Technology. New tech will always set the trends. If you’re not in a technology-driven industry, or not tech savvy yourself, task someone in the company who can take up this challenge and explore it. Research the tech that’s out there which can vastly improve your specific business and attract new employees. Don’t get left behind. It’s money well spent.
When it comes to designing the future of work, one size fits none. Discovering success isn’t about a hybrid model or offering remote work options. Individuals and organizations are looking for more freedom. The freedom to choose the work model that makes the most sense. The freedom to choose their own values. And the freedom to pursue what matters most. We reached out to successful leaders and thought leaders across all industries to glean their insights and predictions about how to create a future that works.
As a part of our interview series called “How Employers and Employees are Reworking Work Together,” we had the pleasure to interview Kristen Branan.
As Executive Vice President of Global Productions at Zoic Studios, Kristen Branan oversees roughly 40 different productions at any given time across the Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver locations with over 400 employees and tens of millions in annual revenue. She works alongside an internal management team to streamline the intricate balance between superior creative aesthetic and financial profitability.
In her tenure at the forefront of visual effects, Branan has led 5,000 individually titled shows across feature films, commercials and gaming projects, including such credits as “Moon Knight”, “Ozark,” and “WandaVision,” among countless others. She won an Emmy Award for “Outstanding Visual Effects for a Series” for “Firefly” in 2002 and also earned two Visual Effects Society Awards for the same series in 2002 and “Battlestar Galactica” in 2004.
A passionate advocate for women, Branan has expanded her passion for championing others by creating a startup clothing company called Adaptive Life Company. Inspired by her family and friends with adaptive needs, ALC holds a US Patent to re-design and construct clothes for people with a wide range of disabilities to empower them to comfortably live their fullest lives.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
Hello, yes! My name is Kristen Branan and I’m the Executive Vice President of Global Production for Zoic Studios. Our 400-person company specializes in visual effects for movies, streaming television, commercials, special projects, and new technology. In other words, we make everything you see on TV look really cool, super scary, or beautifully fantastical using CGI (computer generated imagery).
An experience that has shaped who I am today has been participating as an early adapter in the visual effects industry. Learning and creating while the industry was still in its infancy has been an incredible journey. In those early days, we made it all up as we went forward- building the computers, programming the software, creating visuals no one had ever seen before. A lot of things didn’t exist yet and we made it happen. Now, in the present day, we are continuing to push the envelope of what’s possible. Our amazing team is hands-on, driving the future of visual effects in so many unique ways. It’s just as exciting today as it was in the beginning.
VFX is the part of the entertainment industry that I love the most. It’s never boring. One minute we’re creating superheroes, robots and villains for DC Comics Stargirl and Flash; or fantasy effects for Marvel Studios WandaVision and Moon Knight; the next minute we’re creating background environments and CGI characters for the nominated series Sweet Tooth or adding blood on the actors in the hit series Ozark. Collectively, Zoic Studios produces work on 400 different shows per year. Our recent scope of titles ranges from Cobra Kai, For All Mankind, Space Force, Warrior, The Boys, Legends of Tomorrow, See, Superman & Lois, Kung Fu, YOU, and on and on. We’re in a unique position, as both a technical and creative team, where everything we work on gets shared with the entire world, 7-days a week.
The second experience that has shaped me, and our company, has always been sticking to our belief that series television would one day overtake the traditional moviemaking and theatrical experience. From the outset of Zoic Studios, we knew that our market share in the industry would be the creation and implementation of feature film-quality visual effects, but for television. We put every effort into building a successful pipeline, and robust platform, that could keep up with the high volume, fast-paced TV budgets, and schedules. It wasn’t easy and in the last 15-years we’d be knocking on every Hollywood door to prove ourselves. A lot of creatives back then felt television was a low-end medium compared to the more glamorous feature film. But we stuck to our guns and remained focused on ‘the plan’. We became uniquely known for our signature, snap-zoom camera work on the Emmy Award winning series Firefly and Battlestar Galactica. Then, Hollywood began knocking on our door. Many well-known names are now Zoic’s collaborators and production partners, and we have the largest industry hold on television VFX work. This position allows us to continue innovating and growing, as we expand into more areas of the entertainment industry.
Let’s zoom out. What do you predict will be the same about work, the workforce, and the workplace 10–15 years from now? What do you predict will be different?
What will be the same about the Work?
