Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf has warned that long-term remote working could be “problematic” for news companies as they “have to be able to share ideas”.
Speaking at the FT’s Future of News event on Wednesday, Khalaf said she disliked working from home and wanted to see a return to the office – and that many “underestimate what we lose” from not being there.
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Almost all FT staff began working from home ten days before the UK went into full lockdown, similarly to many companies, which Khalaf said was initially tough before she realised the full potential of what could still be produced.
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Khalaf (pictured) said: “Remote working made very little difference to the quality of the journalism and even to the communication. I think if remote working continues that could be problematic. But everyone was so mobilised and everyone was on this great story.
“Journalists – all they want is to be part of the bigger story and it was such a global story and an economic and business story so it really played to our strengths and I like to think we did very well.”
Later expanding on the negative implications of remote working, Khalaf said: “I think that we really underestimate what we lose from not being in the office because we are a creative industry – we need to be talking to each other. We publish every second.
“We have to be able to share ideas and it’s really about what you don’t know that you don’t know so it’s about the accidental encounter.”
Speaking on another panel, FT chief executive John Ridding also raised concerns over how to sustain the connections and motivation needed among staff “through this long hard winter of remote working that we face”.
“Despite the image of ‘lone wolf’ reporters [news media is] increasingly a team business so success in digital media requires a degree of integration and a high degree of co-operation and collaboration,” he said.
“That requires teams, connections, contacts and a shared vision and culture and like any business it requires motivation and morale.”
By contrast, Economist editor Zanny Minton-Beddoes told the event she is enjoying the current work pattern that has been forced by Covid-19.
“I actually like working from home and partly in the office,” she said. “I’m okay with the Zoom world. I miss the chats at the coffee station.”
Khalaf revealed that her darkest moment of the crisis came early on when she was shown three scenarios of how the business could be affected by Covid-19, including one that looked “terrifying” that she was told was “entirely possible”.
She said she was told “it would be better to expect the third scenario, act immediately rather than wait and see how things go”.
“I think this is a feature of the way the FT is run, which is we would always rather take significant measures early in order to make sure we don’t have to keep adding measures as the situation develops.
“So in retrospect my darkest hour was probably a good hour because it hasn’t panned out to be as bad as we expected so we were able to relax once we had announced some measures.”
The FT’s Covid-19 action plan included cutting its spending on non-staff contributors, pay cuts for certain staff and some voluntary measures such as part-time working.
Digital subscriptions quickly soared but there were severe revenue drops in advertising, print circulation and conferences at the start of the crisis.
Ridding said news businesses have been through many crises and one lesson you learn is “not to wait in hope”.
He added that it was important to reduce costs but not move into a “death spiral” of cuts.
“You have to support the growth engines, you have to believe in the value of quality journalism so with the backing of Nikkei our owner we sustained investment in our future growth engines,” he said.