After the Storm: DONTNOD on their ‘new normal’ with a hybrid work scheme

In our post-apocalyptic times, I think back a lot to an MCV/DEVELOP feature I wrote almost two years ago now – an interview with OlliOlli developer Roll7 regarding their shift to remote work.

The idea of working from home seemed a radical one to me at the time – having been tied to an office for my entire working life, it was hard to imagine being able to effectively work from my own house. Hilariously, the feature actually ran on the cover of the February 2020 issue, with the strapline “Welcome to Work” over an image of a home office – an image that would become much less novel just a month later. You’d think we knew what was coming and had planned it in advance.

Quite a lot has changed since then. I’ve now made more copies of MCV/DEVELOP from my bedroom than I ever have in an office, and while the last two years have certainly been challenging, this at least has proven itself a welcome change. After all, the whole reason we spoke to Roll7 in the first place was that remote work had been a huge boon for the happiness of its workforce.

While working from home certainly isn’t for everyone, I’m hardly alone in this. There are many who fear that once the pandemic is well and truly behind us, the more conservative-minded CEOs out there will push for a ‘return to normal,’ and insist on the return of the one hour commute, overpriced Pret sandwiches and tedious office conversations with our least favourite co-workers.

The pandemic has taken a lot from us all, but one of the few victories from this experience has been gaining the freedom to work on our own terms.

That freedom is one that workers are keen to hold onto, and one that sensible companies need to cater to wherever possible, or else risk losing their best talent. Sensible companies such as DONTNOD, for instance.

DONTNOD’S FROG

Oskar Guilbert, DONTNOD

The Life is Strange creator recently launched a permanent work from home policy for all employees. To be more specific it’s a hybrid model, with employees having the choice of working from home or in an office environment (or a combination of the two), a permanent system which will continue once the pandemic is over.

The Fully Remote Organization (FROG) scheme, the idea for which actually predated the pandemic, is the result of an internal company referendum which found that 87 per cent of DONTNOD employees supported being able to choose where they work.

Employees can now choose between Remote Mode and Office Mode, with the option to revise their decision at a later stage. Remote Mode allows employees to work from home, with all the equipment they need (such as chairs, desks, peripherals, etc) provided by DONTNOD. They can also choose to visit the office regularly and use dedicated ‘flex’ desks.

Office Mode meanwhile entails working from the premises with a dedicated setup and desk and comes with a package of days of remote working per year.

While the policy had been considered pre-pandemic, DONTNOD weren’t in a position to offer it until COVID forced all of our hands – with companies around the world rushing to help their employees adapt to the ‘new normal,’ providing equipment and IT support to ensure work kept running as smoothly as possible.

“We had to adapt for the pandemic,” says DONTNOD CEO Oskar Guilbert. “We didn’t do it before because there were some things we had to do, such as delivering computers to people’s homes, because it’s not good to just work on a laptop.

“And after that we thought, maybe it could continue like that. We shipped two games, Tell Me Why and Twin Mirror, with no delays. We had, of course, a small delay of a few weeks [at the start of the pandemic] in order to organise, so that we can be sure that everyone can continue to work. But after that it was okay, and we can still deliver on time. So we thought, okay, it works. It’s cool. We can work like this”

“We asked ourselves,” adds DONTNOD HR director Matthieu Hoffman, “‘is it possible to transform this challenge into an opportunity for the whole company?’ And from the feedback from the referendum, people were more than satisfied to work at home.”

And since, thanks to the pandemic, the work had already been done to ensure a smooth transition to working from home, DONTNOD was “more than ready to pass this opportunity on to all our employees,” Hoffman adds.

MAINTAINING THE BALANCE

Matthieu Hoffman, DONTNOD

The relationship between working from home and a healthy work/life balance is a complicated one. Time that has been gained from no longer having to commute, or being separated from your family, has sometimes been undercut by a sense of workers feeling as if they now live in their offices. It’s why a hybrid model seems like the more sensible approach, for the companies that can afford such a thing. Besides, any initiative that even has the chance to deliver a healthy work/life balance is a welcome one, particularly in the games industry.