The same will always be the need and desire for companies to innovate in their respective sectors. Employees want to be part of something bigger than themselves, to make a difference with a company that’s not afraid to try something new, to use their skills and talent in a variety of ways that will matter. This is especially important to the younger generation. They have so much good energy and this is their time to make an impact. It’s important to listen to them and ask your employees for ideas on how to improve your business. There might be some great ideas to rebrand, capture a new market share and inject some new energy. It’s important to make it fun again. Stagnation is a company killer, and it always will be. The old ways of doing things, the inefficiencies, the boredom… no one likes that.
What will be different about the Work?
For a bleeding edge technology company like ours, we’re most excited about moving a share of our traditional visual effects workflow, into the ‘Unreal Engine’ software platform, with Epic Games. This software was originally built for gamers to move 360-degree environments in real time. Before Covid hit, we had already started to experiment with it- to see if we could harness the real time aspect of it. The internal challenge was ‘would it allow our pipeline to produce work in real time.’ The extra time we had during Covid allowed us to focus on integrating our photo-real graphics inside the software code, while maintaining the high-fidelity visual look expected in our shows. Through a lot of trial and error, and a fantastic partnership with Epic Games themselves, we now have an incredible team working full-time in our newly formed Zoic Studios Real Time Group. We’ve successfully completed projects for a wide variety of television shows, commercials, specialty projects, and our own in-house branded content. The drive to change the way we work is what will always be different about Zoic Studios.
What will be the same about the Workforce?
We’re always going to crave the human experience. We’re social creatures and traditionally most of our day is spent with our coworkers. A bustling office, loud noises, watercooler drama, everyone working towards the same goal and feeling like part of a team. In all industries, coworkers have known each other for years and are friends outside the office. There’s a lot of good energy that’s absorbed in that type of environment and collectively, it makes individuals more whole. Recapturing and maintaining the essence of that ‘whole being’, is something that people will want to be the same.
What will be different about the Workforce?
For many companies, globalizing the workforce to a bigger extent, is what will be different for years to come. Globalizing, expanding, and diversifying the employee base to meet hiring challenges is where we will succeed. Staying remote, not being pinned into a four-walled office, means next level growth. I really love this concept because now there’s accessible talent all around the globe. More opportunities for everyone. And for Zoic Studios pre-Covid, this wasn’t an option due to studio regulations and security. Like everyone else, Covid forced us out of the building and into the arms of a stronger, healthier, globalized workforce. That’s a very different business model for us and many others.
What will be the same about the Work Place?
For Zoic Studios, we’re organizing to keep a small footprint office in each location. A small number of people can work there when they need to. We want a familiar welcoming space, that’s clean and stocked, if any employee needs to have that human interaction. Or if they just need a quieter space than what they have at home. So, a familiar, yet hybrid work from home/office business model will be important for us to carry forward.
What will be different about the Work Place?
For us, it will be fun to come up with ideas to impact the workplace in a non-traditional way. For instance, we are currently exploring a metaverse experience for Zoic Studios employees and industry partners. It’s exciting to think about creating an online world to connect everyone socially through a virtual and augmented reality. Think of it like you just jumped inside a video game and can move about as your avatar character. However, instead of playing a video game, you instead might attend a real meeting, watch a real movie, listen to a real concert, go shopping, attend a holiday party, go to a real school, etc. There’s no limit to what you, your friends and co-workers can experience. It just has to be built digitally. And that’s where Zoic Studios comes in. We’re experts at building CGI worlds. So, it makes sense that we’d at least consider offering a digital workplace.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
Recognize that employees are your greatest asset. We have an evolved responsibility in the new ‘evolution of employer-to-employee relationships.’ Be a business that shows great passion. Passion for the industry you love and for the employees that share in that expression. Passion is contagious and will carry you through the hard times. Be a business that meets the goals of employees beyond just their paychecks. Be mindful of employee circumstances and build towards that flexibility as much as possible. Help them succeed in life. In this work from home era, we have proven that people can be just as productive, or more so, when given some flexibility to perform their jobs in better concert with the reality of their lives. When they feel heard, supported, and passionate about the company goals, they do better work, and everyone wins.
What do you predict will be the biggest gaps between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect as we move forward?
