How the pandemic played a role in a flexible working policy

August 4, 2021
SCMP Insights
Mobile phones and laptops have been changing the way that journalists work for a good two decades. The arrival of these tools created a new flexibility for journalists out in the field. As phones became smarter and connectivity improved, it was easier to stay in contact with news editors and file stories while on the road.

But while technology was changing how journalists reported, many newsrooms remained wedded to the traditional model of a workforce based in a fixed physical location. This immutability was completely upended when the coronavirus pandemic necessitated what was once unthinkable – an entire newsroom working from home.

All South China Morning Post staff were required to work from home (WFH) for the first time in 2020, when social distancing became a strategy to combat the transmission of Covid-19. For the Post, the technical capability was in place when the need to work remotely first arose. The company had already been operating with a digital-first mindset, and staff were issued with laptops in 2017. Editorial staff were trained and encouraged to be agile and dynamic, with teams using smartphones, laptops and Google Suite to cover stories on the go, and our Times Square office designed around the idea of hot-desking. 

The Post has employees in several locations around the world with staff already using instant messaging tools and virtual meetings as part of daily work communications given the 24/7, international nature of the workforce. What this meant was that the Post was able to continue publishing the news online and in print fairly seamlessly, even when the entire workforce was remote. In fact, the biggest shift for the Post in moving to WFH was not actually technical, but psychological.

The need for trust, transparency and communication was paramount, especially in a fast-moving news environment when you could no longer see your colleagues at work or call across the newsroom to them. Line managers needed to be able to trust that while staff might be out of sight, productivity was not compromised. The onus on employees was to be transparent about what they were working on and what hours they were keeping. And communication was vital. Employees and line managers had to stay in regular contact, be available, and be proactive about organising hangouts and calls to keep teams aligned on projects and goals. While it can’t be denied that communication is easier in person, the experience certainly tested and recast the idea of how the newsroom could operate.

The pandemic created the first significant challenge to the idea of a physical office being necessary for productivity – and it had a lasting impact in the creation of a new company policy. The Post implemented a flexible working policy in the wake of this experience, which allows employees to work remotely as long as it does not interfere with team operations or productivity. What it means in real terms is the recognition of a workforce of responsible professionals whose performance is not contingent on physical presence or oversight. It acknowledges that the lines between being on- and off-duty can be fluid. It means a staff member with a long commute can log on from home if working an irregular shift makes it difficult to arrange transport. It allows a working parent to take time during the day to handle a family matter and then catch up on work later in the evening. 

When I first became a parent, the idea of work hours and location were very fixed, and the norm was to move to part-time work if you wanted or needed to limit the time you spent in the office. Now, the combination of technology and lived experience has seen the Post move into a new era of what work life can look like. Of course, it must be acknowledged that the concern usually raised about the rise of technology and working from home is that it can be a negative experience where you never truly switch off. But the counterargument is it gives individuals far more agency in managing their time. And perhaps the biggest takeaway from the experience at the Post is finding out that what unifies a workforce is much more about common goals and camaraderie than a physical location.