Digital Publishing Interesting and Timeless
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Big Tech lost the WFH battle, newsrooms should give in too

Less meetings, more emails and audio

The return to the office has been suspended so many times we should simply accept the home office as the new normal

After 17 months of the coronavirus pandemic few things seem as normal as working from home. The shift to the home office has been a recurrent topic also for newsrooms, journalists and media managers.

During the summer many companies were preparing a return to office due to high levels of vaccinations. It is kind of a déjà vu from last year when leaders announced plans for employees to return and had to scramble them as another wave hit.

As last year, also this summer the Big Tech companies were the first to put returns on hold.

Bloomberg recently reported that tech companies have over the last few weeks pushed back their return plans because of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.

Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Uber, Lyft, and others shifted their timelines again, some delayed the returns until October, others till January. Some like Facebook or Dropbox accepted that work from home is here to stay and are putting new longterm rules in place.

According to Bloomberg, some workers want to avoid the office so badly they would accept a pay cut in order not to go back.

For those returning, proof of vaccinations will be mandatory and the same trend is spreading in the news industry as well. 

In July, CNBC reported that news companies like Bloomberg are very keen to see their staff return to offices. Bloomberg has arguably some of the nicest offices in the world.

I once visited the London newsroom and was blown away. But after spending most of the past 17 months at home, setting up a comfortable home office, I think I would not trade it for a daily commute and working from office.

What if a meeting was just an email, the pandemic made it possible

I remember once a senior journalist colleague complained that young journalists only sit in the newsroom, DM sources on social media and instant messaging apps, call press departments and seldom leave the office.

For those born later, he was referring to ‘shoe leather reporting’, the original way journalists before internet used report on stories, going from source to source.

Some think simply sitting in the office cannot make good reporting, you have to meet with source, call people, see the stuff you are going to write about to convey it in the best possible way.

With the ongoing pandemic going into the third stage (or wave) that debate hit largely pause. Journalists still go out to the field and meet with sources, though they use digital communication and the internet a lot and the best of them make good use of all the ways to get the story.

Shoe leather reporting has evolved and adapted to the circumstances. The same is happening to working in the office.

Just two years ago, for most newsrooms it was unthinkable to let their journalists work mostly from home. Attending a video call meeting was by some considered a joke, all meetings had to be in person to count.

But during a pandemic when suddenly everyone wanted to talk via a video call more and more started asking whether such and such meeting is really necessary and a simple email wouldn’t suffice.

Now, I understand that email overload is a real thing, so not everyone will favor that instead of a real life meeting. But the fact is that in person meetings have increasingly become harder to organize.

According to Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford professor who’s been studying remote work for more than a decade, a hybrid workplace, in which employees spend some days in the office and some at home, is the most favored post-pandemic return-to-work plan.

Full return to offices and newsrooms seems unlikely. Also, as media insiders keep pointing out, publishers could actually save money on the hybrid workplace with renting less space.

More audio, less video

One of the concerns for work from home among experts and employees is the proximity bias. 

In a 2015 study by professor Bloom, employees were randomly assigned to nine months of mostly working from home or full-time at the office. Even though home workers turned out to be more productive, they were about half as likely as their office counterparts to get a promotion.

So there is definitely some work that needs to be done on the part of companies before anyone can comfortably opt in for a home office.

Same goes for publishers that are indefinitely postponing return to their newsroom, just like The New York Times did. Its offices will remain open for those who want to go in voluntarily, with proof of vaccination.

One recent announcement has sparked more joy than I could have anticipated. Alan Soon and Rishad Patel, the co-founders of Splice Media announced a new project called The School of Splice.

The School of Splice will be a special training program for early stage media entrepreneurs.  Alan and Rishad promise it will include everything you need to get moving, or to build a more viable media startup business.

What’s so interesting about it? It’s going to be all audio only. Their website states no Zoom calls, no webinars, no stress. School of Splice will be an all-audio learning program.

The quick foundation course is offered for free, is set to begin September 1st. They also offer a full-stack program for $ 750.

After I have read the positive reactions on social media on the “no zoom, all audio” project I wondered why there aren’t more audio-based projects like this.

Sure, there are podcasts. But the idea of taking something in-person and turn it into an audio-only form sounds exciting.

With many conferences and webinars gone virtual people could attend more of them, which has been both good and bad. The accessibility to anyone is good, but the sameness is holding most virtual events back. In such a sentiment, trying to go with a lesser conventional approach (i.e. audio-only) is very refreshing to see.

David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.