We see it already in our highly competitive VFX industry, and it’s pay and benefits. It’s not as simple as “willing to offer” or what “employees expect,” as there are a lot of nuances. From the employer side, we have a budget that we can spend, of which much forethought and detail goes into. And just like any industry, if we don’t operate inside of that budget we could eventually go out of business. From the employee side, they have families and personal goals they want to achieve. And they’re getting offers from competing companies who have their own budgets to manage. We’re all challenged with this push and pull of talent. There’s a heightened contest in appealing to those you want to hire and keep.
And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?
Since most VFX companies in our area pay talent roughly the same rates and benefits, we’ve started an internal effort to distinguish ourselves by offering quarterly incentives. For instance, if we hit our internal quarterly goals, we distribute monetary gift cards that build in value depending on the length of employment. We do this for all the Zoic Studios employees, administrative-to-creatives, no exceptions. Celebrating regular achievements like this in a collaborative way better aligns both our employer and employee budgetary goals. It’s an ongoing initiative and it’s been successful so far.
We’ve also been careful to monitor the changing needs of our team as the nature of work has shifted over the past couple of years. We quickly realized that our team could be more creative and effective in their new work-from-home environments. We made a policy shift to allow for all employees to work remotely, indefinitely. We have seen that by eliminating the long commutes, distractions and white noise that used to make up a typical day, we’ve proven ourselves to be more productive, cohesive and efficient.
Stepping away from the financials and commutes, another way companies can close the gaps, are to find hidden talents inside your existing teams and capitalize on them. Find out who has unique hobbies, who are experts in unique areas, who’s traveled to interesting places; then create a forum for the employees to share that wealth of information. This is a great way to provide knowledge about a wide variety of subjects to everyone at the company. That abundance of shared information can be a treasure trove to help, inspire, entertain, and teach new things to the team. Knowledge is power, and it’s free for those who want it. At Zoic Studios, we host one-hour internal “Lunch and Learns’ where the speaker of the month gives a presentation on their topic, then there’s a Q&A. The idea is to offer the employees something that enriches their work experience through extra and unexpected benefits, so it’s important to get creative on how to provide them.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
It looks as though WFH, or a hybrid model for those businesses that can lean into it, is here to stay. And in many industries, we’ve put up record numbers to the bottom-line totals during the WFH experiment. Not only did many businesses rapidly adapt, but they’ve also influenced a new, healthier way to metric a successful home/work life balance. We realized we don’t need to be in the physical office 10-hours a day to find success. To take this influence a step further, businesses can provide training to the employees on how to manage scheduling and daily goal setting. Be realistic with timeframes and expectations on results and deliverables. Have the conversation with your team and listen to your employee’s feedback. A happy and loyal employee is someone who finds a home at your company. Not just a paycheck. So, the overall recognition that companies must fit into the employee’s lifestyle needs. Instead of employees fitting into a rigid company structure… is going to last into the foreseeable future. The tables have been reversed.
We’ve all read the headlines about how the pandemic reshaped the workforce. What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support a future of work that works for everyone?
A change we’ve seen is a different measurement of success. There’s more emphasis on the specific contributions you make, and its impact across a broader reach, instead of the number of work hours you put in. If you can achieve that task in two hours and then go pick up the kids, it’s a success. Working smarter, not harder. Also, as we now move into a more ‘professional version’ of the WFH model, you can’t have your child on your lap anymore and you need to get back into the business casual attire. It will be more important to mimic an office vibe, while on the clock at home, for WFH to stick long-term. And lastly, society’s influence is enormous and reaches every part of our being. When put in difficult positions during the last few years, society ultimately chose family over work. People have been giving up what they know, to find jobs that will work better for their families. People can have lives outside of work and we’ve shown how important that is for our ultimate happiness and growth. Along with that, we must be more tolerant in and out of the workplace, of our different needs. Show more compassion for people who have varying circumstances and need extra support. Business will benefit from happy employees, and we’ll all be more productive when we’re not so stressed about finding that life balance.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
While the company goals are the same: progress, innovate, create, make an impact, thrive financially, we can also raise a new generation of kids who will learn that instead of a 9 to 5 job, it’s more rewarding to follow your passion. Make a job out of that passion. Align yourself with a company that provides something a little extra. Together as employers and employees we can reset our minds to what’s important. Invite new ways to work smarter not harder. When both sides are happy, we thrive which means the economy thrives.
Our collective mental health and wellbeing are now considered collateral as we consider the future of work. What innovative strategies do you see employers offering to help improve and optimize their employee’s mental health and wellbeing?
