Apply these lessons from the film industry.
Opening a branch office is a natural step for a vibrant, growing company looking to reach new clients and markets. But with that growth comes the stress of managing staff in multiple distant locations and keeping far-flung employees working together seamlessly.
According to Jeff Peeler, President of Frantic Films, the secrets to making it work are planning, communication and trust.
Winnipeg-based Frantic Films is one of the most successful television production companies in Canada. Over the years the company has created some of the highest quality and entertaining shows in our country, including Pitchin In’, featuring Chef Lynn Crawford, Men With Brooms, Winnipeg Comedy Festival, Keep Your Head Up Kid: The Don Cherry Story and the current CBC hit Still Standing.
Winnipeg’s film and television industry has developed to be vibrant and impressive. In its early days, Frantic Films ran everything out of their Winnipeg office, and as the industry grew, so did their company. Additional space was needed to expand operations and take the company to the next level. Looking East towards what some call “Hollywood North,” Frantic Films decided to open a second office in Toronto to help ensure the company’s growth.
“We keep our head office in Winnipeg for a number of reasons,” explains Peeler. “Our principals all live here. Winnipeg has a wonderful media production industry that’s supported by the community and the government. And we can do what we love, right here at home.”
“Our Toronto operation is really due to the fact that the majority of Canada’s TV networks and content buyers are centralized there,” says Peeler. “There’s also a larger production community. So when you’re looking for talented people to collaborate with, there are simply more to draw from.”
“Today, the bulk of our work is done in Winnipeg and Toronto, but when we have a show in production they could be filming anywhere in the world. After all, every television production is different, essentially its own company, and we make the decision about which city to run the production out of based on the schedule, budget and needs of the show.”
Plan for Human and Technical Needs
The lessons that Frantic Films learned while running multiple offices are not geared solely to film companies. No matter the industry, for companies that are considering opening a branch office, Peeler believes there are three important things to remember when it comes to setting up your operations:
1. Put someone in charge.
“Make sure that the second office has a ‘point person’ who everyone knows is in charge. Without that person, it’s an extra step for employees in the other office to reach out to the head office, no matter how easy it is or how open the door is at head office. So people are less likely do reach out, and they need someone locally to talk to.”
2. Make a data sharing plan.
“Questions come up like, ‘What’s the best way to share data? Is it in the cloud or an internal server? Who needs access to what?’ Create a structure for filing data and ensure everyone is on board. Don’t underestimate the importance of organizing your digital filing cabinet.”
3. Foster casual communication.
“Communicating between offices is challenged by the layer of formality that comes with being in different places. You lose the opportunity to bump into someone at the exact time that you might need them to help find a solution to a problem. There’s less water cooler conversation, and you can’t easily pop your head into someone’s office to talk through something. So make time for conversation.
“Use collaboration tools and apps like Skype. Or use the tried and true methods—pick up the phone and have a chat. Co-workers need to hear each other’s voices and see each other’s faces.”
That’s especially true in the TV business where the pace is lightning fast, deadlines are tight and a constant stream of decisions that have to be made in a snap.
Overcome the Communication Challenges
With operations now spread across two cities, and production ‘branches’ hitting the road regularly to film shows like Still Standing, Meet The Family and Buy It, Fix It, Sell It, Peeler quickly realized that keeping their remote teams communicating was going to be the biggest challenge.
“We’re in a creative industry and have really had to look at a variety of ways to capture those ‘spark’ moments. Because we work under crazy timelines, it’s important that communication is clear and concise. Miscommunication could spiral out of control in the blink of an eye.
“Decisions must be made quickly—people need to own them and be willing to pivot quickly if the wrong decision was made. There’s very little time for second-guessing or regret. You need to learn from your mistakes and move on immediately.”
Regarding ‘formal’ communications, Peeler says they’ve learned to be flexible and rely on a mix of tried-and-true solutions.
“We’re very email based at Frantic. We set weekly conference calls in advance, and some people use Google Documents to track shared tasks,” explains Peeler. “But, that said, we try to pick up the phone and call people directly in order to avoid email discussions that last hours and have dozens of replies that could have been sorted out in less than a minute of conversation.”
Peeler notes that even people who work in the same office need to remember the value of talking to each other, rather than relying on email.
“Some people in our Toronto location who used to sit in open areas recently moved into offices. And I’m noticing that it’s cutting down on spontaneous collaboration. It can be hard to force yourself to get up and speak to someone in person or pick up the phone, but it’s really important to make that interaction more meaningful and efficient.”
Peeler also cautions against buying into products that promise to solve everything.
“We’ve tried fancy collaboration tools but haven’t found one that truly suits our needs. Unless you have 100 per cent buy in, you end up simply fragmenting your communication further. And when those collaboration tools exist in the cloud, it raises questions like where does that information live, and what happens if the service goes out of business?”
Trust Your Staff
The other big factor that comes into play when managing multiple locations is trust.
“Trust is a huge factor when managing people from afar. Decisions get made with such speed that if you don’t trust someone to make the right decision you’ll be paralyzed. The only other option would be for one person to make all the decisions—and that’s just not possible.
“All of our TV shows have one main supervising producer who’s in charge of that production, and that’s all they do. Everyone working on the show reports to them.
“My role is to juggle all of the productions, so my main contact is with each of the supervising producers. I ensure they are supported as necessary by our corporate staff, and that we’re collaborating creatively and ensuring the product is top quality. And that ultimately, that we’re delivering to our buyer what they’re expecting.
“To make it work, I have to trust each of those supervising producers. On the flip side, my CEO and CFO have to trust that I know what I’m doing. You can’t possibly know everything that is going on at all times so without trust—you’d drive yourself mad. We often work with the same contractors and suppliers over and over again, and that really comes down to the fact that we trust them and know what to expect.”
Have you worked at new office locations or helped open new branches? What lessons did you learn that you can share? Tell us in the comments section below.