The world is changed.
That's no longer a suitably dramatic opening line to The Lord of the Rings, it's a fact. The coronavirus pandemic has altered the very way we operate and interact with most aspects of life. Most notably, in the case of a digital-centric industry like video games, the way we work.
Companies have adapted and continued adapting ever since lockdown measures were first implemented in early 2020, and even as many consider a return to 'normal' (whatever that means in 2022), the impact cannot be understated.
"We all had to go home. It wasn't really a choice," says Chelsea Blasko, co-CEO of Iron Galaxy Studios. "We had to figure out how to be efficient and productive at home. A lot of people had to be much more intentional with their culture than they ever had in the past to make sure people still felt supported. Whether you choose to be hybrid, fully remote, in-person, or some variation thereof, we will all need to take lessons we learned during the pandemic and lockdowns into the future."
Bonfire Studios' Rachelle Davis adds: "People's full selves came into view, quite literally for those of us who had our cameras on for the last couple of years. At first maybe there was some resistance to that, and perhaps in many places there still is, but the places that have thrived have really embraced that. They've allowed people to be the people they want to be, show up the way they need to show up today, with their full selves, with their families in the background, with their dogs licking their faces in the middle of a call. That's a change for the better in my opinion, and I think that's now here to stay."
For some companies, such as agency Tara Bruno PR, the change hasn't been as dramatic -- Bruno and her team have always operated remotely. But the company's founder has taken additional steps to ensure her team feels connected, even sending care packages and arranging pizza Fridays, to keep spirits up.
Bruno says the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief that not everyone is either equipped or inclined to work remotely: "Not everybody has an office in their house. They're working under these different circumstances. I felt for people who had small children running around, and you're trying to be strategic and write press releases and all these things. So it was really important for me to encourage my team to say, 'Take breaks. It's okay to go take that hour walk. You don't have to be tethered to your computer just because you're home.'"
"People now have choices about how they can work in the future. They can find the best fit for them"
Chelsea Blasko, Iron Galaxy Studios
Blasko agrees, adding: "People now have choices about how they can work in the future. They can find the best fit for them. We actually saw a fair amount of people whose mental health was suffering at home and they really want to get back in person. They really thrive from being around other people. It's about trying to support some combination and also having different environments, different studios that give people those choices that are best for them."
Davis observes that parents in particular may struggle with remote working because of the lack of divide between home and work.
"I had to learn a lot about what were my boundaries," she says. "When could I be a mother, when could I be a game developer, when did I need to be both, and when did I need to be neither? Making sure that we're carving out space for the people working with us and around us is really key. Not everybody has those skills. Even through the pandemic, not everybody has gained those abilities just yet."
Meanwhile, Genvid Technologies head of partnerships Nika Nour had a different experience with boundaries. Prior to the pandemic, she was "single and a workaholic," and so was often still in the office until late at night, which meant she was still responding to work-related requests. At home, she was able to "set better boundaries."
"Nobody could walk into my office and be like, 'Nika, can we get these things done?' When you are one of the more aggressive, hungrier professionals in the industry, your boss tends to pick up on you to do things more than maybe perhaps others. But I had the ability to just power down my computer and be like, 'Goodbye, Felicia.'"
Not everyone sets those boundaries for themselves, and an ever-present concern for managers of remote teams is their staff's hours. Without an office, it's harder to monitor whether colleagues are working too much or too little.
For Davis, this comes down to two things: motivation and trust. The former is crucial; someone might work on a Saturday or late at night because that's when they're more productive -- again, especially parents.
"Maybe they needed to take three hours off this afternoon to spend time with their daughter who wanted to go romp in the backyard and jump through the sprinklers. That is okay, it should be okay," she says. "People's energy ebbs and flows at different points in the day or the week depending on their life stage. I think understanding what's behind the actions is really important to how you respond to it.
"Then, trust... you have to extend more trust in this environment than ever before. Hopefully, you hired the people you believe can do the job and you have to believe they're going to follow through on that."
You need checks and balances in place, she notes, but this can't be about time spent logged in or work produced. Blasko agrees, adding: "It's really about the goals and not the hours in which the work is done."
"If I screw it up today, I'm literally messing it up for the next 100 employees"
Nika Nour, Genvid Technologies
The key, according to the Iron Galaxy exec, is communication and especially making it clear when you're stepping away from your computer. "If you're wondering where are they for those three hours? Well, they already told you -- I'm going to the dentist, or going on that walk, or taking that time with my kid running in the sprinkler. You're communicating and you're building that trust and you feel connected to your team."
Bruno adds that it's vital for management to lead by example, especially when it comes to setting clear boundaries between work and home life. Working from home does not mean you're always available while at home.