Providing a robust wellness-strategy for the employees will be the key forward. As employers, be sensitive to this very real issue of stress and mental health. Form an internal committee to come-up with a program that speaks to your company’s needs and capabilities. Then evaluate what can be provided internally and what needs outside support. Keep in mind, everyone is different and has a unique life story, which brought them to your company doorstep. Listen. As a leader, you’re able to get creative and source the tools and resources employees need to succeed and prosper. Partner up with nonprofits and local centers who offer wellness and mental health services. There’s a huge variety of things that can be considered under a wellness banner. Provide links to free local events happening in your area every month. Create an internal team to manage the events so that employees get together. Poll the employees twice a year to see what matters to them because issues evolve. Ask the community for help in putting programs together. As a company, find opportunities to volunteer time and service, which makes everyone involved feel good. As an employer, the best we can do is organize, offer solutions, and follow through. And as a leader, it feels obligatory to do so.
It seems like there’s a new headline every day. ‘The Great Resignation’. ‘The Great Reconfiguration’. And now the ‘Great Reevaluation’. What are the most important messages leaders need to hear from these headlines?
Reevaluation. The job we do needs to feel personal. It matters where you spend so much of your time and brain space. So, make it personal for the employees by getting them involved in ways that enhance everyone’s workplace experience. People are exploring what makes them happy, what fits more easily into their unique situation. Find ways that benefit the entire staff, not just one or two individuals.
How do company cultures need to evolve?
Modernize. Keep the company messaging forward moving and progressive. Involve employees to shape areas that impact them directly. Invite new ideas and have them contribute to areas that both challenge and reward them.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
- Technology. New tech will always set the trends. If you’re not in a technology-driven industry, or not tech savvy yourself, task someone in the company who can take up this challenge and explore it. Research the tech that’s out there which can vastly improve your specific business and attract new employees. Don’t get left behind. It’s money well spent.
- Be a disruptor. Challenge your industry. Get noticed in the crowded space. Do something, provide something, offer something that’s so different people will talk about it. It needs to be something positive, outside the box, and sustainable. If it’s not sustainable it’s just a gimmick.
- Transparency. This can be defined in several ways. Communicate openly and regularly about the state of the industry, and your company share in it. Be honest. It’s admirable to talk about the challenges the company is up against. Invite conversation and feedback. Communicate the results, progress and next steps.
- Upskilling and training. Change in the workforce means many companies will have to shift their teams around to accommodate job placement. Promote people earlier than you normally would who have potential to take on next level responsibilities. And get them professional training. Hire new people that have potential to learn the skillsets needed. And train them. Diversify the workforce. It’s going to be about helping your own company grow and not relying on talent to just walk through the door.
- Pivot quickly. The world is changing rapidly. To survive and thrive as a business, recognize that pivoting in little ways here and there adds up and leads to fruitful benefits. It’s exciting to evolve and have something new and different to offer. You get into business to succeed and have some fun along the way. Pivoting means you’re passionate about what you do. And passion is attractive.
I keep quotes on my desk and on scraps of paper to stay inspired. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective?
I love quotes, too. I read them every day. My favorite one changes depending on how I’m feeling. But right now I have pinned, “Before You Make Big Decisions Look at Pictures of Your Family.”
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she, or they might just see this if we tag them.
To me, the biggest names out there are the everyday heroes grinding it out and making positive changes in the world. This includes all people making an impact locally in their communities or rising on the global stage with innovation and messaging. I love conversation with ordinary companies and extraordinary people who are thinking big, taking action, and changing the game in big or small ways.
So, I’d love to tag any clothing brand out there who wants to change the clothing and garment industry with me. I hold a US Patent for clothing construction which makes it easier for kids and adults with disabilities and other challenges to get themselves dressed. This adaptive construction applies to shirts, jackets, pants, dresses, shoes, etc. For anyone who has cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, down syndrome, arthritis, aging challenges, symbrachydactyly, or limb differences, etc. is this truly needed and has transformed my customers independence and outlook on life. Even if you’ve been temporarily injured in an accident, you know how hard it is to get yourself dressed! We interact with our customers and sponsor a summer and winter camp for kids called the Adventure Amputee Camp, and I can tell you first-hand, how much love and appreciation is out there for adaptive goods and services like this. So, any clothing company that wants to innovate, be a disruptor, and truly help people, for a deserving and underserved global market, please email me.
Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?
Email [email protected]
My Instagram @daedalusreef
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.