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News organizations taking different approaches to how often employees will come back to the office

People walk past the New York Times building on October 14, 2019 in New York City.

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez | VIEW press | Corbis | Getty Images

For about 16 months, the U.S. and U.K. news industries have predominantly operated out of people’s living rooms, home offices and bedrooms. Now, they’re deciding what post-pandemic life should look like for their employees.

Since the pandemic shutdowns in early 2020, reporters have adjusted techniques to break stories, shifting from in-person lunches and coffees to phone calls and zoom meetings. Editors and team leaders have managed remotely, relying on Slack, Microsoft Teams and content management systems for workflow and communication. Unlike many industries that have been crippled by the pandemic, newsrooms have adjusted and pumped out stories without much of a hitch.

That’s led to a quandary among newsroom executives and human resource leaders in charge of getting employees back to the office. How much flexibility should be given to employees who have demonstrated they can produce stories while not in the office? Do newsrooms want everyone back in the office? Is a hybrid approach more appropriate? Or should employees be given total flexibility to work from home whenever they want?

“For knowledge workers, there’s no putting this back in the box,” said Matt Martin, CEO and co-founder of Clockwise, a software company that has developed dynamic calendar assistant tools for office workers. “Full 100% in office, 40 hours a week, that’s out the window. I don’t see a world where it comes back.”

Newsroom leaders are beginning to make decisions based on internal employee surveys and conversations, but they’re not all making the same choices. The decisions companies make could have major implications for how future employees select between potential employers. They’ll also be an industry-wide test for whether more flexible work arrangements can be long lasting.

Among organizations with national scope, The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, USA Today and Vox Media are all handling back to work plans differently, providing a natural science experiment for the future or journalism.

Get back to the office: The Bloomberg Way

Bloomberg LP is among the most aggressive organizations in getting its employees back to work. Bloomberg owns offices around the world, spending millions of dollars to decorate them with fish tanks, transparent walls, curved escalators and digital signs that show reporter headlines and real-time market movements. Bloomberg has journalists and analysts in more than 120 countries.

According to a Bloomberg spokesperson, the company’s post-pandemic goal is to recreate a pre-pandemic environment. Employees will come back to the office once they can safely do so.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg addresses the virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention, livestreamed online and viewed by laptop from the United Kingdom in the early hours of August 21, 2020, in London, United Kingdom.

David Cliff | NurPhoto | Getty Images

“As a firm, we remain committed to making our offices the safest environment for everyone to come together and collaborate,” Bloomberg LP founder and CEO Mike Bloomberg wrote to all employees in an internal February memo obtained by CNBC. “That way of working is central to who we are at Bloomberg, and the buzz in our buildings will resume and grow stronger each day into 2021. After all, it’s our people who make Bloomberg such a great place to work.”

Bloomberg noted that special circumstances based on family situations would be accommodated, but he also stressed workers should get vaccinated as soon as possible.

“As vaccines become available, we expect people to take advantage of the safety they provide and return to the office,” Bloomberg wrote.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Bloomberg’s approach is similar to Wall Street firms, which also are approaching post-pandemic life with a “back to before” vibe. Bloomberg LP makes the majority of its revenue from selling its proprietary software to financial institutions and is more a financial services company than a traditional media firm. Only some of Bloomberg’s employees are affiliated with the media side of the business.

“We want people back to work and my view is that sometime in September, October it will look just like it did before,” JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said in May. “And everyone is going to be happy with it, and yes, the commute, you know people don’t like commuting, but so what.”

Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman echoed Dimon’s thoughts.

James Gorman, chief executive officer and chairman of Morgan Stanley, speaks during the International Economic Forum Of The Americas (IEFA) in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on Wednesday June 12, 2019. Photographer: Christinne Muschi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Bloomberg

“If you can go to a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office,” Gorman said. “And we want you in the office.”

Still, bankers and Bloomberg employees may push for individual flexibility with their individual team leaders — especially if they see other co-workers better able to balance work and family life. Citigroup said in March it will build in more hybrid and remote working environments for employees that are equally or more productive from home.

Firms in industries that aren’t offering flexible work schedules will have to make that up with additional compensation or other perks to entice talent, Clockwork’s Martin said.

“Deviations from what’s going to become standardized will hurt the marketability of companies,” said Martin.

The Times’s, they are a-changin’ (somewhat)

The New York Times and The Financial Times are among the news organizations embracing change — to some degree.

The New York Times will begin welcoming back maskless employees to company headquarters on 620 8th Avenue in Manhattan on Monday, July 12 if they submit proof of vaccination. Most employees will come back to the office the week after Labor Day (Sept. 6), with flexible one- or two-day-a-week returns throughout September, according to an internal memo from Chief Human Resources Officer and Executive Vice President Jacqueline Welch obtained by CNBC.

