Gemma Butler and Gavin Gordon-Rogers are a creative team who have worked together for 20 years, winning just about every award worth winning along the way. In the latest installment of our Today’s Office series charting the new world of work, the couple tells us how they were ahead of the curve when they traded London and long commutes for the seaside town of North Berwick.
It turns out that we’d been unwittingly preparing for the Covid-19 pandemic since mid-2017. When Gem and I set up World Headquarters three-and-a-half years ago, we knew we wanted to work from home. What we didn’t know was that everyone else would soon be doing the same, and not out of choice.
We’ve been video calling at work for years. We don’t tend to refer to them as Zoom calls because we use many different platforms. One of our favorites is whereby.com, which is free, user-friendly, reliable, and doesn’t require any software installation
It’s been somewhat disheartening to read the constant stream of tweets and articles about ‘Zoom fatigue’ over the past year. While the situation is unfortunate, don’t forget that the very existence of video calling is something magical. We’re lucky to have it and be in an age where we can still have some connection to one another.
One of our earliest and most memorable video calls was about 15 years ago. At the time we were running the creative department at Agency Republic, a digital boutique in London. We met and hired a brilliant Brazilian designer over Skype. Virtual high five to seal the deal. He turned up at the office a month later. We felt guilty every time it rained, though he loved the variety of weather. Over this past year, I’ve been wondering if he really needed to be in London at all.
More recently, one of our projects involved video calls with an international team based in Majorca, Norway, and Sri Lanka. No problems. OK, the wifi was a bit patchy in Sri Lanka, but then again so are some of the calls we have with friends in London who are on Virgin fiber.
On projects with The Liberty Guild, which we have been working with since 2018, we work with designers in South Africa and project managers in Portugal. Our client service director and producer are down south. Our composer is 25 miles west in Edinburgh and the animators are in Birmingham.
It doesn’t really matter where they are. That’s the beauty of it. And that’s the whole point of World Headquarters. Our megacorp-styled, tongue-in-cheek name was inspired partly by our headcount of two and partly because we wholeheartedly embrace the notion of working from anywhere. But it’s not just a notion anymore.
Our work spans TV, print, radio, social, online, offline, experiential, and internal comms. Flexible? You could say we’re creative contortionists. We work into agencies and with clients directly. And somewhere in between, we work with The Liberty Guild.
The Liberty Guild is a perfect partner for us because it is genuinely forward-thinking in regard to the innovative model it presents and in regard to its remote-working ethos. The Liberty Guild doesn't have a big office and it certainly doesn’t expect us to turn up at it. As we’ve said before, working with The Liberty Guild is like working at one of the best agencies in town without having to be in town.
When we first started, some of the reactions from certain London agencies were disconcertingly blunt. ‘Why would we work with you if you’re not in London’, or words to that effect. As everyone is now discovering, remote working takes trust. You have to be brave. You have to be prepared to let people get on and do their thing without hovering over their shoulders or judging their performance and dedication by how late they stay at the office.
We work from a small home office with room for two standing desks, a dog basket, a load of bookshelves and pictures on the wall, and not much else. There’s always music playing.
The view from our window isn’t exactly inspiring – a trampoline, telephone wires, and other people's houses. But just behind those houses, less than a minute away, is the beach, the Firth of Forth, Bass Rock, and the ever-present sound of the waves.
It’s 3 o’clock now. Our youngest will be home from school soon. One of us will log off and spend some time with her. Maybe play football with the dog, go surfing (badly), have a cycle ride, or draw together.
Our working life is inextricably intertwined with home life. There is no routine. We prioritize on the fly. This means that, if we choose to, we can spend a few days doing ‘family stuff’ or ‘house stuff’ (though regrettably rarely ‘financial stuff’) and then immerse ourselves in a project for the next few days solid, working into the early hours if needs be.
There are things we miss about agency life, no question. The joyful team spirit, the unexpected inspirations shared around the chat, the wonderful oddballs, the ping-pong. The mass hangovers.
One thing we don’t much miss is the commute. How much time is wasted, how much collective stress is endured to achieve the daily commute? How much carbon pumped out? And honestly, how efficiently do people work once they get into the office anyway?
We love the way we can juggle our time. It makes work life and home life more rewarding. As you get older, this is something you learn to value more and more. See the late Linds Redding’s The Overnight Test for a brutally honest account of that.
Many of us tend to be naturals when it comes to rationalizing our current situation. ‘My 2-hour daily commute is worth it because it’s a good job and I can use the time to read’ used to be one of mine. It’s not until you find yourself in a radically different scenario that you can properly analyze what your prior daily life experience actually consisted of. And whether it made you happy.
A daily 2-hour commute adds up fast. It’s around 20 whole days a year. Just traveling. To get somewhere you don’t always/necessarily/particularly (delete as appropriate) need to be.
You don’t have to be in the same room to see the whites of someone’s eyes. To discuss and debate. To have a laugh. To form new friendships and strong bonds of trust. Or even to deliver intricate creative work requiring multiple rounds of development, revision and fine-tuning.
Perhaps some of those preconceptions and prejudices against remote working are finally starting to crumble. At World Headquarters, we’re doing what we can to help crowbar those sticky fuckers off.
Meanwhile, if you need us, just call. We’ll be on the beach, thinking.