As March came to a close and we surpassed the one-year mark since the start of quarantine, many of us have been reflecting on the impact of this past year, both personally and professionally. 

We sat down with Neoscape’s ownership team: Rob MacLeod, CEO; Rod MacLeod, COO; Nils Norgren, CTO; Rodrigo Lopez, CCO; and Ryan Cohen, Managing Director of the NY Studio, to get their thoughts. 

Their responses were thoughtful, contemplative, and varied. We learned who’s been watering the office plants this whole time, that sometimes silver linings come in the form of a faster commute, and that we’re all really in need of a hug. But the common thread that ran through each response was one of resilience and a company that, in a year of little certainty, was confident in this: what would get us through were the people and culture on which the firm was built.

What do you remember from the day we were all sent home?

Rob:
I don’t remember much from earlier that day. I do know that Lenovo was at our office to film an interview, and at one point in the day I was notified that someone in the New York studio was being tested for COVID. Within about 5 minutes of learning that, we were sending everyone from every studio home.

Rodrigo:
I was in the New York studio working on a project with a few other people from the Boston studio. On the way back to Boston, the Acela was eerily empty, and things just got exponentially weirder. We were wiping everything down every few minutes and probably went through a travel size bottle of Purell.

Ryan:
That afternoon, we learned someone in the NY studio had a fever and was going to be tested. After lunch, it was like War of the Worlds. 

If you had to go back to the weeks or months leading up to March 12, 2020, is there anything you would do differently knowing what you know now? 

Rob:
What I would have done is made myself a proper home office. People with a proper home setup probably fared better at the beginning of the pandemic. That, and I would have in-home classrooms set up for the kids.

Rodrigo:
I would have stocked up on toilet paper and paper towels. And bought stock in Zoom.

Nils:
We probably wouldn’t have sent anyone traveling anywhere or to any other studios.

What was your biggest concern when this all started? What were you the most optimistic about?

Rob:
I asked myself, “Are we going to lose 25 plus years of extremely hard work building this company up?” This could have fundamentally changed our business and we could lose everything we’ve been working toward. I was concerned about both the health of our employees and the company. But taking action to prevent that from happening was optimism. 

Rod:
I felt confident that we could work from home pretty well based on the fact that we had already been using Zoom, and people had remote computer access. From an infrastructure standpoint we were in a better position than most companies. But we were also thinking of all the things that weren’t going away like rent, health insurance, etc. and we worried that all of our clients were going to have to shut down to hold onto cash. 

Nils:
My biggest concern was the overall effect that the pandemic was going to have on the global economy. We’ve had numerous recessions so anticipating that there could be a recession on the same scale was terrifying. I was optimistic about our ability to continue to get work done even though we weren’t all in the office.

Rodrigo:
My biggest concern was the uncertainty; the fact that no one really knew what was going on and there was no playbook. However, I’ve always been optimistic, so in the back of my mind I had a sense that we would figure it out.

What are some ways that your team or studio adapted successfully?

Rob:
To be honest, with the flip of a switch we were all working from home, and it went pretty smoothly. There were hiccups, of course, but when I hear about other places, I count us as lucky. Our employees are extremely adaptable. For a lot of people, it was a very easy switch. 

Rod:
Not having a commute was one aspect that was easy for people to get used to. People also adapted pretty well to using Zoom. 

Nils:
The fact that we had been using remote technology for a couple of years was a huge benefit. We also had virtual happy hours every week, and that helped keep us connected to one another. 

Rodigo:
Our staff is great at rising up to challenges, I think we’ve always been that way. We always talk about being problem solvers, and that was put to the test. And having people like our admins going out of their way to try to bring everyone together virtually was a welcomed distraction. 

Ryan:
We still had good camaraderie, and the same personalities that know each other and trust each other. For example, our Art Director for film in NY will start a Zoom call with his team and play music to make the team feel like they’re all working together. This has also been a chance for me to work with people in other studios who I typically don’t. 

What are you most proud of Neoscape for accomplishing this past year?

