Remote Control: Looming Back to Office Mandate Roils New York Times

“The company says that one of the reasons we need to be back in the office is for the culture … and many people say that the reason they don’t want to go back into the office is because of the culture at The New York Times

With snow falling in Manhattan early this year, a New York Times editor and her dog boarded a plane bound for Florida. “I was kind of losing my mind living alone and working at home,” she said. “I wasn’t in the wave of people who saw the pandemic coming and just fled. I was here all of last year.” She spent much of the first year of the pandemic at her keyboard in the living room of her one-bedroom apartment in the city and then, at the end of the day, would flop three feet over to watch TV on the couch, her laptop looming disconcertingly nearby. It was too small to let her feel like she could ever leave work. “It was a very busy year,” she said, “so to take the opportunity to be remote in a different location, it seemed emotionally, spiritually, mental-healthwise like a good thing to try.”

Her house in Florida had a room where she could work, then close the door, and move into a space that contained the rest of her life. Perhaps more importantly, it also had a pool. “To go to a bunch of meetings and then jump in the pool is not something that I had experienced before,” she said. She wasn’t the only Times staffer who left New York after the company began working remotely during the pandemic. “I know for a fact that I wasn’t the only person in Florida,” she said. The Fine Print has learned of other members of the newsroom who dispersed to places like Maine, Ohio, and California, including executive editor Dean Baquet who, for a period, quit New York City for Los Angeles’s sunny clime.

The date when this scattered workforce will be forced to reconvene in New York has not been set yet but is currently expected to be early next year, creating anxieties for staffers who’ve grown accustomed to the places where they’ve relocated as well as those in the suburbs who dread losing hours of their day to lengthy commutes to Manhattan. Over the summer, amidst the optimism of the early vaccine roll-out, The Times set an initial date of September 7, but in late July, as the delta wave took hold, the company announced the return had been “indefinitely postponed.”

The Times Guild unit chair Bill Baker said he’s found a mix of opinions when he has canvassed his union’s membership about their feelings on the matter. Some people had moved far away and prefer to avoid another shakeup, while others are eager to work out of an office again. “The other thing I’ve heard is that,” Baker said, “the company says that one of the reasons we need to be back in the office is for the culture, it’s for the culture of The New York Times. And many people say that the reason they don’t want to go back into the office is because of the culture at The New York Times.” The demographic breakdown on who doesn’t want to be immersed in that Times culture is pretty telling. “Most of those people are women and people of color,” Baker said.

At Hearst, the union representing its magazine division filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over its rule that would require employees to work in the office for one day a week starting next Monday, November 15. Management plans to increase the in-office requirement to two days per week in early 2022 and eventually to three days per week. Over 300 union members signed a petition protesting the plan, and in a statement, the union said, “It’s our position that by barreling ahead with these last-minute plans, management is making a unilateral change to our work circumstances without adequately bargaining over the change as required by federal law.”

The Times Guild is also unsatisfied with how management is handling the decision around setting a return to office mandate. “We just feel that, whatever the return date is, the company has to negotiate that date with us,” Baker said. “We feel that that is a mandatory subject of bargaining.” He complained that the Guild was not involved in setting the September 7 date. “They notified us, but they haven’t negotiated with us,” he said. “Their position is that they don’t feel that they have to.” NewsGuild of New York president Susan DeCarava echoed that point, telling The Fine Print that “returning to the office is a mandatory subject of bargaining and a status quo issue.” But Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha emphatically disagreed. “It is not a mandatory subject of negotiation,” she wrote in an email.

“We’ve been going back and forth in negotiations,” Baker said, “and negotiations are, unfortunately, being held up by them.” He said remote work was one of the topics of discussion on the agenda of the October 25 bargaining session, which management abruptly canceled, claiming that it would not be productive after 250 union members registered to observe the Zoom meeting. On November 5, management sent its latest proposal on remote work to the union, the gist of which was, according to Baker, “giving the company more control over who works remotely, and who they say is eligible to work remotely.”

