Now that small business owners are well acquainted with the challenges of pandemic living and working, how can they better prepare for the uncertainty of 2021? We talked to several creatives about what they are doing now to make the best of the year to come.
Diversify your offerings.
With so much change in the air, it’s a key time to think about how you can position yourself to better capitalize on the present moment.
The principals at events agency JWP, for instance, plan to continue to think outside of their traditional offerings as they head into 2021. “Instead of staying in the event-industry box, we’re constantly making lists of everything we’re capable of, taking lots of skills into different contexts,” says Mimi Eayrs, JWP’s global vice president. “We’re asking ourselves, how can we apply what we know to things people need right now?”
The desire to think bigger recently led global architecture and design firm HKS Architects to acquire D2 Architecture, a firm specializing in senior living. “The silver tsunami is real and the need for innovative design solutions for our aging population has never been greater,” says HKS principal Kirk Teske. “The addition of this senior living practice, considering its synergies with our residential, hospitality, and health care expertise, was a strategic move.”
Meanwhile, creativity strategist Natalie Nixon is looking into pivots of her own. She will bring more of her coaching online, offering group classes and new courses in staying creative during stressful times. “I’m going to create all sorts of fun, new, and interesting ways for people to get unstuck, and to identify the ways they can integrate creativity into their teams and to their companies,” she says.
Do work to get work.
The best way to get the business you want to get is to put yourself out there—even if it means volunteering your services. At the start of the pandemic, Chris Grimley, the founding principal of multidisciplinary design firm OverUnder, offered his team’s services pro bono to Boston city agencies to help them address new needs. That effort has taken the form of designing brochures and graphics for businesses and helping the city with a signage program. “That work is still ongoing and hopefully people will see it as a valuable contribution and understand that we do things slightly differently than a large corporate office—allowing us, at the same time, to look for new opportunities to bring work in,” Grimley says.
Research the future.
Embrace the changes that the future will continue to bring, and think about how you can make them a part of your design offering. “Pandemics have historically influenced the design of communities,” says HKS’s Teske. “To prepare, we’re investing in research and design, thinking toward solutions of the future.” For the firm, that exploration includes a deep dive into designing pandemic-resilient, multifamily living communities. “There will be subtle changes to residences as people anticipate working from home on a much more frequent basis,” he continues, “and changes to the workplace as we realize that work was never a place, but something we do.”
Lean in to flexible work.
“My ‘new normal’ requires embracing flexibility rather than a rigid structure,” says designer and business consultant Rio Hamilton. “2020, without warning, was about losing structure and security.”
As an employer, embracing flexibility means being conscious of your workers’ adapted needs. At JWP, company management practices “the opposite of holding too close,” says founder and CEO Josh Wood. “That is, we let people have some breathing room—we try to not over-schedule, encourage them to go do things, and not burn out by not working so much.”
Grimley’s plans to defeat Zoom fatigue at OverUnder include an attempt to decrease meeting lengths, holding them in increments that are less than 60 minutes. And at HKS, the firm will in 2021 launch a flexible work program, a deliberate effort to be more agile. “Since the start of the shutdown, we have been surveying our staff’s experience working from home while also studying the impact that this has had on the quality and efficiency of our services,” says Teske. “This will be a fundamental long-term shift that should make us more resilient for whatever comes next, while also improving the lives of our employees.”
Refurbish your home office.
If you haven’t already, elevate your home workspace so that it is up for all sorts of professional tasks. “‘What’s going on behind you’ is the new catchphrase, and books in the background are the new black,” says Hamilton. “Home offices and computer locations are changing as quickly as the technology.”
“One thing I changed is my home office, so that when I speak when I’m online, it’s inviting—it’s not cluttered,” says Nixon, who has invested in a ring light, webcam, and platform so she can stand while she’s speaking.
Wood and Eayrs of JWP suggest building unpredictability into your fiscal plans for 2021. “Our plan from a business-strategy standpoint is to keep expenses as low as possible still,” says Wood. “The first and second quarter of next year are going to be tough, and we want to retain as many people as we can, because we feel confident that the third and fourth quarters will be booming.”
The agency partners with vendors who can execute both virtual and in-person gatherings, in the event of last-minute changes, and keep timelines for decision making very tight. “We’ll continue to do our best to retain our talent, even if somebody might not be working as many hours as before, in order to have access to them if and when we have to scale up,” says Wood.
Level up your communication.
In 2021, Hamilton will put greater emphasis on digital communication, including email blasts. “My open rate has doubled for my showroom and manufacturing clients,” he says. “And in 2021, my communication strategy through these platforms will reinforce my relationships with long-term clients. I’m traveling less, but in this way my network will expand.”
Nixon will move more of her communication to collaborative conversations. “I went through a real aggressive share model to promote a book I released in April,” she says. “I reached out to colleagues, sometimes people on whom I have a ‘professional crush,’ and said, ‘There’s nothing like launching a book in the middle of a pandemic. Would you be interested in having a conversation about creativity?’”
She also made sure that the formats of those conversations would have wide appeal. “I really optimized for digital—not long, dragged-out webinars, but shorter conversations that emphasized the sharing of ideas and collaboration,” Nixon says. “It’s been a cool marketing opportunity for everyone involved.”
By Alyssa Giacobbe