A return to the office brings 'some anxieties, some anticipation'

New York (CNN Business)A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Tuesday was the first day since March 2020 that fellow media reporter Oliver Darcy and I sat in the office and called sources and brainstormed stories and swapped info and gossiped and did all those things that we took for granted in the Before Times.
I have to tell you, dear reader, it was divine.

    Pandemic-era work-from-home patterns are starting to shift. So let’s take a snapshot of how the news is getting made right now, at a moment when American cities are reopening and Covid-19 case counts are hitting record lows.

      Some media industry employees are returning to offices, slowly. At CNN and NBC News and a number of smaller outlets, June 1, 2021 was a milestone day: Fully vaccinated staffers who had to work from home for 15 months were welcomed back to the office on a purely voluntary basis. In some newsrooms these are being called “pilot” programs. In others, “soft” reopenings.

      Return-to-the-office is a fraught topic

      Here are some of the reasons why:
      — Frontline workers in many fields, from health care to food processing, have been in the office all along, and should never be erased from the picture.
      — Many media offices have stayed open throughout the pandemic too, and everyone from printing press operators to field correspondents have continued to show up in-person, sometimes at significant personal risk.
      — The work-from-home shift happened suddenly, at a moment when journalists were covering one of the biggest stories of their lives, with hardly any time to adapt. Staffers have sacrificed in all sorts of ways.
      All that said, here’s what the media landscape looks like in June 2021: Some bosses are back in the office and want their employees back, too. Some employees want to be back at their desks and back to “normal” ASAP. But many of the people responsible for producing the American news diet are still working from home, and they want to retain that flexibility for the long term. Some are even willing to quit or change jobs to preserve it. For many bosses and employees, there’s no going back to the rigid 9-to-5 schedules of 2019.
      It’s easy to imagine the tension that this generates. Different jobs need different amounts of flexibility. Different staffers on the same team may want very different degrees of in-person versus remote interaction. And so forth. So newsrooms are easing back into it. At The Associated Press, for example, staffers have been told that no one will be “required” to return to the workplace until September.

      Face-to-face time

      At Quartz, the New York office reopened on Tuesday, with a few rules and reminders, according to CEO Zach Seward: First, vaccination was required. Second, “Quartz is a work-from-anywhere company,” which means there’s “no expectation to use the office just because it’s there,” he wrote on Twitter. “But we’ve got this great, unnecessarily large space for another year, so we plan to make the most of it.”
      June 1 was a soft reopening date for other offices too. As an anchor, I’ve been coming into CNN’s New York workspace throughout the pandemic, but it felt more welcoming on Tuesday, the start of a voluntary return for the wider workforce. The signs about mandated masking and social distancing have come off the walls — thanks to the vaccines. Masks have become optional — again, thanks to the vaccines. More co-anchored shows, like “Early Start” and the 2 to 4 p.m. Eastern hours of “CNN Newsroom,” have returned to their proper studios.
      One of Fox’s biggest shows has resumed in-person production, too. “Notice anything different?” Jesse Watters asked when “The Five” started in its old studio on Tuesday. “Boy, does it feel strange,” he said. “No more remote set-ups. No more two-second delays. We are finally back here face-to-face.” As almost any TV host will tell you, face-to-face is objectively better.
      Jake Tapper articulated this argument in CNN.com’s new immersive feature “2020 In Our Words.” He said his team “has done an unbelievable job and I’m really proud of them, but I can’t wait to get them back —- not only because I miss them, but because I know we’ll be even better when we see each other and can talk and communicate. A TV news show is completely collaborative —- I’m the one in front of the camera, but there are dozens of people contributing to what I say, what I ask, who’s there, who’s booked, the order, ideas for questions — and all of that will be so much better when everybody is vaccinated and we can get them to come back.”

      Clearing off the dining room table

      For every empty office cubicle, there’s a cluttered bedroom or living room. Now here’s the inverse: A newly-empty dining room. Sarah Stierch, a self-employed reporter in Sonoma, California, posted this picture before heading back to her co-working space for the first time on Tuesday. “I have reclaimed my dining room table,” she quipped. “Working at home was great for a while but now I’m finding my mental health being pretty impacted by it — and therefore my productivity.”

      After a year of working at home I have reclaimed my dining room table as I return to my office. Working at home was great for a while but now I’m finding my mental health being pretty impacted by it – and therefore my productivity. #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/NknZ5wx5f9

      On Wednesday one of the most prominent reporters at The New York Times, Maggie Haberman, tweeted some photos from the mostly-empty New York newsroom.
      “Never thought I’d miss it but here we are,” her colleague Astead Herndon replied.
      “Had same reactions, before walking in and after I got here,” Haberman said.

      pic.twitter.com/IPyqQuLnZb

      At The Times, a “phased return to the office for most employees” is scheduled to start on September 7, a spokeswoman said. That’s what many outlets are doing: A September relaunch of sorts. For the time being, a “small number of people across departments have been granted access to work in the office on certain days of the week,” the spokeswoman said.

      The coming clashes

      Across print and digital publishers, the circumstances are quite different. In some cases, staffers are now living a state or a time zone away from the office. Employers are at risk of losing talent if they’re not respectful of pandemic-era changes. Bloomberg’s Anders Melin and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou wrote on Tuesday that “the drive to get people back into offices is clashing with workers who’ve embraced remote work as the new normal.”
      It was striking to read that, since it came from Bloomberg, where journalists have been nudged to get back to the office once vaccinated. “Clashing” has been one of the results. Mike Bloomberg’s infamous February 2 memo about returning to HQ said, “Any questions? I’m at my desk.” Much more to come on this.

      More examples of the slow return to normal

      — Facebook said last week that “offices in Manhattan will open July 12 at 25% capacity…” (Bloomberg)
      — Ad agencies and other media firms are also trying to figure out this new normal. Omnicom Group’s tens of thousands of employees were recently told by CEO John Wren that “we will return to an office-centric culture as our baseline…” (AgencySpy)
      — Omnicom “did an assessment that found that most people want to be in the office ‘most of the time while having some flexibility to work remotely…'” (MediaPost)
      — Embryo, a digital marketing agency, emphasized the word “slowly” while touting Tuesday’s return to the office: “We can’t wait to slowly see our team back…” (Twitter)

        — Over the weekend CNN’s Michael Smerconish highlighted a study that found 90% of Millennial and Gen Z employees do not want to return to the office full-time… (CNN)
        — Jill Filipovic’s new CNN Opinion piece is about ending the exploitation of workers: “Millions of vacant jobs add up to a massive wake-up call…” (CNN)
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