In some newsrooms, radical new ways of working happened overnight because of COVID-19, with evening newscasts and national and local newspapers produced by entirely remote staff.
Some journalists are working from home for the first time, and some with children by their side due to school dismissals. The demand for their work, however, remains high during a time when getting reliable information to the public is more important than ever. A lot is at stake for journalists and their audiences as they grapple with the complexities of telecommuting as a new way of working.
If you’re someone who never had to work from home before, the most basic requirements — like a private, quiet place to work and sufficient internet bandwidth (while managing kids) — can be a challenge.
If you’re a manager or team leader, you may be grappling with how to keep projects on track.
If you’re usually on the ground in the newsroom, you may be struggling to figure out how to collaborate when you’re not able to pop into someone’s office or cube to ask a question or brainstorm a solution.
As a former journalist, a management consultant and cofounder of a nonprofit with a virtual and distributed team, I know that awesome outcomes rely on leadership and management that foster safety and effective collaboration. That goes for all team members, not only supervisors. Leadership is also about ethical followership, including staff willing to listen, grow and take ownership, and managers willing to check in and mentor.
Here are a few resources, lessons learned and evidence-based tips for leaders and managers working with remote news teams on deadline.
Build trust and rally around journalism’s mission
Culture is set in large part by communication — what we say, what we don’t say, the messenger, frequency and how it’s received. Right now, safety and family must come first.
Ensure colleagues have the information that they need for their personal health and that of their family’s. Acknowledge the stress of this uncertain time and ensure colleagues are taking care of themselves.
Second, rally news professionals around journalism’s important mission: access to accurate and timely information, which is critical for public health. This moment is why we need journalism, and them. Tell them how much they are valued. A beautiful example comes from Tom Huang, assistant managing editor for The Dallas Morning News, which is publishing remotely.
Use the right communication tools
Poynter compiled a helpful comparison of available tools, from video conferencing to project management to communication. In our experience, it’s important to choose one platform for each purpose and have leadership enforce it.
Figure this step out early on and help those new to the tech adapt, including giving deadlines to onboard. This is where remote work breaks down or invites skeptics; an unwillingness to adapt and change to new technology.
Behavioral science suggests we need structure and communication from the top when there is disruptive change.
Expand project management
Agree on the platform and tool, then enforce it. Set clear deadlines (including time for review), define deliverables, roles and responsibilities and then get out of the way. Communicate expectations about being accessible but be reasonable.
For remote access, the easiest solution (for both IT staff and for employees) is a trusted device, usually owned and controlled by the organization, with a virtual private network (or VPN) connection. If that is not possible, remote desktop access can be provided by solutions like Citrix or AWS workspaces.
Venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which invests at the cutting edge of tech, also has these practical steps for employees to keep their data, accounts and devices secure.
Also, be on the alert for “ZoomBombing” and secure your virtual calls.
Say please and thank you
Take the time to understand who is doing what and acknowledge wins. Small courtesies go a long way. Don’t yell virtually or fire off angry emails; pick up the phone and be committed to working things out. Breathe deeply if stressed or angry.
Run effective meetings
MIT Media Lab has some great tips on the mechanics of running effective, remote meetings. In our experience, daily stand-ups for each project or workstream, an agenda, clear next steps and a good facilitator translate into positive outcomes.
Focus on enabling the success of the team. Ask them what they need. Clear roadblocks. Provide direction, if structure is needed. Think of problems before they arise. Effective feedback is professional; steer the conversation to productive recommendations that focus on the work and not personality, office politics or personal differences. Accept different styles. If a colleague is being uncivil, try to understand the misunderstanding or pivot by calmly creating boundaries.
Assume good intent of remote colleagues. Share feedback in a productive and helpful way if expectations are not met, with a focus on the work and mission.
Multiple other industries, including companies founded by women, understand that the future workplace must include virtual and flexible work environments to promote retention and engagement. Flexibility through remote work can also boost retention, happiness and keep workplaces healthy when others are sick.
While COVID-19 is causing news organizations to work apart, this reshaping of how they operate can also bring the press closer to people across the U.S. In recent years, news has been disrupted and the outlets that have thrived remain based in large cities, mainly New York and Washington D.C. Unlocking new ways of working and newsgathering may spark innovation and opportunities to be closer to audiences and viewers, who are tuning out of traditional news and tuning into skeptics who question if the press serves them. Leadership, after all, is about adapting to change.
We wish all journalists safety and health during this unprecedented time.
Carolyn McGourty Supple is executive director of The Press Forward, a nonprofit and nonpartisan initiative dedicated to advancing news culture through education, research and training on issues including harassment and workplace rights, the future of work and the leadership pipeline. A former journalist and management consultant, she also serves as a visiting professor for the University of Texas at Austin where she focuses on newsroom leadership and management.