A Long, Twisting Road Back to the Office

Little has been predictable about the pandemic, including the date when journalists would finally return to newsrooms

For much of the last year or so, return-to-office (RTO) has loomed over the media industry as an uncertain but definitive turning point in the pandemic: the moment when, ready or not, for better or worse, a switch would flip, and everyone would stop working from home and start coming into newsrooms again. But anxious or eager, the anticipation of RTO has turned into another one of the pandemic’s false endpoints — the “return to normal” heralded by the arrival of vaccines, the “I’m so over the pandemic” confidence before the waves of fresh variants — and, at the very least, something different than the unceasing muddle that has set in since the first lockdowns. But at this point, after RTO dates have been set, blown past, and some postponed indefinitely, the questions around when and where journalists will work going forward look less like a debate about crossing some momentous border and more like a messy, ongoing conversation about health, safety, and work-life balance, which will be as uncertain as the rest of the pandemic.

Take The New York Times: newsroom employees began speculating about when they’d get a mandatory return-to-office date last summer, first expecting sometime soon before the delta variant suspended any plans. Then, the omicron wave hit this winter and further delayed return plans. In February, Times management announced they expected staff to start returning to its Midtown office tower “occasionally” in April and with regular in-person work beginning on June 6. In response, The New York Times Guild and its members tweeted, “The @nytimes is pressuring us to return to the office in June. But RTO must be agreed on with @NYTimesGuild as part of our contract. I hope management comes to the table today ready to fairly negotiate on all the issues that matter to us, including wages, benefits, and RTO.” In May, The Times announced that the mandatory return had been paused, one day after New York City issued a high alert for Covid.

The Times now has an expected phase of return-to-office slated for Sept. 12. “In the meantime, our offices remain open and we encourage employees who feel comfortable coming into the office to do so,” a Timesspokesperson told The Fine Print. “We have a gradual and flexible return to office approach designed to provide all employees with the time and space needed to adjust to their new routines and hybrid work norms. The vast majority of our staff will return to the office in a hybrid capacity.”

As a third pandemic summer rolls on, media workers across New York continue to resist the push to return to the office. Others—including those at Dotdash Meredith and Hearst—are fighting for recognition of health and safety concerns and additional accommodations for workers amid the resumption of in-person schedules, some of which are currently hybrid.

The NewsGuild of New York, which represents roughly 3,000 news professionals, argued in an August 2021 resolution that employers have a “legal and moral obligation to ensure the health and safety of their employees” and “a social responsibility to not contribute to community transmission,” and must treat RTO mandates as a mandatory subject of bargaining—meaning that unionized workers cannot be forced back to the office without management negotiating with them first. The Guild also expressed support for mandatory vaccinations, adequate ventilation and filtration systems, physical distancing, testing, and masks. In January, it expanded its resolution to include pushing back any plans to return to the office until summer. Additionally, they advocated making N95s universally available to all employees and expanding the definition of “full vaccination” to include booster shots.

Last year, The Nation’s top editor, D.D. Guttenplan, started offering staff “lunch on The Nation,” if they’d attend the magazine’s weekly staff meeting in person. The magazine’s union, currently at the bargaining table with management on a new contract, is negotiating for a RTO policy that is “maximally flexible … as any member wants and needs,” according to Rose D’Amora, The Nation’s managing editor and a steward of the union who is on the bargaining committee. “Our position is that both from a safety point of view, and from a general labor practice point of view, we really, really need to get this right,” she said.

The Nation’s staff has worked remotely since March 2020—along the way, earning their first-ever finalist nomination for general excellence in the ASME Awards, a sign of how they have adjusted to working without an office. “We are still at the table—and still working remotely, as the NLRB has determined that pandemic-related office safety is a mandatory subject of bargaining,” D’Amora said. “Management has proposed that we return to the office as quickly as possible, despite transmission rates in NYC surging amid a new variant. While we’ve convinced them, after initial resistance, to adopt data-based standards for remote work during periods of risk, they continue to ask us to work in person for up to a week while transmission rates and hospitalizations are high.”

Other union shops have homed in on RTO in their bargaining. The approximate 170 members of Dotdash Meredith’s union, which formed during the first year of the pandemic, have repeatedly pushed back through collective actions, organizing, and petitions against management’s attempts to force workers back to the office. In September 2021, the NewsGuild, on behalf of the Dotdash Meredith Union, filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, which dismissed the case but affirmed the Guild’s position on RTO as a mandatory subject of bargaining. In April, the union accused management of refusing to engage in good-faith negotiations and illegally unilaterally mandating an RTO date.

For Daniel Neuburger, a production artist and the chair of the People unit within the Dotdash Meredith Union, return-to-office is not an option he feels comfortable with as a parent of a child under five. “What I saw was that there was no possibility of going to the office and not being exposed to COVID,” he said. “Navigating that work environment, while having a child who only recently became eligible to be vaccinated, is a risk far too great to take.” He added, “As a union, we proposed a safety-forward return-to-office process—with further consideration given to parents of young children and those living with immunocompromised people in their households.”

