In the past week, a number of media companies have pushed back the dates they set for their employees to return to offices, due to the rise in COVID-19 cases across the country fueled by the virus’s delta variant.
Media employees are not exactly shocked by media companies’ decision to delay their offices’ reopenings, based on conversations Digiday has had with seven media employees across publishers in the past week. In fact, one NPR employee who asked to remain anonymous was surprised that more publishers hadn’t put their plans on pause yet.
- ViacomCBS employees won’t be returning to their offices until October 18 at the earliest, CEO Bob Bakish said in a memo to staff sent Aug. 4.
- Politico announced on Aug. 4 it is putting its office reopening plans on pause, after setting September 7 as the return date. A new date was not announced.
- The Washington Post said on Aug. 3 it would delay its return to office deadline from Sept. 13 to Oct. 18. (On July 27, the Post said everyone employed by the publisher would have to be vaccinated by Sept. 13, unless they receive religious or medical exemptions.)
- The New York Times pushed back its return “indefinitely” (though its offices will remain open for those who want to go in voluntarily, with proof of vaccination).
- NPR postponed to Oct. 17.
- Group Nine says mid-October is the soonest employees would be asked to return, and it will give employees a 30-day notice. The company plans to provide an additional 60-day grace period for anyone that needs extra time.
A Politico reporter told Digiday the “general consensus” among her colleagues is that the company’s decision to put its return to work plans on hold was “reasonable,” given the spread of the delta variant. It could also give Politico’s management more time to figure out how to adopt a hybrid work environment, she said.
However, the Politico employee expects management will “try to get us back to the office before the end of the year.” She said she is “more than ready” to return to the office, and that she feels “most people want to get back to the office as long as it’s safe.”
But not all agree. Adriana Balsamo-Gallina, a staff editor at The New York Times, said management is giving staff a four-week heads-up before they are required to show up three days a week — which is not “a realistic amount of time for people to uproot their lives that they’ve established” since the pandemic started.
A Times spokesperson said the company has been “flexible” throughout the pandemic and “will continue to consider our employees’ needs in all we do.” The spokesperson noted that the company has said it will give “at least four weeks” notice before reopening, and “will aim to give employees as much notice as possible to help them plan their lives.”
Balsamo-Gallina doesn’t believe a mandatory return to the office this year will work for everyone, as many people have moved over the course of the past 18 months, and others have had major shifts in their personal lives. “It took us a year and a half to get into this, and it will take a while to get back out,” she said.
Politico, like the Times, did not set a new date for a reopening. Robert Allbritton, founder and publisher of Politico, wrote in a Aug. 4 memo to staff shared with Digiday: “Given the fluidity of the situation, I don’t believe it makes sense to specify a new target date.” He said the company will provide at least 30 days’ notice before reopening.
A Washington Post employee found it “interesting” that the Post did not follow The New York Times’ lead in pausing its return to work plans for the time being and instead set a new date in mid-October. The employee called it a “noticeable departure” from the way media companies have mimicked each other’s plans (from office shutdowns to phased returns) during the pandemic. A Post spokesperson did not provide a comment by press time.
A second Politico employee said she was hoping the company would postpone the return to the office when she saw other organizations making that decision, especially because she was worried about the delta variant. The employee was also glad to hear that Politico would mandate proof of vaccination for when the return does happen. (Starting Aug. 9, vaccines and masks will be required to enter Politico’s Rosslyn and New York offices, Allbritton announced in his memo.)
“I think it’s the responsible thing to do,” she said. “I want to see my coworkers again soon but want it to be safe for everyone so I don’t mind waiting some more.”
For the past few weeks, the Post employee assumed an announcement of a delayed reopening was coming soon. The employee said there is still “general confusion” among media companies’ management on how to handle the persistent pandemic while trying to come up with a plan for a return to work. For many, it remains unclear how often employees will be expected to work in person and when they will return en masse, especially because “not everybody is interested” in coming back, they said. “I’m not sure how I feel about it,” the employee admitted.
Kathy Zhang, senior analytics manager at The New York Times, said she was glad management postponed the deadline for when employees will be required to work in person “until we can get a better handle on this pandemic.”
Unions have been actively pressing management at publishers to come to the bargaining table on this issue. For example, The NewsGuild of New York (which represents the Times, New York Magazine, The Daily Beast and The New Yorker, among others) wrote in a statement shared on July 31: “Any return to office is a mandatory subject of bargaining and a status quo issue. That means employers cannot force Guild members back into the office without bargaining first with us over the terms of a return-to-office plan, along with the accompanying health and safety safeguards.” The Times Guild says it played a role in The Times’ decision to cancel its September deadline.
“I hope [management] takes this opportunity to bargain with union workers in good faith over my colleagues’ flexible work proposal,” Zhang said.
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