"That's something that actually somebody pointed out to me at one point when I would respond to emails on a Saturday," she says. "Because then your team will be saying, 'Oh, then should I? What are those expectations from a client? Should I now start working on a Saturday?' So I've refrained from that for that very reason: I don't want my team to feel like they need to work on weekends."
Nour observes that this is particularly important at startups like Genvid, where the working culture is still taking shape: "If I screw it up today, I'm literally messing it up for the next 100 employees. I owe it to them to foster an awesome environment. And that really comes from our leadership.
"I went to South by Southwest and GDC, totally fell into my old habits -- I texted so much I got carpal tunnel. My COO was like, 'It's 3am in the morning, what are you doing? Great bizdeving, but don't do it to the detriment where you can't type.'."
Remote working, especially when permanent, also allows companies to hire from further afield, while games professionals can apply for roles without the need to relocate. This, our panel agrees, broadens the range of people that can be recruited, but still comes with some challenges.
"One of the tough things of working everywhere is we can't pay California salaries in the midsize markets," Blasko explains. "That has been a little bit harder to compete with. We have to think about how we differentiate ourselves. Maybe you aren't making a California salary and now you can work in Idaho, but what do we have that is appealing to you as an individual?"
Bruno reflects on one candidate she interviewed who was studying science and medicine but considered a career in games PR after attending a networking event. "There's probably a lot of people who are switching gears and shifting from what maybe they thought they wanted to do and now they're like, 'Oh, I can work from anywhere? Well, then there's all these other opportunities that I could potentially try.' I'm finding more and more people that are not necessarily in the gaming industry to begin with, but are at other places and are branching into the gaming industry."
Nour stresses that for all the challenges the industry has undergone, video games and those who work on them have fared better than others. The restaurant industry, bricks-and-mortar retail, event companies and many, many more have suffered, with job losses and additional financial strains.
"Not everybody has an office in their house. They're working under these different circumstances"
Tara Bruno, Tara Bruno PR
"We're very, very lucky as an industry," she says. "But there's that darker and harsher side of the industry that exists which is we create beautiful interactive experiences whether to play and participate, but the conditions... This is also a relentless industry and that's why we have a retention problem.
"So being able to open up to this global access, we're now able to find so many gamers and consumers and maybe usher them into this era of building the technical skills to come in, bring their new perspectives, change that way that the environment and the industry's workforce is working or working towards and build a better ecosystem."
She adds: "Talent is talent. It shouldn't matter where you're physically located. You should be able to work on what you want without barriers to entry when it comes to our workforce. And we should do it in a way that's as fun as the product. The stories of people being miserable building games always just make me like mentally implode."
Opening the industry to all is one matter, but that does not mean all will apply. The games industry can appear to be a daunting place to folks from marginalised communities, whether through the lack of representation they see or through the stories of abuse and discrimination over the past few years. With the nature of working in the industry still changing and creating different opportunities, what changes do we need to see to improve the hiring of people from underrepresented groups?
For Nour, retaining the talent already in the industry is just as important as hiring more: "After a couple of years, you get exhausted being the only marginalized person at a dinner who has to take the inappropriate and rude comments made to single you out or make you feel lonely. Leave me alone, leave my body alone, keep your comments to yourself. We're here to work and be respected.
"One of the main reasons why people leave is because you're afraid of retaliation when it comes to speaking up. You don't get to advance in this industry if you don't have the opportunity. Just because you're a protected class by the State of California, you call out an older gentleman who's been in the industry 15-plus years and has a bunch of buddies for saying a really inappropriate remark at dinner. That could ruin your entire reputation and network just because that individual feels like doing so. That's the truth of matter. We're outnumbered.
"I want to see more Chelseas, more SheEOs, because I get to go to them and be like, 'This dude said something really crappy at 7pm in front of 15 other senior well-paid dudes to my face.' I want to be able to do that, but I can't. So you have a choice. Do you stay or do you leave? I don't blame people for leaving or giving up. You need to do what you need to do when it comes to self-preservation and I wish leadership and the industry as a whole would take this retention issue way more seriously."
Blasko adds that she feels a big responsibility to be visible. "I don't really like talking about myself. I've been happy to be in the background in Iron Galaxy. I've been happy to be the person who is behind the curtain making things run. But that's not showing other people are inspiring to other people outside of Iron Galaxy itself.
"When I was growing up, no one told me what kind of opportunities were out there in the world. I had no idea. I didn't have role models. I just thought work hard, work hard, work hard. So what I'm trying to do is show people that there can be good places to work, there can be good experiences. Not all of my teen years in games have been peaches and roses or whatever, but I stuck it out. I really was saddened at the beginning of my career in games to go to some women games event and it was mostly women who had chosen to leave the industry. I don't feel like I'm seeing that as much anymore. I'm seeing more women like me who've been in the industry, who've weathered some tough spots, but who are still here."
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