“In the human resource point of view,” Hoffman notes, “we often talk about work/life balance. I think it’s one of the biggest challenges in HR, especially in our industry. We were already aware of this kind of topic with flexible working hours, being able to leave for a medical meeting for example. Improving this balance was one of our targets. You have the choice, and you can change that choice if needed. So during the same week you can work from home and you can come into the office. It means that you’re totally responsible for your own calendar, and for your own organisation.”

The benefits of remote and hybrid working to the employee have been discussed frequently over the past 18 months. What comes up less often, perhaps, is the benefits for the employer. From a cynical business perspective (the MCV/DEVELOP speciality!), what is the main benefit for DONTNOD in all this?

“The benefit is that your employees are happy!” exclaims Guilbert. “And usually when they are happy, they’re more efficient. You know, we are making games with values, games which are meaningful. People know why they go to work when they work for DONTNOD. So if you have good conditions, if they have a good balance between their personal life and their professional life, I will say it’s good for us. They will be more efficient, they will work better and they will be happier. And that’s really cool.”

“I think in terms of benefits, we can talk about talent retention,” adds Hoffman. “87 per cent of our company were in favour of this new organisation, it means that we’re about to allow for a good way to work for a large amount of our employees.”

Opening yourself up to remote work also increases your recruitment opportunities, as Hoffman continues: “More than 50 per cent of our recruitment has been done outside of Paris and Rome, this means we’re able to change the opportunities for talent to come work for us. And so as a HR manager, I think it’s a good opportunity.”

“You know before, if you wanted to work from say, Bordeaux, and the main office of the company in Paris, you had to resign and you had to find a new place to work,” adds Guilbert.

“Now it’s totally fine. People can work from all other parts of France, or even other countries. So for us, it’s really good. It’s very positive for the company.”

STAYING FLEXIBLE

As discussed, remote work certainly brings a lot of benefits – but it’s not a perfect solution, and it’s one that comes with its own challenges. That’s why the team at DONTNOD are keen to promote the flexibility of their system: It’s not either remote or office work – It’s both, if you want it to be.

“We noticed that people are happy to come into the office, but not every day,” says Guilbert. “They want to see other people, to socialise and exchange ideas. Those things are really important.”

“We still have a building, we still have an office,” begins Hoffman. “We have the option for all of our employees to come in one, two days a week, but they also have the option to work from home. We want to organise this kind of working. I think in this kind of situation, we wouldn’t want to be totally drastic, and only offer either remote working or office work. I think we have to do a kind of blend of both, where everybody is able to choose the way they want to work.”

It’s the kind of flexible approach that, with hindsight, makes the old ways of working look completely ludicrous. Especially in a creative industry, you’re never going to find a one size fits all approach to working – a typical 9 to 5 office setup works for some, while others struggle to function without more freedom and flexibility.

For companies that actually care about the quality of their work, it only makes sense to bend to the needs of their workers, instead of demanding that employees adapt to meet their stringent requirements. If game studios want their workers to be productive and creative, they need to create an environment that allows them to flourish.

“You know, if you work with writers, for example, it’s difficult to ask a writer to write ten pages a day,” says Guilbert. Some days they might write one page, some days they’ll write none, and on another day they’ll write 30 pages…”

Yeah, I know the feeling.

“For creative people, it’s a lot like that. For engineers, maybe they want a little more regularity, maybe they like the quality of the space, they like the comfort. Either way, people have a lot more control.”

Guilbert is less bullish about remote work than I am, choosing not to comment on studios that may have different philosophies. Though he maintains that the world has changed now, and if enough companies adopt policies like DONTNOD’s, it’ll be a change for the better.

“I definitely think it’s different now, people are thinking in a different way. I don’t want to speak about the whole industry, as of the values of other companies – sometimes management wants to have the employees in the office. But for us, that’s not the case.”

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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