Rob:
Pandemic or not, I’ve been very proud of the work we’ve been able to turn out and the work we’ve done with our clients, managing those relationships, building trust, and giving them new services. I’m very proud of a lot of the operational adjustments: cutting costs, etc. The devil is in the details, and we took harder looks at parts of the business that will pay dividends moving forward.

Rod:
The fact that we were able to successfully continue to produce good work for people, and keep everyone employed. This is our first global pandemic, but we’ve had several other recessions in which we haven’t done as well. In 2009 we had to lay off 50% of our staff. That’s something nobody forgets. We’re proud that during the pandemic we’ve been able to keep everyone on board.

Rodrigo:
We found ways to engage meaningfully with our clients. We doubled down on making sure that everything we were doing was being done with them in mind. It wasn’t easy and wasn’t always pretty, but it showed our commitment to making sure that we’re doing right by our clients and doing great work. 

Ryan:
That we continue to do amazing work despite all of the challenges. 

Are there any processes/habits/tools adopted during the last year that you feel will become a permanent part of how Neoscape works?

Rod:
The reality is that there will be more flexibility in terms of where people are working. We will probably travel less, since this has proven that you can do a lot through a Zoom call to engage with clients. That, and we’ll likely use more cloud-based services in the future.

Nils:
All of the collaborative tools we use are fundamental. There will likely be some tools we haven’t yet implemented that will also become fundamental. 

Rodrigo:
From a personal perspective, I’ve become better at disconnecting from work as needed. It’s a luxury that many people don’t have, but I couldn’t have survived a year operating the way I was before. I hope that others have found ways to do that.

Ryan:
We are using Miro Board even more now and I’ll keep using it more. We found out that we and Gensler both use Miro so we’ve been using it to collaborate on projects.

How did 2020 impact or change the way we work with our clients?

Rob:
It demonstrated that we can do really good work remotely, so moving forward we think most of our clients will be much more open to a hybrid approach. I’ve found myself checking in on a personal level a lot more. At the end of the day, our clients are people we care about and we’ve developed relationships with and we want to keep that going. 

Rodrigo:
In many ways it leveled the playing field. In the past, when we’d meet people they would seem very reserved, and now they’re apologizing for their kids in the background. People let their guard down and it makes for a more engaging dialogue with clients. The importance of having those engaging conversions to get at the crux of what we’re trying to do for them: that has risen to the top. 

Ryan:
I think it’s humanized people a lot. The people you’d normally see sitting around a boardroom table now have kids running around in the background. It starts conversations that help build camaraderie. 

What’s something that took you by surprise in 2020?

Rod:
The election. The fact that it was as close as it appeared to be, as were the events of January 6th. 

Nils:
That we were able to keep working without being in the office and next to each other. 

Rodrigo:
How few life savers I’ve eaten over the course of the last year. I’ve had maybe 10. I used to easily eat that many a week. 

Ryan:
From a business standpoint, I’m surprised that we were as successful as we were. A lot of the technology we use to stay connected didn’t exist during the 2008 recession. In 12 years, the way we work has changed and that’s enabled us to be successful during the quarantine. 

Working remotely, yay or nay? 

This one is a sensitive subject, so we’ll leave the responses anonymous: 

Two yays, one nay, one yay/nay, and one “more yay than nay”. 

Imagine we’re all vaccinated and the studios are fully open again. What does a typical day look like?

Rob:
I hope we can get back to something close to what we had before: the employee engagement and togetherness in the office. Our company was built on that in-person energy and collaborative spirit that is hard to replicate working remotely. But I know we’ll be building in more flexibility, and we’ll all be doing things a little smarter and easier now. 

Rod:
We all meet with a big group hug every day. All joking aside, things are going to feel a little weird at first but eventually we’ll get back to normal. 

Nils:
I’m planning on coming in as many days a week as I can. I want to be back on a real schedule. 

Rodrigo:
It’ll be nice to give people a hug once in a while. 

What’s something about working during quarantine that you just can’t wait to say goodbye to?

Rod:
Wearing a mask. That and not being able to walk by someone’s desk and see what they’re working on and learning about it.

Nils:
Having to drive in for my commute. I can’t wait to take the train again, I miss my walk from South Station. 