Rhoades Ha told The Fine Print, “Our plan, conditions permitting, is to return to the office more often than not but with flexibility.” She said the current proposal would allow employees to work remotely, “subject to manager and department approval, which was the case prior to the pandemic.”

But Baker has concerns about this approach. “We want to have this language codified so that we don’t have a star system, where some people within a department or desk are allowed to work remotely and others not based on their relationship with their manager, for instance,” he said. “We want it to be fair.”

And there may be a downside for employees who do receive approval to work remotely full-time. In late June, The Times sent out “Full-Time Remote Work Guidelines,” informing employees that relocating could result in a salary reduction. “If you are requesting to work remotely, please be aware that some policy decisions are pending, such as whether compensation might vary across work locations,” the notification said. “If you receive approval by the Company to work remotely outside of the U.S., your updated compensation will be in line with local benchmarking for your position.”

“We don’t think that asking to work remotely should have anything to do with an employee’s right to be employed by The New York Times,” Baker said, “neither should it have to deal with their salary.”

While there is as yet no blanket mandate requiring Times employees to work out of the office, the number voluntarily deciding to return has been gradually increasing. “I came back in August because there had been a message that was like ‘we will reopen in September,’” said the editor who moved to Florida and is again living in her one-bedroom apartment in New York. “I’ve been going to the office a few days a week,” she said. “It is incredible how much work you can get done there because my dog’s not bothering me, the FedEx guy doesn’t come, it’s quiet. I printed things that maybe didn’t need printing, but I could print, and I was excited to use the printer. And I was like, ‘Oh, my God, there are pens and sharpies here!’ An office is a good idea. I’m not anti-office, but I do think — how I feel, and I think other people feel, is — flexibility is amazing.” And the office is finally starting to feel like it’s getting back to normal. “At first, it felt very deserted,” she said. “Now, in November, it’s busier.”

Baquet, too, has returned from his West Coast sojourn. “These days, I come to the office at least two or three days a week,” he told The Fine Print. “For me, the office is significantly better. I can grab people — or get grabbed — for impromptu meetings. There is more of a sense of news urgency when we are all together.” He said he understands the concerns of employees who moved away in the last year and a half. “Living in California for part of the pandemic gave me a great deal of empathy for people who have to work elsewhere. I spent the height of the pandemic in New York. I started working from California because my family was stuck there. So I get the issue,” he wrote. “But there is no question in my mind that it is better to be in a newsroom, that it is easier to collaborate in an era where collaboration is necessary, where every story is accompanied by so many different kinds of journalism. People are also gentler with each other when they are face to face.”

Baker is skeptical that these are sufficient reasons to mandate that employees return to the office. As a telecommunications coordinator on the technology team, he helped set up the remote system so that the Times could keep working in the event of a disaster. “If something happened and we couldn’t make it to the building,” he said, “we ensured that the paper would still go out. That was already in place. So when we went remote at the drop of a dime, we pivoted very, very quickly and did it well.”

So well, Baker believes, that management’s insistence on maintaining control over whether employees work remotely appears incongruous with the company’s much-touted finances. “It’s obvious, based on our earnings report last week, that we’ve been doing a good job. So there’s no need to ask everyone or mandate everyone to come back into the office,” Baker said. “Now that we’ve shown that we can successfully work remotely, The New York Times and other organizations should embrace remote work and make it a part of their normal business culture.”

But Baker said his 11-person team has recently been told to report to the office repeatedly. “They tried to mandate us back to work twice,” he said. “They tried to mandate us back on the first of November” and again this past Monday, November 8. “Some members of the group have been going in voluntarily, but those who have not been going in didn’t want to be mandated back into the office,” he said. “So some members of that group, including myself, wrote management a letter last week stating that we will continue to work remotely. And this morning, they postponed the mandate for us to come back today.”