliverables. In print, our number of finishes put us in the top three agencies in the entertainment space. Our AV team was on fire, having just completed the teaser trailer and TV campaign for Ford v Ferrari. And our digital team had gained a reputation as best-in-class, largely from the cutting-edge work we'd been doing for Disney. In 2019, our needs were clear: We were out of space. Our search landed a new location with great potential, although at times it seemed potential was all it had, since it offered 44,000 square feet of open space in the Courtyard Building at the Sherman Oaks Galleria.

The joy of creating a custom space out of a mostly blank slate can't be understated. Floorplans had just been approved in February, when the threat of Covid-19 in the U.S. grew greater and greater. Since the move was scheduled for July, our biggest concern at the time was: If we leave our then-current home in the U.S. Bank Building, would we ever return? The answer, of course, was no. 

Today, as the transition away from "work from home" becomes a slow reality, the question is: Would it be better to retrofit an existing office to meet Covid safety requirements ... or adjust the design of a new building to accommodate the new normal? While we were forced into the latter, we feel its challenges provided greater solutions. 

Video conferencing is not going away.

I often think we're all a little bit Zoomed out. I know I am, especially on days when I jump from one virtual meeting to the next. But the lockdown has shown us that in moderation, great things can happen over a video conference, and the smart office won't rush to remove it from our work lives. 

The Refinery solution to remote collaboration: 

Before any walls went up, we upgraded our high-speed data backbone to allow faster creative exchange among our many artists' offices, as well as extending this to our clients with secure collaborative hardware and software solutions.

Social gathering spaces don't jibe with physical distancing.

It was important to us to create pockets of space where our family of employees could gather, in pairs or in larger teams. Some of these ideas, like a screening room and a gallery space to feature employee personal work, could be postponed. But when many parts of this vision of work community came in conflict with safe physical distancing, we knew we needed a mix of flexible rollout solutions with a deeper structural rethink.

The Refinery solution to shared spaces: 

We doubled the width of our main hallways to allow for better bi-directional traffic flow. When it becomes safe to congregate again, these large hallways can accommodate two-top cocktail tables for quick meetings in passing or a casual lunch with a co-worker. We deleted offices to expand our main kitchen. This allows more people to go through the kitchen without crowding others. And we removed an entire wall dividing our photo/video studio from the kitchen. We replaced this wall with retractable drapes, including black-out fabric and seamless cloth. Not only did we avoid people pinch-points, we ended up expanding our shooting footprint. 

End of the open office?

Maybe you've seen the articles proclaiming the end of the open-office floorplan? We think there's still value in more open, collaborative spaces. Just not today when safety-minded employees value separation.

The Refinery solution to open office spaces: 

We started with an idea to take what was originally designed for open workspaces and create what we call "skylight offices"—small, individual workstations with plexi dividers and angled acoustic panels overhead. However, since the transition back to the office will be slow, and we won't be at full capacity for a while, we scrapped that for a better, more flexible plan: 

We created a wide distribution map that placed the few creatives returning first as far apart as possible. This meant art directors and motion artists might end up in edit bays and other isolated producer offices. Which meant we had to break, or at least bend, the idea of structuring the floorplan into team areas. 

This team blending gets to a foundational reason for the move: For the first time in our company history, our entire team will be together in one space, on one floor. We have found great success recently, especially in our digital and 360 offerings, in having separate groups work together in a tighter integrated capacity. These days, we can't be physically closer together, but as a team we do feel closer than ever. 

No one could have predicted the challenges we would have to surmount in assembling the new Refinery office at the Sherman Oaks Galleria. Sure, we will have a new temperature-check station at the entrance and automatic hand sanitizers everywhere. Additionally, the new Covid-era restrictions forced us to rethink key design elements in both structure and infrastructure of our new home.

In fact, this type of design challenge is what we were made for. What are we if not an agency that rises to the creative challenge? And the fruit of our efforts is an office that affords advantages few others do, both facilitating creative production and maximizing the safety of its occupants. Of this we are enormously proud.

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Jim Pascoe
Jim Pascoe is creative director at The Refinery.

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