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January 19, 2023updated 23 Jan 2023 5:48pm

Fleet Street bosses battle to revive newsroom spirit in the age of flexible working

UK media WFH policies are generally hybrid/flexible. But editors are keen to rebuild a pre-pandemic atmosphere.

By William Turvill

Last week Robert Thomson, the chief executive of News Corp, emailed staff to promote his vision for recreating a “thriving office environment” nearly three years after working from home (WFH) became a norm across many professions.

Thomson spoke of the need to “enhance productivity and creativity”, which he suggested could not be “consistently generated in not-so-splendid isolation”. The company, he added, would be working to ensure “more people return more frequently to our offices”.

This may be easier said than done for some divisions of News Corp.

The Times and Sunday Times, both part of News Corp’s News UK publishing arm, merged onto the same floor of the company’s London Bridge office during the pandemic. Two newsroom sources suggested that the 11th floor is not big enough to accommodate all of the titles’ journalists on any one day.

Currently, in-office attendance varies by team across The Times and Sunday Times. Some journalists are in five days a week while others aim for two or three days. Some editors don’t like staff working from home, others are happy for them to do so.

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John Witherow, who stood down as editor of The Times in September, wanted journalists to be in the office three days a week, according to one source. Tony Gallagher, his successor, has not yet issued guidance of his own, the source said.

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The general policy across News UK, which also includes The Sun, is for staff to be in the office at least three days a week, according to a spokesperson. However, the nature of many journalistic jobs means that this is difficult to monitor, with many staff required to be out and about rather than at their desk.

A newsroom source at The Sun said some younger employees, especially those working for the website, have seemed “pretty resistant” to working in the office, perhaps because they “see interaction as far less part of their role” and “believe they can do their jobs in exactly the same way from wherever they are”.

The issues facing The Times, Sunday Times and The Sun are mirrored across several other national newsrooms. Some newspaper titles have moved into smaller offices, or downgraded their floorspace, in recent years. Several have flexible working policies in place that have created disparity between teams and individuals. And, as a result of these changes, many bosses are now struggling to recreate the newsroom spirit that existed before Covid-19.

Back to normal for the Mail and Telegraph

Two major newsrooms that have returned most of the way to their 2019 attendance levels are the Mail – incorporating the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and Mail Online – and the Telegraph.

One newsroom source said that working from home is “frowned upon” at the Mail. The informal policy for journalists across the Mail titles is “most people in the office most of the time”, although one source observed that this rule does not appear to apply as strongly for Mail Online.

The Mail vacated its long-standing home, Northcliffe House on Derry Street in Kensington, late last year as the building underwent refurbishments. Staff have moved across the street into a temporary home. The new HQ is not fully operational and so there is a little more WFH flexibility across the business currently.

The Telegraph, based in Victoria, also has a policy of compelling staff to come into the office. A spokesperson said: “The Telegraph is a predominantly office-based organisation with a 24/7 newsroom. The majority of our roles require attendance in the office. We believe that collaboration and creativity is enhanced when our people are working in the same location.”

Reach seeks to remind staff 'how much fun a newsroom can be'

Like News UK, Reach used the pandemic as an opportunity to merge floorspace. In 2021, the publisher downgraded from two floors to one in its Canary Wharf base, meaning all of its national newspapers – the Mirror, Express and Star titles – are spread across the 23rd floor alongside other divisions of the business.

As with The Times and Sunday Times, this means that not all staff could physically fit into the office at the same time. Because most staff have embraced WFH life, this has not yet proven to be an issue, although one staffer said the office is becoming gradually busier, at least between Monday and Thursday.

One Reach staffer estimated that there could be as few as 10–15 editorial staff from the Express in on an average weekday. The title's core senior team is in five days a week, while reporters come in for briefings and planning, and sub-editors work from home. A senior editor said the setup works well and that staff, by and large, "prefer the flexibility".

