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March 19, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:08am

Reach closes most of its newsrooms as Mail Online staff return to office this month

By Charlotte Tobitt

The UK’s largest newspaper publisher Reach has set out plans for widespread newsroom closures with most of its staff to work mainly at home even after the Covid-19 crisis is over.

Meanwhile at Mail Online, the UK’s most popular news website, staff will return to the office for one week in three from the end of this month.

Reach, which publishes more than 100 regional titles alongside the Mirror, Express and Star papers, has told staff it will move to a combination of office-based, office and home-based (generally with less than 50% of time in a newsroom), and home-based teams who can use an office occasionally.

Only around a quarter of Reach staff will go back to being permanently office-based. Production staff are among those most likely to remain in the office.

The former Daily Express office in Lower Thames Street, London, is closing along with most of Reach’s regional newsrooms.

The news follows research from Press Gazette this week that revealed most journalists in the UK do not expect to return to the office full-time after the pandemic. The vast majority are currently working remotely, in line with government guidance.

The Press Gazette survey found that many staff appreciate the time freed up by not commuting and feel they are more productive away from the distractions of an open-plan office.

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The Reach changes will leave open 15 large offices, which it is calling “hubs”, where staff can gather for meetings.

These will be in Belfast, Bristol, Birmingham, Dublin, Cardiff, Glasgow, Newcastle, Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Oldham, Nottingham, Plymouth and one somewhere in the south-east, and many will be refurbished before staff begin to return post-pandemic.

The Canary Wharf office in London (pictured) will be reduced from two floors to one while new bases are being sought in Belfast, Bristol, Glasgow and Plymouth.

Each hub will have four flexible working spaces: a “collaboration zone” to suit informal meetings, formal meeting spaces, flexible quiet working spaces and fixed desks for hub-only colleagues.

Reach told staff it had no plans to close any titles or make any redundancies as a result, and said in fact it would help protect its titles in the long-term because it would save money.

Home-based workers will not be able to claim any household costs on expenses as the company considers they will be saving money overall. However they will be able to claim full travel costs when they are asked to attend a hub for an occasional meeting, as it is not classed as their commute, but not when they go in to do a full day’s work.

A Reach spokesperson said: “We carried out a survey of all colleagues that showed a majority found home working suited their needs. Moving forward colleagues will either be home-based or working mainly from home with regular office attendance, and around a quarter permanently office-based, working from one of 15 hubs around the country.

“We’re pleased to be investing in all our hubs to provide more modern, flexible working environments. This solution provides increased flexibility with the ability to have access to meeting space to recapture face-to-face collaboration and a social element – when lockdown rules allow.”

Reach’s staff survey found that 89% said home working at least partly suited their needs and 82% said they did not need physical access to their colleagues to complete their tasks.

Although 70% said they missed their colleagues and that this may have impacted their mental wellbeing, 77% said they benefited from not having a stressful commute and 54% said they had a better work-life balance.

Mirror editor-in-chief Alison Phillips said last month that journalism was “not as much fun when you’re in a room on your own”.

She said working at home meant it was difficult to recreate the “creativity and the conversations you have that lead to the bigger ideas, and also the relationships you have with people which are absolutely essential in journalism in the longer term.

“Also most younger people coming through learn by seeing and watching how other journalists do their jobs and that’s how you become a better journalist, and I think that’s going to be very difficult,” she said.

Reach’s NUJ group chapel chair Mark Johnson said he appreciated the company has pledged to listen to individual concerns and needs as a “one size fits all solution from the company probably would not be the best way forward”.

And Reach’s NUJ national coordinator Chris Morley said the industry must “not lose sight of the important symbol that the physical presence of media companies has for local communities”.

Meanwhile Mail Online is preparing to return staff to the London office for one week out of three from 29 March after England’s “stay at home” order lifts.

Government guidance states people should “continue to work from home where possible” from this date.

Staff were told on Thursday that because the public transport ban would be lifted Northcliffe House would return to the same rotating system it put in place last summer between lockdowns, with staff working one week in the office out of every three.

Staff will take a Covid-19 test at on-site testing facilities for the week they are in the office and Friday, Saturday and Sunday and evening shifts remain on a work-from-home basis for now.

Staff were told their contractual full-time place of work remains Northcliffe House, indicating Mail Online is unlikely to follow in Reach’s footsteps and make these changes long-term.

The Guardian has told staff they will continue to work at home until the autumn and has committed to keeping employees in the office long-term.

A Guardian News and Media spokesperson said: “We are continuing to follow national and local guidance on coronavirus restrictions and expect most UK based GNM employees to continue to work from home until at least September.”

Press Gazette understands Sun and Times publisher News UK is reviewing its plans for future ways of working following a staff survey similar to the one done by Reach, while the Telegraph is planning a gradual and phased return to the office when lockdown restrictions allow.

Both have so far been concentrating on the safety of core teams of essential staff in their newsrooms and, in the case of News UK, broadcast studios. News UK is encouraging staff to have their vaccines when offered by the NHS, but not requiring it.

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Picture: Reuters/Russell Boyce

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