The old world of “office-based” working feels rather distant as we move to another period of working from home. Let’s hope that the vaccine wall holds against Omicron and restrictions ease gradually.
Will 2022 move towards a model of “blended working” with some staff in the office and some staff at home? And how will that work especially in independent media and publishing businesses, with between 10 and 100 staff?
Why blended working is harder for creative teams
It’s possible that a tech business or a call centre, where tasks are routinised and teams can work solo, can make a mostly remote model work. But a creative business founded on collaboration and innovation, will find blended working more challenging. Editorial teams need to negotiate the extent of branded content in marketing solutions with the sales team. Marketers must understand the reader and planned feature content in order to craft smart subscription promotions. And if you organise conferences or awards, it’s a team game for the entire company.
Future plc has attracted some criticism for stating that they don’t believe their teams can work remotely in the face of work from home government guidance, but there is a grain of truth in their stance.
Blended working for a publisher means rethinking your property strategy and re-engineering the processes for how people work together. Recruiting top talent requires a different approach and maintaining productivity while retaining staff is likely to be challenging. And finally, how can you build a strong company culture with your team dispersed across the country (or even across continents).
I led a workshop discussion on blended working at the PPA Independent Publisher conference. I have also chaired round tables of media CEOs on the “post-pandemic” office and discussed the topic with several media leaders. These are my observations on how your peers are navigating this challenge.
How to rethink your property strategy
The FT recently estimated office occupancy in Autumn 2021 at around 20%, up from 10% in the summer. That equates to one day a week in the office. It may build in 2022, but few employers are anticipating staff coming in more than 3 days a week. Some publishers have reduced their staff; many have significantly downsized their office – now anticipating half the number of desks as before. Those lucky enough to have a flexible lease have opted out completely and replaced with flexible contracts with the likes of WeWork or Regus.
Office space that has been retained is being replanned, with more meeting rooms and creative spaces, studio set-ups for virtual events, tech for hybrid meetings, and booths for video calls rather than banks of allocated desks. If you took advantage of remote working to hire staff in far-flung regions of the UK, you may need to rent a regional hub to get that team together without them having to trek to your HQ.
How to re-engineer your processes
Some publishers are already running a booking system, so that staff have to say in advance which days they will be in. Essential if your office capacity is now half what it was. But this is already causing challenges – should an editor insist on their entire team being in on a Tuesday to plan upcoming issues? What if some people, newly assertive post pandemic and enjoying their work-life balance, claim this day conflicts with their childcare rota? How far should team leaders be able to insist on a weekly rhythm of days in vs days at home?
And if you end up with hybrid team meetings with some in the office while others dial in, how can you ensure that the remote team members get an equal voice? Should you be concerned about in-office workers getting an unfair advantage over the further flung team members? This challenge expands exponentially if you have international remote staff, especially when in different time zones and with varying public holidays.
Does it make sense to enforce guidelines on working hours? One publishing MD swears by the simple email feature of “send later” – if one member of staff is happy to work till 9pm they can schedule their emails, so they land at 9am in their co-workers’ inboxes, to reduce the pressure to respond out of hours.
How do you deal with a senior editor or sales director who is reluctant to come into the office, leaving their junior staff lacking direction or coaching? And is it feasible to chair a mostly in person meeting from afar over Teams or Zoom? Leaders may have to have some tough discussions with middle managers over the coming months.
The new rules for recruitment
There’s a noticeable skills shortage in many sectors, from event management to subs marketing to sales leaders or developers – and salaries are creeping up. Remote working provided greater geographical scope in hiring but this cuts both ways. Once upon a time provincial publishers could count on low churn rates as staff had fewer practical alternative job options locally, but now the catchment for a jobseeker is the whole of the UK.
New hires may demand a degree of flexibility – insisting on four or five days a week in the office means your offer is less appealing than that of a more flexible competitor.
Improving productivity and retention
Marketers, developers and sub-editors may report that they are more productive working at home, but publishing is a creative, team sport, and editors and salespeople do thrive on the energy and challenge of a shared space. The challenge for MDs is to balance the in-office creative time and the quiet reflective time of the home environment. Predictable scheduling clashes loom, whether that is bringing a single team together or gathering a cross-discipline project team in one location.
Managers may need to be reminded that part of their role is mentoring and supporting their team, which requires a physical presence. Running a department is not just about ticking off your own to-do list.
Millennials, who make up most junior and middle-level staff, place great importance on a sense of purpose or mission, and a supportive culture. Alongside of course, development opportunities, recognition, and financial reward. With many of your team receiving a barrage of calls from desperate recruiters, you need to devise a package that will retain them.
Establishing culture in a blended workplace
Publishing companies usually have a strong culture, based on trust and mutual respect, and often a strong social bond. One small B2B publisher asked their staff what was the best thing about the company. Their reply: “I’m friends with my colleagues”.
In a blended workplace, you must work extra hard to build culture. Regular all-company team building and away days, scheduled team or project meetings, and a programme for mentoring new joiners have to be planned in. One publishing MD has established a daily 10-minute “Fika” break. Based on the Scandinavian phrase for a pastry and coffee, it is an enforced time slot where you are expected to chat with your colleagues and not talk shop.
There will be trouble ahead
This adjustment will not be plain sailing. Managers will have to (re) negotiate expectations of staff who have become accustomed to working remotely. There will be further negotiations between teams as CEOs try to build a cross company culture and encourage collaboration. Squalls are forecast. But if publishers can find the solution to blended working, then we can reduce our property costs, broaden our recruitment pool, maintain productivity, and enhance creative collaboration. Time to face the music and dance.
If you’d like to discuss how to manage blended working in your publishing business, do get in touch for a (probably virtual) coffee and chat.
About the author
Carolyn Morgan has bought, sold, launched and grown specialist media businesses across print, digital and live events. A founder of the Specialist Media Show (sold in 2014) she now advises media businesses large and small on their digital strategy through her consultancy Speciall Media.