Reach journalists spoken to by Press Gazette agreed with this sentiment and personally enjoy the benefits of flexible working. However, there seems to be a general consensus that newsrooms have lost some character over the pandemic. Reach newsrooms have a hot-desking policy and workspaces are no longer kitted out with landlines. “It looks a bit like a call centre without phones,” said one source. Another source said editors are now making efforts to "bring back a bit of a vibrant old-fashioned newsroom atmosphere".

Alison Phillips, editor-in-chief of the Mirror titles, told Press Gazette: "While flexibility has been a positive change in many ways, since Christmas we've also been encouraging staff to come in more frequently – particularly reporters and feature writers – ideally two or three days a week.

"We feel this is important to sustain the bonds which will get us through times like Covid, for fostering creativity and for passing on skills and values – as well as reminding everyone (or showing new staff for the first time) how much fun a newsroom can be."

Hybrid policy rules across other Fleet Street titles

The Guardian's policy until recently was for employees to generally come in three days a week and work from home two days a week. However, this was disrupted by a cyberattack on the publisher in late December. Most staff have been working from home since then.

Office policies at the i, which is part of the same company as the Mail titles, have been disrupted by the move away from Northcliffe House. A source said that many reporters are currently working from home while the fourth floor of their new building is completed. Before the move, staff were generally expected to be in the office three days a week.

At the London Evening Standard, which also left Northcliffe House last year and is now based in Moorgate, many journalists come into the office between Monday and Thursday and then work from home on Fridays. However, railway strikes around the festive period disrupted this pattern somewhat and the Standard is generally flexible. The Standard’s sister title, The Independent, which is also now based in Moorgate, also has a hybrid/flexible policy.

The Financial Times, headquartered near St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London, has one of Fleet Street’s clearest hybrid policies. Journalists are expected to be in the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; newsdesks are staffed five days a week; and reporters and editors come into the office when they are working on big stories.

The BBC: Managers decide

Fleet Street journalists confused by their own WFH policies can take some heart from the BBC, where rules are governed by a lengthy “Flexible Working Policy”. The document, which runs over 17 pages, sets out how the BBC aims to have a "person centred, business led approach to flexible working".

The upshot, according to one newsroom source, is that managers decide if journalists can work from home or in a flexible manner. “Even in areas where it was proved during Covid that work can 100% effectively be done from home, they can refuse,” the source said, adding that World Service journalists tend to have the least flexibility.

“The result is not many people in news can WFH but in all other areas of the BBC they do. HR were all WFH before the term was invented. Many of the professional services departments have given up most of their desks as no one ever comes in.”

The BBC said it has a clear flexible working policy. Some of its staff continued to work in the office through the pandemic to ensure broadcasts went ahead. The BBC said that most of its support staff work in the office two or three days a week.

Sky News also has a hybrid model. It allows staff to work from home two days a week, although many – such as broadcast journalists – will need to work from a studio or will be on the road.

The benefits of flexible working

Newsroom atmosphere aside, many journalists spoken to by Press Gazette enjoy flexible working regimes. One source at News UK said Robert Thomson’s recent email had caused “consternation and concern” among some staff who have become accustomed to the benefits of flexible working – including enhanced childcare options and savings on commuting.

Businesses like Reach, while keen to add a newsroom atmosphere where possible, have also identified several benefits to new working patterns. In November a Reuters Institute report found that 61% of respondents to a news organisation survey had embraced hybrid and flexible working. Some 57% of leaders who participated in the survey said the set-up was working well for their organisations.

Reach said that its "Home and Hub policy" helps the company support a "diverse workforce, the well-being of our teams and a more pragmatic approach to getting the job done, wherever we work from".

A spokesperson said: "While different roles and teams have different needs, we put more control in the hands of team leaders to decide what’s best for their team and currently have about a third of our people working mainly from a hub, a third working mainly from home and the remaining third adopting a hybrid approach, splitting their time between home and office.

"This model, combined with our national and local reach, also means we can attract people from a wider geographic footprint."

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

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