The last 18 months of the pandemic have been challenging in many regards and I have often found myself wondering how media managers are deciding which fire they are going to put out next.

Digital transformation has been accelerated by lockdowns all over the world. While the biggest publishers continue to thrive, (as seen here by the gains of digital subscribers in the 100k Club), adjusting to work from home or hybrid working has remained one of the biggest challenges.

Not even tech giants like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook (I mean, Meta), and others have been immune to changes and though many wished to speed up the return to offices, the third wave of the pandemic is making everyone push that returns to 2022 and many workers are demanding some kind of hybrid arrangement stays in place forever.

The effects of these changes on the thinking of media managers and newsroom leaders were the topic of the recent Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism report entitled Changing Newsrooms.

The report is based on a survey of 132 senior industry leaders from 42 countries as well as a series of in-depth interviews. One of the main conclusions is that the new norm for most is going to be a flexible work policy where people alternate between home and the office, or work entirely remotely.

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89% committed to hybrid working, only 34% decided

Although a majority of respondents said they are mostly on board with the shift to hybrid working (79%) or are committed to it (89%), many worry that the full implications of the hybrid newsroom have not been fully worked through.

Creativity, communication and culture were the main concerns cited. A third (34%) say their organizations have already decided on major changes and are moving to implement hybrid working, but over half (57%) are still in the process of working out the best way to do this.

Some other issues from the report: onboarding of new employees got harder (some are putting in place formal training programs), concerns about burnout and mental health, proximity bias (those who spend more time in the newsroom will be perceived as better workers), meetings should have clearer rules, new training required for managers and in some cases adding managers to the structure as experts advise leaders to schedule more one-on-one meetings with staff which is of course time-consuming.

The authors of the report conclude that remote working has made newsrooms more efficient but people miss creativity, collaboration and communication.

The issue presented in the report and noted by respondents is much more complex than a few processes. The authors describe it as a new operating model where work is done without reference to location, talent is used more effectively, hierarchies are less formal, and diverse groups are included in conversations.

Some media companies have already set up more formal policies regarding online meetings, hiring or how many days a week it is ok to work from home. Others are shrinking office space or remaking their newsrooms into event spaces for their members or subscribers?

Of course, not everyone is happy with the changes, a number of respondents are planning to go back to business as usual before the pandemic and are aiming to end remote work.

Personally, I don’t see a future where any news organisation will benefit from strict rules and remote work ban, employees would just leave for other newsrooms with more flexible adjustments.

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New skills, digital body language and effects of remote work

Harvard Business Review cited a recent Gartner analysis of 7.5 million job postings in IT, finance, and sales roles in 2018 (US) and found that they required an average of 17 skills. Three years later, the same types of roles required an average of 21 skills of which a third were completely new, not needed in 2018.

That tells us how much the skills we need today are different from only three years ago. The debate around developing new skills is not new and is also mentioned in the Reuters Changing Newsrooms report.

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Forward looking managers are already working on ways to incorporate new skills into the training of the staff.

Speaking of news skills, leadership expert Erica Dhawan has published this year her new book called Digital Body Language.

“Research shows that roughly 60% to 80% of our face-to-face communication is non-verbal language, such as the pacing, pauses, gestures and tone. All of these cues bring energy and emotional nuance to our message,” Dhawan told BBC. “In many ways, punctuation and the use of symbols in a digital world are the new means of signalling that emotion.”

A research done in 2005 looked at how people understand sarcasm. 56% (slightly more than chance) detected sarcasm when it was written in an email compared to 79% when spoken out loud. Such misunderstandings lead to loss of productivity or may cause annoyance between co-workers.

Dhawan suggests the use of emojis as they help clarify the meaning of written words and act as digital non-verbal cues for the recipient. As for video calls, Dhawan’s advice is to always designate a moderator and ask people to pay attention and not to multitask. As she notes, it is very obvious to the others on the call when someone is looking at their phone.

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BBC has recently introduced the best practice guide on how to conduct effective and inclusive meetings, regardless of whether they are held in person or online. Some other suggestions include paying more attention to those who are joining remotely and if there is a decision to be made on the call, the moderator needs to be more explicit about it.

Microsoft has conducted extensive studies across teams to understand how work has changed since early 2020, also an analysis of trillions of emails, meetings, chats, and posts across Microsoft and LinkedIn’s user base (more than 30,000 people in 31 countries around the world).

One of the effects of remote work according to Microsoft’s analysis has been people focused on connecting with the people they were used to seeing regularly and spending less time on weaker relationships and so creating siloes within the company.

That creates a problem from the longterm view as strong workplace networks impact first and foremost productivity and innovation. The authors of the study suggest being more proactive in terms of bringing people from different teams together and helping employees build social capital (informal interactions).

Many of these surveys, studies, and reports show that the pandemic has put even more pressure on managers to adjust, evolve and lead the transformation of how their organizations approach work.

More pressure, more rules, and in essence more work. The pandemic is a real test for media managers to prove they are also good managers, not just journalists turned managers as many are.

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