“Instead of hearing us out, and working with us to come up with solutions, management flat-out rejected almost every common sense proposal we made,” Neuburger said. “They agreed to what we feel is the bare minimum — a vaccine mandate — after workers proposed and fought for it at the table. Since returning to the office, we’ve seen over 100 colleagues get COVID. Many of which tested positive after having been in close proximity to co-workers.” He said Dotdash Meredith’s management has been “extremely reticent to consider perspectives other than their own, in spite of workers telling them directly of their concerns.”

Dotdash Meredith workers have also, in compliance with New York’s May 2021 Health and Essential Rights Act (HERO), formed a health and safety committee to implement best practices surrounding workplace precautions. On March 14, a letter signed by 22 New York State legislators was submitted to Dotdash Meredith’s senior vice president of human resources, Dina Nathanson, complaining about the company’s failure to comply with the HERO Act and the lack of support for health and safety standards. According to Brandon West, a NewsGuild organizer working with the union on the issue, management has not responded to the elected officials’ letter.

West says the HERO Act, despite the current lack of mechanisms for enforcement, is a real opportunity to create safe work environments; other workers, such as those at least two different Chipotle locations, are putting the HERO Act to test by requesting the formation of workplace safety committees as the law permits. “We’ve done so much research and done the work and done audits on workspaces multiple times, and the company themselves have stopped even giving regular reports on how many people were getting COVID in the office space,” West said. “We’ve kind of pivoted to ways to push Meredith to actually do what they are supposed to, as opposed to, engaging with Meredith because they clearly are not interested in doing that.” He added, “We haven’t seen much progress, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t feel there’ll be progress down the road.”

The conversations surrounding RTO have profoundly affected workers, particularly those who suffered losses of loved ones during the pandemic and had to adjust their schedules to accommodate changes around schooling, child care, healthcare, and safety regarding COVID-19— as well as those who have relocated during the pandemic.

Eli M. Rosenberg left his job at The Washington Post after four years due to RTO requirements: “My fam relocated to CA early on in the pandemic, and the Post’s mandatory return to the DC office is this month,” he tweeted March 9. He is now an investigative tech reporter for NBC News.

Many companies hold regular in-person events to incentivize in-person work and get employees accustomed to time in the office. A few months before Joe Kahn was elevated to be The New York Times executive editor in June, his predecessor Dean Baquet famously initiated weekly Wednesday pizza lunches. At Vice World News, global director of communications Elise Flick told The Fine Print that the newsroom has long hosted both internal and external get-togethers and “now that we are moving into a time where our employees are vaccinated, and we have safer options for gathering after two years of being apart, we’re excited to get back to that and to spend time in person with our colleagues.”

Maggie Astor, a reporter at The New York Times, started voluntarily working from the office about three days per week last summer because she feels like she gets more done at the office and enjoys the separation between work and home. But this year’s variant-fueled surges have had her working back at home. “I’m currently not going into the office because of the BA.5 wave,” she said. “However, my feelings about the office haven’t changed, and I hope I’ll feel safe resuming a three-day-a-week schedule soon.”

Astor recognizes her preferences may not align with her fellow workers’ needs and does not think the RTO policy should be a “one size fits all.” When she was going into the office, she said she was in a “very small minority” of people on her team. “I don’t think the fact that I work best in-office means that other people necessarily work best in the office,” she said. “I don’t think that my needs and preferences should be forced on other people who might have circumstances that lead them strongly in the other direction.”

Rob Liguori, a research editor at The New York Times Magazine, said that while he misses the presence of his colleagues, he does his fact-checking job better remotely. “It’s a lot easier for me to do my work at home, in my home office, because I have all of the boundaries that I need,” he said. “I’ve defined my own four walls and I’ve got everything I need to concentrate. My workplace is set up the way it is, so I know I don’t have to worry about unscheduled distractions.”

Liguori also said he’s benefited in terms of his mental health. “We’re all coping with the state of the world or the pandemic or something else. But I feel like I’ve been able to manage work-life balance, since working remotely, a whole lot better than when I was in the office five days a week,” he said. “And that’s nothing against office life. My experience is not reflective of anybody else’s experience at all. I don’t want to impose my preferences on an entire industry of people.”

Looking ahead, Liguori says he anticipates that The Times will ultimately opt to be flexible and work with people with extenuating circumstances that prevent them from returning to the office. However, he sees the issue of RTO as an opportunity for The New York Times to set a precedent surrounding workplace practices and normalize working situations that accommodate employees’ needs. He believes that with some special exceptions, the publication should give “100 percent flexibility for everybody 100 percent of the time.”

“Everybody went home, and nobody missed their newspaper or missed their magazine, no one stopped working,” he said. “The New York Times has the chance to define the way people work for the coming generation to give people the flexibility to live their personal lives to the fullest and still do good work.”

Moving forward, the issue of where and how journalists work will require institutionalized worker protections, said West of the NewsGuild. “The writing’s on the wall, in terms of what the future is going to be like, and we’ve kind of met the moment, with what we’ve been trying to do,” he said. “We’re trying to find a way to make the system work, rather than just ignore it, which has been, I think, a detriment to workplaces.”