udia Inc., one of Canada’s major homegrown video-game developers, is expanding its Montreal headquarters and experimenting with new types of work space in a bid to recapture the employee creativity its founder says has been sapped during the pandemic.

At a time when many companies are giving up their offices and downsizing, Ludia is adding another floor to its operations in Montreal’s historic Coristine Building, a former fur manufacturing centre. Its 400 employees will now have access to three floors and 60,000 square feet of space – space that will become a human laboratory of sorts as the gaming production company tries to figure out how best to recast its office for a COVID-19 world.

Starting Nov. 1, Ludia will reopen its studio doors to staff – all of whom are now working from home – on a voluntary basis. The company will test how its employees interact and perform in new types of physical room configurations, how they communicate and collaborate with colleagues on monitors working remotely, and which setups they prefer. The goal? Bring to the office the informality of home and recover the kind of social connections that are key to the creative process.

“What’s in our control right now is to create a very attractive environment without ordering our employees to actually come back to it,” said Ludia founder and president Alex Thabet, 48. “We don’t want to force the creation of a great working environment by imposing something. If it’s going to work, it’s because people really want to come here.”

It’s all part of a wider corporate rebirth for Ludia, a producer of mobile games with names such as Jurassic World Alive and Lovelink, that also includes a visual rebranding. The 15-year-old company was bought by California-based Jam City for US$165-million from Fremantle in a deal that closed last month. Jam City has been snapping up game development studios in North America and elsewhere and also owns Toronto-based producer Uken Games.

The COVID-19 crisis has generated a cleavage between companies that have thrived – such as those offering digital solutions and entertainment – and those that have suffered from lockdowns and lost sales. But as it drags on, it is exposing operational cracks even at the most resilient corporations.

At Ludia, having an all-remote work force has extinguished much of the inventiveness and originality that it relies on to keep its existing video games fresh while coming up with new titles, Mr. Thabet told a small group of reporters during a tour of the studio Friday.

“One of the things that we’ve learned in the last 18 months is productivity didn’t go down when it came to tasks that require you to work alone,” Mr. Thabet said. “But when it comes to co-operative tasks, creative processes that require the input of multiple people, that’s becoming extremely challenging.”

The non-verbal cues and body language that are part of in-person meetings are key elements of the creative process because they allow employees to get a read on the level of enthusiasm for an idea from those around them and push it further, he said. Video conferencing is also limiting because only one person can generally speak at any given time. “It seems like a minor thing but it has huge implications for the quality of ideas that are coming out of this setup,” the founder said.

Ludia is reconfiguring its physical space as a potential solution. As Mr. Thabet led visitors around the studio, they saw a mix of traditional and novel work stations and meeting areas: glass-walled rooms for four with orange chairs and video screens, soundproof chambers, a circular pod with drawing boards all around that he calls “the pool.”

Employees who want to bear down on an individual task without being disturbed can go to “the library,” a mobile phone-free, talk-free zone. Others who want to chat loudly and laugh are encouraged to socialize at areas with seating and small tables scattered around the studio. The company has scrapped all its individual, closed-door offices. “If someone wants to work all day alone in their office, we’d almost rather they stay home,” Mr. Thabet said.

Ludia is offering its employees full flexibility in deciding if and when to come into the headquarters and how long to spend there. The hope, Mr. Thabet said, is to get to a point where employees “will have the reflex to actually meet here when it comes to important creative processes involved.” He estimates anywhere from 25 per cent to 50 per cent of Ludia employees will be present in person at any given time in the months ahead, but he admits that’s just a guess.

“We have no clue what the postpandemic environment will be,” Mr. Thabet said, adding that executives at other companies he’s talked to are seeing less than 10 per cent of employees come in after reopening. “Is this going to be our reality? I hope not. Because I do think there is value to being able to offer a physical working environment.”

The Globe and Mail, October 18, 2021