The New York Times will then change its “normal” routine to three days working in the office, two days working remotely. Employees who want to be in the office five days a week will be welcomed to do so. Those who want full-time at-home arrangements may not have that choice.

“While most employees will have much more flexibility in how they work, we expect that for most teams, full-time remote work will be the exception, rather than the norm,” Welch wrote in the memo.

The Financial Times is also instituting a hybrid approach, according to spokesperson Sophie Knight. The news organization hasn’t yet decided specifics around the remote-office balance.

“News is a fast-paced business and there is huge benefit in working together on site,” Knight said. “That said, we have mastered remote working in the past year and plan to build the lessons learned into a more flexible model.”

Gannett-USA Today headquarters building in McLean, Virginia.

Paul J. Richards | AFP | Getty Images

Gannett, which owns USA Today and many local newspapers, is planning to have employees return to the office in October. It’s considering different options for adding flexibility for employees and has opened about 200 of its 300 offices throughout the country so far. Dow Jones, which publishes The Wall Street Journal, hasn’t told employees specifics around its hybrid approach, but it plans to offer employees additional flexibility to work from home part-time, according to two people familiar with the matter who asked not to speak on the record because the details haven’t become public.

“A number of our offices around the world have begun a phased return to the workplace,” a Dow Jones spokesperson told CNBC. “Here in the States, we will have more to share with our colleagues in the coming weeks as we review input from our employees and put finishing touches on our plans.”

Digital media companies, such as Vox Media and Group Nine, which have long offered many employees the ability to work from home, are also adopting a hybrid approach. Vox Media began a phased reopening of its offices on July 6 at 10% capacity for vaccinated employees and plans to resume full office operations in September.

About two-thirds of all companies with predominantly knowledge workers are taking a hybrid approach, according to Kevin Delaney, co-founder of Charter, a media and services company focused on the future of work. Delaney was also a former journalist, working as a writer and editor for The Wall Street Journal before co-founding Quartz, a business news website. Google, Apple and Uber are among the large technology companies that have instituted specific hybrid policies allowing for a combination of in-office and remote days each week.

“It’s very clear that hybrid work is a really good scenario for both organizations and workers,” said Delaney. “On net, it’s a positive. But there are complications. The key is that organizations deal with those drawbacks and minimize the extent to which they’re detrimental.”

Proximity bias

Some news organizations have chosen all-remote options. Quartz CEO Zach Seward wrote a post earlier this month explaining what he’s learned from allowing workers to have the flexibility to shun the office completely.

Dennis Publishing, which owns a suite of publishing brands including “The Week,” “PC Pro,” and “Minecraft World,” has considered all-remote options for some of its employees, according to people familiar with the matter. But employees at “The Week” pushed back on the concept, arguing three days a week in the office would better serve the product and its employees, said the people. A Dennis spokesperson wasn’t immediately available to respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

Going fully remote could eat away at company culture and may alienate future talent who want at least some office environment, said Martin. Still, it may be more equitable than hybrid environments, which could test facetime and proximity biases that have already been established to be real in workplaces, said Delaney.

Stanford professor Nick Bloom, who studies remote work, recommends that companies specifically choose certain days for remote work for fairness reasons. If everyone is at the office for the same amount of time, people won’t be penalized for failing to put in face time with bosses or missing work outings because they’re not available.

Proximity bias — the idea that workers get more raises and promotions by being close to bosses in the office — is unquestionably real through decades of research, Delaney said. Companies will have to conduct their own internal audits to ensure that hybrid standards don’t penalize workers that choose to spend some time away from the office, he said.

“Many leaders of companies that are baby boomers struggle to believe people can be productive if they’re not at the office,” said Delaney, noting that the largest Wall Street firms are run by men in their late 50s and 60s. “They need to make the shift to focus on outcomes instead of hours.”

Hybrid environments may also have adverse diversity effects. Surveys suggest women and people of color tend to want more out-of-office flexibility than Caucasian men, Delaney said.

Still, if companies remain attuned to these drawbacks, hybrid environments shouldn’t tilt back toward office-only situations with time, Delaney said.

“It would be a mistake for organizations to treat this as a moment in time where they’re unwillingly being dragged into offering hybrid work,” Delaney said. “Hybrid work setups are the configuration that suit our modern knowledge workers much better than how we operated previously.”

Disclosure: NBCUniversal, CNBC’s parent company, is an investor in Vox Media.

WATCH: Returning to work post-pandemic: Stanford professor

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