(In Part 1 of this series, we take a look at why security in our industry is water-tight, and the infrastructure challenges presented by working from home. It shines a bright light on how incredibly many folks have adapted to the new ways our industry has been forced to operate. If you haven’t yet read it, you can do so here.)
For the VFX industry and its workers, the global Coronavirus pandemic has presented an incredible opportunity to step up, and prove we can do better. Just like Movie studios, VFX vendors are first-and-foremost a business. Successful business growth requires many things, but the underlying tone of it all is: a constant increase in productivity generates more profit, which generates expansion and more work, which then needs greater productivity, and so on.
Over the past few years, I’ve enjoyed reading about intelligent folks’ systems, and how they manage their time and energy for maximum output every day. One of the primary benefits of working from home is having more control over managing our own time. In this article, I’ll be sharing some tips on how I leverage this flexibility to be a more effective member of my team.
Eliminate unnecessary meetings.
The successful creation of VFX requires specialized teams of people with a collective vision to constantly get together and solve problems. While collaboration should certainly be encouraged, talking about doing rather than actually doing can become an easy trap to fall into, which only provides an illusion of progress. The biggest time sink throughout my days are meetings — while they’re held for important reasons, they’re often 10x too long or could be summarized in an email (and usually are, afterwards!). In an office environment, it’s so easy to collect a group of people into a meeting room for half an hour, but that time spent discussing anything is stopping you and your colleagues from actually producing work.
However, when working from home, you and your team can take the initiative to make the necessary meetings more efficient, and eliminate the rest. For example: before suggesting a video chat (meeting), ask yourself, “can these questions be answered in one reply from one or more people?” If your answer is yes, send the email. An eliminated meeting = more efficiency! If the answer is no, it’s a good sign that it’s time for a brief chat.
Before scheduling or attending any video call, be sure the agenda is clear — meetings generally fall off the rails because they’re held for non-specific reasons. If everyone can agree on what’s being talked about before it actually is, there’s a higher chance that everyone will come prepared, resulting in most meetings taking less than 15 minutes. But even remote meetings can get off track, or become long-winded; in this situation, there’s a huge benefit working from home. Rather than being stuck in a meeting room for an hour, you can simply mute your microphone, and continue to listen in on what people are saying as you continue working on other pressing tasks.
Schedule your time & eliminate distractions.
When you’re working in an office environment, it’s easy to be distracted by coworkers, whether welcome or not. Naturally, working from home means those particular distractions no longer exist, and you have extended stretches of focus to get things done. But, like everything, there has to be a balance. While you no longer have this distraction, you do have to make time for your coworkers professionally and socially — the benefit here is you’re now able to strategically schedule that time!
In an office, turning your head to talk to someone is quick and easy. However, working from home means more conscious communication is required, which results in a higher volume of emails and IM’s. Constantly refreshing your inbox and replying to every message urgently is a distraction, as your focus isn’t on your assigned tasks. Instead, set aside a short amount of time every morning & afternoon to batch-process your inbox. Keeping your entire focus on email less-often eliminates volume more quickly for the following reasons:
- Half of all emails become redundant when given time to breathe. The sender usually finds an answer on their own, or someone else is available to pitch in their two cents.
- Urgent emails often become less urgent as different sources of information come together.
- Truly urgent emails will turn into a meeting, so the team can find a quick solution to the problem, which you’ll see on your phone / computer as a calendar invite notification.
Speaking of notifications, if your computer has popups for every message on every platform, I advise you to turn them all off (except for the calendar, of course), as they’re designed to pull your attention away from the task at hand and onto something else!
Secondly, working from home brings the challenge of being in a place of comfort, surrounded by family & pets who will constantly contend for your attention. You’ve likely read this before, but it’s worth repeating as it’s truly important: Designate a “work” area in your home where you can close a door and remain undisturbed.
Our brains are genetically wired to recognize and reproduce patterns & habits, so even walking into your work room and seeing your work things primes your brain to do work! (We’ll touch on the mental health benefits of this further in Part 3, coming soon). Again, it’s not about ignoring your spouse, kids or dog — it’s about creating your own work / life balance so you have space for both focused, productive work, and spending undistracted time with your loved ones.
Make more use of your calendar & to do lists to focus your time.
99% of artists only use their calendar to remember when dailies are, or check if there is a meeting they need to attend. When working from home and managing your own time, it pays dividends to intentionally block out your week and plan what you hope to achieve.
Of course, Shotgun / FTrack exist for granular task scheduling, but blocking out focus time during your most productive hours of the day, your lunch break, calls with coworkers, etc. will give you a clear overview of how much time you have to complete your tasks, and how much time is being wasted every week. As an added bonus, a decent colleague will notice blocked time in your calendar and will have less opportunity to schedule unnecessary meetings!
Now that you’ve planned dedicated focus time, you have to make sure it’s used effectively. I use Dynalist religiously for dumping spontaneous ideas, organizing my scattered thoughts, and creating more space for my brain’s limited RAM. I find it’s useful to break down each shot into its individual pieces and create a plan on paper before diving into Nuke. A five-minute investment of forethought means you’re not having to constantly re-work your Nuke scripts as new problems arise. It also helps you quote accurate ETAs at a glance when your coordinator inevitably asks!
There is an opportunity in greater distance to manage your own time as you see fit. Meetings are more frequent and harder to run, so there’ll naturally be less important ones you can work through or skip. There are no co-workers around to spontaneously distract you, so you can make time in your day to talk with them whenever suits you. Lastly, you can choose when to respond to emails and instant messaging, and really focus your time on what our clients pay us for: creating amazing VFX.
If you manage your own time effectively, working from home means increased productivity. When you’re outputting more work, faster, your employer & your client will be happier. I believe if we can do this while respecting our strict NDAs, working from home / anywhere with a decent internet connection might have a chance of becoming common-place in our industry.
The opportunity we have right now isn’t an excuse to slack off at home — it’s an opportunity to work harder than you ever have before, to provide a more flexible lifestyle for you, your friends and your family well into the future.