FEATURE 

Working from home

Lockdown has proved that we can publish remotely. We don’t all need to be in the same room to get our work done. But, just because WFH is possible, is it desirable? Is there a downside? Peter Sands reports.

By Peter Sands

Working from home
“Some have found working from home to be very isolating.” Photograph: JP Lockwood on Unsplash.

Two years ago, if anyone had suggested asking the entire newsroom – the editors, reporters, backbench, subs, copytasters, designers, IT – to decamp and work from their kitchen tables, they would have been laughed out of court. The complexities of the content and production systems alone would have made it impossible. It was why media companies had disaster recovery plans – contingencies in the event of a terrorist attack or a devastating fire. All it took was a global pandemic to prove, beyond doubt, it could be done.

What was achieved during lockdown was staggering. The newspapers came out with no perceptible decline in standards. The websites were as busy and vibrant as ever. The agencies thrived. Some newsrooms, the Daily Mail for example, operated as though nothing had changed with a completely deserted office.

The agencies also made it work. Peter Clifton, editor-in-chief at PA Media, the national news agency for the UK and Ireland, says: “We pretty much emptied out the newsroom in a couple of days, and I don’t think any of our customers would have noticed anything changing. Our main news-editor was based in a converted shepherd’s hut in a field in south Wales, and the rest of the newsdesk were scattered far and wide. Apart from the occasional Wifi grumble, it was all fine. And, of course, it was business as usual for a lot of our reporters, photographers and videographers – they were still out on the road newsgathering, because stories don’t always arrive unannounced at the kitchen table.”

One of the UK’s biggest news agencies, SWNS, went into full ‘pandemic prep mode’ weeks before lockdown became official. All staff were given laptops mirroring their office set ups and all phone systems were set to a roaming basis so that no calls went unanswered.

Director and editor-in-chief Andrew Young says: “It all went remarkably well really. There was an obvious ‘Dunkirk spirit’ about the first lockdown. We were all determined to prove we could get through it. The whole SWNS and 72Point operation here, and in the US, went WFH from day one. Conferences and day-to-day planning were conducted via Google hangouts, IM, Zoom etc and morphed into Outlook / Teams.”

Doug Wills, editor emeritus at the London Evening Standard, says the paper had prepared for every eventually – storm, fire or terrorism. “But we were not prepared for a virus pandemic that meant everybody had to work in solitude as a unified editorial team at pace. With just days to put this previously unthinkable scenario in place, we achieved it.

“The effect on quality was not perceptible to the reading public. Professionally, journalistically, we felt we could do better. What we didn’t realise is that we would have the time to hone our remote-working skills. Like 18 months and still going.”

Working from home works. Every newsroom that came through lockdown with the help of homeworking is now looking hard at the costs. Publishers are considering downsizing their office space substantially. Moreover, according to a poll in the Press Gazette, most journalists much prefer homeworking and believe they are more productive too. One trainee I work with raised a deposit for a house with the money she saved from not commuting into London each day. In March, publisher Reach said the majority of its journalists would permanently work from home in future.

So that’s it then. Let’s run the entire publishing industry from the kitchen table.

There was an obvious ‘Dunkirk spirit’ about the first lockdown. We were all determined to prove we could get through it.

Andrew Young

WFH – the downside

But whereas WFH has huge benefits, there are those who fear the death of the newsroom is not really in the best long-term interests of the business or the staff.

Newsrooms are creative places where journalists pick up skills, ideas, direction from others. Working from home has particularly hit the youngsters coming into the industry. Clifton says: “It is tough for young journalists starting their career. There is a lot of benefit to be had sitting in a newsroom, watching how other people operate, asking for help, how to phrase something, or just listening to how a reporter handles phone interviews or queries from the desk. It is also much easier for an editor to sit down with a young journalist and offer a quick copy clinic, for example – just going over a story, making changes, and explaining why, before it gets published.”

Young agrees: “There is no greater experience than listening to others who have been around the block, spot or bring in a story, sort and get it out on the wire. I will often ‘hush’ the Bristol office when one of our finest is mid-phone interview to listen to ‘how it should be done’.

