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.