Rodrigo:
The COVID protocols

Ryan:
Not being able to join my coworkers for non-work activities. I can’t wait to go out for a beer together again. 

What’s something you’re going to miss?

Rob:
No traffic. 

Rod:
Having more time with my family. Over the summer we fostered a pregnant dog and raised her puppies. That’s something we wouldn’t have done otherwise.

Nils:
I’ve been coming in regularly since the beginning so I’m the one who’s been getting the mail and watering the plants. I think I’m actually going to miss that!

Rodrigo:
Getting to spend unlimited time with my family. And the non-existent traffic on the Mass Pike. 

Ryan:
I like seeing so much more of my kids. Normally, if I ask my daughter what she did at school she says “I don’t know.” Now I know what my kids do at school all day. I like having that connection. 

It’s now been just over a year since quarantine started. What are your concerns now? What are you the most optimistic about?

Rob:
As a country, we’ve had so many false starts and false hopes as to when we’ll have the economy fully open again, so I’m concerned about further setbacks that undermine our plans as a company. But I’m optimistic that this will end as well, and we’ll be better prepared for next time. This experience has made us ask ourselves, “What’s next, how can we be better, how can we change?” It’s a hidden benefit of turmoil and strife; this is the time you do your most important planning. 

Rod:
Things are very busy, and there’s a lot of activity, so I’m optimistic that there’s plenty of work out there and clients are ready to get going again. Still, I worry about all the empty office buildings and the damage done to the office, retail, restaurant, and hotel industries. 

Nils:
My biggest concern is the return to the office and the value of having people together in person and getting people on board with that idea. I’m most optimistic that we can find a comfort and balance in that and people can still have a little more autonomy. 

Rodrigo:
My biggest concern is that we don’t let our guard down. Not just the company but the entire world. People have short attention spans and COVID couldn’t care less. Still, I’m optimistic that common sense and decency will prevail.

What are your hopes for Neoscape in the next six months? Then next year?

Rob:
I want the studios to open up, be fully engaged, and back to the things that make us us. This is a pivotal point in our company’s history and it’s a huge opportunity. We’ve had time to reflect on what is right for us and now is the time to set into motion those things that will make our dreams become a reality.

Rod:
I want to see us continue to expand out of real estate. I hope we can continue to get more product, corporate, and high-tech work. That allows us to deal with the ups and downs of the real estate market and allows our teams to diversify the work they’re doing.

Nils:
For me, I just want to see things stabilize both in the company and in the general world. For us to be able to hopefully get more long-term projects and endeavors that allow us for longer term relationships. 

Rodrigo:
I’ve always been interested in what’s next. I love working in a company that is always evolving into a different and better company. That journey is what I’m looking forward to. And, of course, the hope that people are healthy and we can continue to attract the people that make us who we are: resilient and willing to take on a challenge. 

Ryan:
I’m looking forward to continuing to collaborate with the other Art Directors in NY about what the next solutions are for our company and our industry. And I look forward to being hybrid and getting the best of both worlds. 

We’ve weathered this storm pretty successfully. Why do you think Neoscape was able to succeed?

Rod:
We adapt well to what is hot in real estate. When the life science market started picking up, we were able to adapt to that. We’ve been around long enough that people know us, and know we’re stable, and they reach out to us because they trust us.

Nils:
I think we were able to succeed because people here have a strong bond and the company culture allows for people to be virtual and still feel comfortable with one another. When new people have joined I hope they’ve experienced that feeling of friendliness. 

Rodrigo:
It’s almost in our DNA, that scrappiness, the ability to take challenges head-on, and solve problems. That’s made it easier, although it certainly has not been easy.

Ryan:
We don’t hire people because they know Miro or 3DS Max, we hire people because they have drive and accountability and they do amazing work. 

Rob:
The DNA of our business is our people. Our greatest assets are walking in and out the door every day. Starting a business with no money and no projects you have no choice but to make things work. That urge to figure things out is a trait that’s ingrained in a lot of our people. Every day we solve challenges for our clients, and we used that ability to solve the challenge of working remotely and working during this pandemic.

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