“Some of the most valuable skills a journalist will ever learn are picked up through osmosis, listening and watching someone who has not only been there and done that but has a font of knowledge and talent to learn from.”

During lockdown, I have recruited for the Daily Mail, MailOnline, DailyMail.com in America and the i newspaper. All of it was done via Zoom. It works … although employing someone who you have never met in the flesh does initially feel strange. Thankfully, most of my training has been carried out face-to-face in the office, although some has inevitably been remote. It works and, amazingly, teaching the content system remotely to people who have never used it before has been a triumph. But, overall, the benefit for trainees of being in the office, seeing how it operates, meeting their colleagues and getting instant feedback is colossal. Some have found working from home to be very isolating.

It isn’t just the young journalists who thrive on the newsroom buzz. In my long career, I learned huge amounts in the newsroom. Sometimes it was just a nuance, a raised eyebrow or a random idea. Like all journalists, I have forged lifelong relationships, contacts and close friends. How many people met their partners at work?

What we didn’t realise is that we would have the time to hone our remote-working skills. Like 18 months and still going.

Doug Wills

A hybrid future?

Is all of that to be lost? The answer for some publishers is a hybrid … maybe the night shifts and weekends will be done from home. It has even been suggested that the staff would be allowed to choose. But some editors are adamant that such a hybrid system won't work, that it would be divisive. Google has already flagged up that its US employees, who opt to work from home permanently, may have to take a pay cut.

Would it be reasonable to have one group paying for their commute, getting their lunch at Pret a Manger and forking out for office clothes on the same salary as those sitting at home in their pants and making a snack from the fridge? Going down the pay cut road may become a possibility but it may also raise legal issues.

It has also been mooted that there is the risk that those working from home may not have as good a relationship with their editors and it could damage their chances of progression.

Different publishers are likely to take different approaches and that too may cause difficulties. Inevitably, some journalists will choose to join the companies which offer their preferred working conditions.

It is also worth noting that, while newsrooms have proved they can work from home, the other links in the chain could not. Print publications are dependent on printers, press operators, distributors and shops. Had they all been forced into lockdown, it would have been a very different story.

So, is homeworking here to stay? Logic, the accountants and time-management will all say ‘yes’. But some editors are not so sure. Clifton says: “You really benefit from having people close together when a decent story is going on. People overhear calls coming in and start asking questions and making suggestions, you bounce ideas off each other, agree deployments, get the right people sitting together.

“Obviously all that is out the window, so you just have to work much harder at all the other comms stuff – using Teams, constant messaging, calls, regular updates to the teams. And to be honest, that’s all worked pretty well.

“Overall, though, most of us are in the business because we enjoy being with people and the buzz of the newsroom and if people never worked alongside each other again, I think there would be a hit to our creativity over time.”

Wills adds: “How much of the editorial room dynamics has been lost? Will those who provide the editorial flair achieved by face-to-face brainstorming win the battle for readers and, as a result, gain the greatest share of advertising and subscription revenue?”

So what happens next? Clifton says: “I want to see our newsroom properly populated every day but we can still do that and have a bit more flexibility about working from home or in the office. There are plenty of graveyard shifts that can always be done from home and the same goes for weekends. And we can definitely deploy reporters to assignments from their homes, rather than expecting them to slavishly come to the office first.

“I think even the doubters of old now realise that working from home works very well – in fact some of those doubters are now the biggest champions!”

Young says: “I do not believe SWNS will ever go back to a full return to the office work ethic. We will adopt, and phase in, a gradual, more flexible return to the workplace. I truly believe most will want to get back to ‘normality’ as soon as possible. But it will be a blend of the old and new, taking in what we have learned over the last 18 months.”

And the final word from Wills: “Like with Covid itself, publishers are having to play the long game. We still don’t know the ending of either.”

It is beyond doubt that homeworking is here and that it works… to a point. Whether it is desirable, for creativity or for health and well-being, is a lot less certain.

Most of us are in the business because we enjoy being with people and the buzz of the newsroom.

Peter Clifton

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.