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Permanent Work at Home?

Posted on Thursday, July 30, 2020 at 2:32 PM

At some point, the Covid-19 pandemic will end. But is telecommuting here to stay?

By William Dunkerley

"Work from Home Is Here to Stay" is a May 4, 2020 headline from The Atlantic,. Then on June 22 NPR ran a story: "Get a Comfortable Chair: Permanent Work from Home Is Coming."

A brief look at online ads recruiting editorial personnel shows a surprising number of publications seeking to fill work-at-home positions.

Meanwhile, many editors are expressing a strong desire to get back to the office and see things return to normal. Some are feeling cabin fever from being "stuck at home." Part of that is related to disruption of their established work routines by the Covid-19 crisis. Others are missing the personal friendships they had established in the office environment.

What's Really Going to Happen?

Answers to that question break down along two lines:

First is the matter of the pandemic. It's not over yet.

Already some attempts to return to normalcy in our society have been suspected as the cause of rising infection rates. Those results have challenged the wisdom of those attempts.

Public desire for salvaging the baseball season offers an example. Careful plans by the Miami Marlins were made to cope with the Covid predicament. Despite that, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the team "did not make it through the first weekend of play before the first crisis developed: a major outbreak involving the Miami Marlins." As of this writing, 18 members of the team’s traveling party have been infected, according to ESPN.com.

Editorial teams brought back together in an office face a similar risk. Strict precautions can go a long way. It's uncertain how staff may react, however, if and when the first infection within an editorial office becomes known.

It makes good sense for us to be prepared for continued work at home for some time. Those who've already returned to office should be prepared for possibly being sent home again, depending on the future course of the virus.

Second is the issue of permanent work from home. This is something that editorial managers should be giving much thought. While many think of it as just a temporary adaptation to the Covid conditions, it's worth looking beyond that.

Howard Rauch, president of Editorial Solutions, wrote us: "Regarding the whether or not to return to the office issue, perhaps there is a related budding concern to consider. What happens when publishing management decides to vacate the office environment permanently? I know of one case where that's happened recently, but there must be other managements thinking about the possibilities."

The Challenges of Change

Permanent work at home would certainly represent a significant change for editorial staffers. In turn, the staffers would present new challenges for editorial management. Imposed change frequently is met by staff resistance. It is a leading cause of failure when making business changes.

Change can raise fears regarding job, income, status, future opportunities, perks, reputation, influence, responsibility, autonomy, relationships, familiar routines, and security.

One particular challenge when working outside a traditional office environment is our need to communicate with others in the process of producing a publication. Much of our work has a sequence to it.

First there is the collaborative issue planning. Then, as individual articles work their way toward publication, they usually are handled by different people with different roles: handling editor, copy editor, design editor, proofreader, etc. Time lost in going from one staffer to another can put a publication behind schedule quickly.

Years ago I saw an unfortunate situation when that sequence was permanently interrupted. The publisher was a boating fanatic. She wanted to have endless long weekends to spend on her boat. So she put the publication on a four-day workweek. Staffers had to choose between working from Monday to Thursday or Tuesday to Friday.

The publisher hadn't given any thought to what this would do to the publication schedule. The result was that when one person completed his work on an article on Thursday, it was possible that the next person to handle it wouldn't be at work until the following Tuesday. It created a disastrous slowdown. Work-at-home schedules need to be arranged to avoid situations like that.

Look for a Bright Side

While being cognizant of possible drawbacks to home-based work, it would be constructive to take stock of possible benefits.

Are there any advantages to having staff work from home? Does it increase the pool of candidates for filling editorial positions? Can some editors work more productively from home? Are there cost savings for your editorial budget that can be achieved from it?

Advantages may be seen differently dependent upon the age group of an individual. It will be important to be sensitive to how it is viewed by individuals on your staff. Some believe that older staffers will be more grateful for not having a daily commute. On the other hand, younger staff members may tend to be more facile in using remote communications and more welcoming of it.

The popularity of texting offers one example. A PEW study once showed an inverse correlation regarding age: more years, less texting. This was apparent to me two years ago while sitting in a restaurant in Europe. I was having dinner with a local journalist and her husband. We were having a robust conversation. Partway through, the husband called my attention to a younger couple seated across the aisle. They were sitting there robustly texting. I mused that maybe they were texting each other. So the husband said to them in the native language, "This American wants to know if you are texting each other." They chuckled and with a smile affirmed that they were texting others. I wasn't sure whether that was good or bad. But the point is that you may have to deal with a permanent switch to mostly electronic communication being received differently based on generational differences.

Time to Plan

Now is a good time for planning for the worst -- or the better, depending on how you look at the possibility of permanent work at home. I strongly recommend looking for the good aspects of it -- and ways of dealing with staffers that you might need help to avoid permanent adjustment problems in dealing with it.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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