A Publishing Staff Revolts Over Bungled Return-To-Office Message

As the world opens up, one of the most pressing issues facing publishing CEOs is navigating the cultural and business ramifications of sticking with remote work versus returning to the office (editor’s note: on May 19, AM&P Network’s CEO and Owners Council is hosting a virtual discussion on Planning the Office Return, facilitated by workplace experts Monreau Shepell).

Strong cases can be made for both, including remote work offering flexibility, lower costs for both employees and employers, and unchanged or improved productivity (see chart below) while in-office fosters deeper collaboration, mentoring and camaraderie.

However, Cathy Merrill, CEO of D.C. regional magazine The Washingtonian, showed exactly how NOT to approach the dilemma in a Washington Post opinion piece last week.

Merrill wrote that she’s excited about the prospect of returning to the office but concerned about the “common office worker who wants to continue working at home and just go into the office on occasion.” Fair enough.

Then Merrill threw down the gauntlet, saying employers could consider changing the status of those workers to contractor and eliminate their benefits:

“While some employees might like to continue to work from home and pop in only when necessary, that presents executives with a tempting economic option the employees might not like. I estimate that about 20 percent of every office job is outside one’s core responsibilities — ‘extra.’ It involves helping a colleague, mentoring more junior people, celebrating someone’s birthday — things that drive office culture. If the employee is rarely around to participate in those extras, management has a strong incentive to change their status to ‘contractor.’ Instead of receiving a set salary, contractors are paid only for the work they do, either hourly or by appropriate output metrics. That would also mean not having to pay for health care, a 401(k) match and our share of FICA and Medicare taxes — benefits that in my company’s case add up roughly to an extra 15 percent of compensation.”

Merrill’s staff subsequently revolted very publicly, including a one-day work stoppage on May 7. “As members of the Washingtonian editorial staff, we want our CEO to understand the risks of not valuing our labor,” they declared. “We are dismayed by Cathy Merrill’s public threat to our livelihoods. We will not be publishing today.”  

Ultimately, the pushback from The Washingtonian staff has less to do with remote work versus office work than a lack of respect from the C-suite. That next conference room birthday bash should be fun.

No Change in Productivity

Fortunately, in B2B and information publishing, most CEO’s seem to be treating their employees like adults and exploring a hybrid model of remote work and office. “We’re allowing employees to keep working from home two-to-three days per week,” says the CEO of one mid-sized B2B publisher. “I find where face-to-face is really necessary is for things like budgeting and idea generation, not day-to-day.”

According to an AM&P Network survey conducted last fall, most B2B media and information companies surveyed noted little change in productivity with remote work.

That’s led to some creative policies for publishers to enable employees to balance home life and work. Industry Dive (a staple on the Washington Post’s Top Workplaces list) adopted a flexible approach to supporting employees should they decide to live in another part of the U.S. during lockdown, while keeping staff connected by offering a video-based story time hour for employees’ children as well as cooking demonstration, yoga and workout sessions.

Changing Culture, Not Just Revenue Mix

Publishers today are quick to refer to themselves as “digital first” or cutting edge compared to their competitors.

While that may be true of their product set, it often doesn’t apply to culture and daily operations (not that the tech giants have handled the office return any smoother—last week Google backtracked on its hardline return-to-work policy, saying staff can telecommute through Sept. 1 and then have the options of returning to their pre-pandemic office, working out of a Google office in a different city or working remotely if their role permits it).

The evolution of this industry can’t be limited to the development of data products and marketing services or dropping the label “publisher” for something like “information services.”

“We refer to ourselves as digital-first and if we can’t operate day-to-day in a digital environment, then we’re doing something wrong,” said Thomas CEO Tony Uphoff at our Business Information & Media Summit last year.

Woman connecting with her computer at home and following online courses, distance learning concept

Get Dressed, Adjust Routines to Your Vibes and Stay Connected, CEOs Advise

Woman connecting with her computer at home and following online courses, distance learning concept

During an October 2019 SIPA webinar on managing remote workers, Heather Farley, COO of Access Intelligence, said that the most relevant stat was that 90% of remote workers said they’re more productive. “We hear this a lot at AI,” she said. At that time, many of us might have raised our eyebrows. Now, we’re all (tired) believers. But is it sustainable?

“Many also advocate for experimenting with small adjustments to your routines to hit your most productive period in the day,” Diana Shi wrote in a Fast Company article titled 9 CEOs Share Their Best Tips for Successful Remote Work

That sentence struck a chord for me. At around 7 am this morning, I read work emails written around 10 pm last night. And I’m sure that colleagues look at my 7:05 am emails the same way I look at their late-night emails—when I’m either asleep or on the verge—and we make similar exclamations. We all have different times and vibes to get our best work done, and working remotely encourages that.

Looking back now, it was prescient of SIPA to conduct that October 2019 webinar with Farley and Dan Fink, managing director of Money-Media. They gave an excellent blueprint of what to do and not do managing remote workers. Let’s mix some of their advice with some from the CEOs that Shi featured in her article for an updated guide.

Invest in relationships. “Find creative ways to still informally connect with your teams, to build and strengthen relationships,’ said Niren Chaudhary, CEO of Panera Bread. He also advises to share praise. “Remember to recognize and show appreciation of your team.”

Engaging in meetings is very important. In October 2019, Fink was concerned that remote workers would receive audio and video feeds from conference room meetings. “We’ve installed some large screens in conference rooms. There’s a marked difference in how that person participates. And how the people feel; it feels like that person was in the meeting room. It really does make a significant difference.” Today, engagement in meetings remains important. I’ve read that we lose a lot by multitasking during meetings. A recent study found that “those who focused on nonverbal communication cues from their colleagues or said they tried harder to listen attentively were less likely to see any change in the quality of their work relationships.”

Make time for one-on-one voice calls, without video. “There’s a lot of video fatigue, so be conscious whether all parties want to use it,” says Anne Chow, CEO of AT&T Business. “With family, do take advantage of all the benefits of video, especially with those whom you haven’t seen for a while. If they don’t know how to, get them set up.”

Ask for feedback. I think this one still applies. “Is this working for you?” Farley asked. “What are the pain points? Are you lonely? Do you feel disenfranchised? Is the work getting done? Relationships work because they’re built on trust. We talk about it on a regular basis, to have regular touch-in points is critical. Things don’t just happen. Clear the decks and course correct to get those situations working.” She also said to “over-communicate.” Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of Coursera, agreed and said that’s also incumbent on the manager. “Communicate. Schedule time for more all-hands, team stand-ups, one-on-ones, and skip-levels.”

Check on their technology. Pre-pandemic, 77% of remote workers were between ages 25-44. But now it’s everyone. Money-Media was quick to order “kits for a number of staff who were having difficulty being efficient in their home work space; things like a mouse, keyboard, monitor, office chair, etc.,” Fink said. “Most of these items are pretty inexpensive on but go a long way to helping staff be productive and letting people know how much we appreciate their hard work during this crisis.”

Pretend you’re going to the office. “In this virtual world, maintaining some of the habits that helped me think and feel my best when I was going into the office has been really important to me,” said Joel Flory, CEO of VSCO, such as getting up early to exercise. Any guess what Jennifer Hyman, CEO of Rent the Runway—a subscription fashion service—recommends doing? Get dressed nice every day, of course. “Getting ready in the morning helps signal my body and brain that productivity is my priority.” I’ve read that some people even ride around for a half hour and then come home to give the commuting feel. I’ve kept my Friday tradition of driving to Heidelberg Bakery in the morning.