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Work-from-Home's Future Still a Dilemma

Posted on Saturday, August 28, 2021 at 11:01 PM

Editors weigh in on how successful work-from-home has been at their publications. The results are mixed.

By William Dunkerley

"If your editorial staff has initiated or increased work-from-home during the pandemic, has it worked out well for you?" That's a question we raised with a sampling of Editors Only readers. The responses that came back may surprise you. There was quite a variety.

Rich Calbay, associate publisher at DUB Publishing, gave a simple and unambiguous answer: "Yes." At Life Time Fitness, senior editor Steve Waryan agrees, and adds, "The entire magazine team has been working from home since March 2020, and we've successfully produced a monthly magazine since then by working together virtually over Microsoft Teams."

Susan Buningh, executive editor of Attention magazine, writes about how proud she is of her staff. She explains:

"Our entire nonprofit organization went from work-from-home part of the time to full time in March 2020. It has worked so well that we plan to continue in a solid capacity.

"Previously staff members set up their own WFH days in coordination with their director and department. Going forward, we expect to have one day per week when everyone will work in the office, or staggered in-office days when we will schedule all-staff meetings, for example.

"We've all become comfortable with meeting via Zoom and other platforms, but we also miss each other! We're examining all the implications of having everyone work mostly from home, including moving to a smaller office space. Nothing is carved in stone yet.

"As an organization, our workload across all departments increased during the pandemic, as we strived to meet the needs of both our members and our entire constituency.

"Everyone rose to the occasion by producing excellent work. We are examining staffing needs for the future as well. In terms of staff performing editorial functions, which in our case are multimedia, the entire staff did excellent, exemplary work every step of the way."

At the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, managing editor Stephanie Dean agrees that work-from-home worked out. She adds, though, that "the staff layoffs have not worked so well."

Some respondents are raising questions about continued work-from-home. Ashlee Duren, publisher of Augusta magazine, says, "Work-from-home worked out okay, but better for us to be together." At Cosmetics and Toiletries magazine, managing scientific editor Rachael Grabenhofer elaborates, "Yes, it has worked out well; most feedback I've gotten is we get more done! It's partly because we aren't currently traveling. Although we are re-entering the office now, and it's nice to have spontaneous meetings where new ideas are generated -- ones we wouldn't have had otherwise. It's a balance."

Samuel Moore, senior editor of IEEE Spectrum, agrees that work-from-home has been helpful. But he discloses, "Apart from helping to keep us safe from the virus, work-from-home has allowed me to deal with some family issues that arose during the pandemic in a way that would have been difficult-to-impossible otherwise. However, I am seeing how it has limited my productivity."

Indeed, productivity seems to be an important issue in the work-from-home dilemma. Just reading the general news, I've seen a tendency by employers to claim it has reduced productivity. With employees, on the other hand, there seem to be many claiming to have a greater sense of productivity at home.

We attempted to check out the situation in editorial offices. For that we conducted a separate survey, using a different sample of readers. We asked how work-from-home affected productivity. No one answered. We drew another sample and asked the same question. Zero response. Finally, we drew a third sample, but got the same unanimous non-response.

My experience with surveys of all kinds is that when questionnaire recipients skip answering a question, it is often because it provoked some sort of unexplained anxiety. Productivity seems to be a hot-button issue here.

If you are an advocate for work-from-home, that means it would be wise to start documenting productivity and comparing the result with the old days back at the office. If there is a deficiency, fix it. Likewise, if you are advocating a return to the traditional office environment, it's time to institute an objective check and comparison of productivity. This is certainly an important matter.

Work quality is another key issue here. Becky Schoenfeld, editorial director of QST magazine, has already tuned in to that matter. She shares her insights:

"Overall work-from-home has worked out well, but I find that it gets harder, rather than easier, as it goes on. It's much harder to maintain a sense of the team, and I think folks have been home for so long, that folks' critical reading skills have relaxed a bit -- I'm seeing a lot more copyediting and fact-checking slip-ups, and will have to come up with a way to get things back on track."

Managing a remote workforce does require a very different approach from traditional at-office supervision. You have reduced opportunities for qualitative observation of performance and productivity. Metrics can help keep your hand on the pulse of editorial productivity, i.e., how much copy is being produced. Metrics can also assist in maintaining deadline performance. Tracking it is a good idea.

Tracking of editorial quality should be helpful too. One manager was faced with editors submitting less-than-polished copy. She instituted tracking of the number of changes that had to be made during copyediting and proofreading for each editor's submissions. After each issue the results were shared with the whole staff. That seemed to successfully address the problem of submitting sloppy copy. Similarly, try tracking fact-checking errors too. The key is to collect metrics that can provide you with an objective assessment of how everyone is doing. That way you can provide factual feedback to editors to keep them on their toes.

With all that said, our survey identified some editors who were carefree when it comes to work-at-home. They were doing it all along!

At Old Schoolhouse magazine, senior editor Deborah Wuehler writes, "Our company has always been a work-from-home virtual company. We have not changed that aspect, but we have hired more staff to help through the pandemic year. We have set up regular Zoom, webinar, or phone meetings since running a virtual business needs this kind of interaction and communication where simple emails may not suffice."

Tricia Bisoux at BizEd magazine said, "This question isn't applicable to us. My co-editor and I have always worked remotely from our homes (for 20 years, in fact)!"

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

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