Hearst UK on how the pandemic has accelerated its flexible working programme

For Hearst UK, flexible working was already high on the agenda prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. The company seeks to balance optimal staff working patterns with meeting the day-to-day needs of the business and importantly also, its clients. But of course, lockdown has increased the need for flexible working across the board and for Hearst UK, this has provided an opportunity to accelerate its existing strategy. Nua Training’s Mary Langan recently sat down with Jane Wolfson, Chief Commercial Officer for Hearst UK, to find out more.

“From a Hearst UK perspective we’ve been looking at flexible working for a long time,” says Wolfson. “And the pandemic has obviously heightened what we’ve wanted to do in this area. We have a pretty dominant female workforce, and so with a lot of working mothers we have chosen to be more flexible and allowed people to work different patterns in order to satisfy childcare needs.”

“But flexible working doesn’t necessarily need to be about childcare, or part-time hours. It can be about working condensed hours, or working different school terms, or when you want to fit exercise in. It’s a really varied consideration for the business.”

This way of working has now extended across the whole piece. So you now see lots more working fathers for example also taking advantage of flexible working. This is a huge step in the right direction…

Interestingly, one of the more positive changes that working from home during the pandemic has brought about, is that it has normalised more varied working patterns.

“The benefit of the pandemic I’d say – if there is a benefit – in terms of allowing us to be more flexible, is that this way of working has now extended across the whole piece. So you now see lots more working fathers for example also taking advantage of flexible working. This is a huge step in the right direction and it means that the ‘stigma’ of working in this way has lessened significantly.”

Beyond the obvious advantages that working from home can bring to people’s work-life balance, and therefore their physical and psychological health, economic considerations too have made their way into the flexible working conversation in more recent months.

In March, newspaper publisher Reach moved to a hub-based office model, asking most of its journalists to work primarily from home with regular face-to-face contact via these hubs as the lockdown begins to ease. “Moving forward we will be investing more in our strategy and our journalism and less in buildings,” a spokesperson for the company said

Earlier this week Canary Wharf, London’s Central Business District, came under much scrutiny from social and media, after the Group put out a press release attempting to re-establish itself as a place for hospitality and retail play, as well as work. The times certainly are a-Changin’ when it comes to physical office space.

I do think that when it comes to what the office space looks like when we go back, it will be more collaboration-type spaces rather than deskwork.

“Prior to the pandemic, most people were office based,” Wolfson says. “Some people did work from home once a week, but it was fairly limited. Whereas going forward I think we’ll see a lot more people are going to be able to work from home. Not all the time, but some of the time.”

“I do think that when it comes to what the office space looks like when we go back, it will be more collaboration-type spaces rather than deskwork. Because I think we can do the deskwork at home. But we need to make sure that that collaboration is still in place – I personally would not be happy never to go back to an office again!”

“There are certain amounts of learning and development, and creativity and brainstorming that you need to have, which can come via Teams and Zoom, but we also need to have in person. Just think for example as you came through in your career working in more junior positions, how much you learn and pickup from the people around you, and that is really important.”

Of course, while it is now increasingly accepted that a paradigm shift is taking place in business behaviour, at least towards a more hybrid model of home and office-based working, the question becomes how companies can effectively implement this.

“I think right now is actually a very different situation to what we will see in the near future. When we’re all in it together we can all act and behave in a certain way, we all have the same challenges in terms of logging on and making sure that we’re accessible for team meetings and so on. But what’s important is that moving forward we gather an understanding from our teams about what working from home – or working from the office – will look like for them, and garner their opinions.”

“So we’re working with a third-party company called CBRE, who are specialists in ways of working in office environments, and we’ve put a survey out to all of our team. That asks them, in an ideal world, what would a hybrid work model in the future look like for them? And what would they like to do? We’re gathering all of that data at the moment and then on top of that we’re also thinking from a management point of view, and from a collaboration point of view, what does the business need? Because that obviously has to play into it as well. And from a commercial point of view, what do our clients need?”

Wolfson emphasises the importance of having key objectives and KPIs in place, particularly when it comes to operating more flexible working environments. There is obviously less scope for more casual reminders and follow-ups when your line-manager is not sitting at the desk next to you. But again, with the right levels of planning and monitoring, this aspect of remote learning doesn’t have to be an issue.

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“I think we’re very much an outcome-based business. So if targets are being met, whether that’s in terms of how many clients per week you should be seeing, or revenue targets, or whatever you’re accountable for, that needs to be delivered on whether you’re working from home or working in and office. And I think that will continue to be delivered on. There always have been very clear expectations of the teams.”

“If you’ve got very clear KPIs and very clear outcomes, and people know what you expect from them, then I think it just makes things a lot easier. If you don’t have that then people can obviously interpret things as they will and that’s not always necessarily going to align with what you want as a manager. But generally speaking I don’t think there are necessarily any pitfalls, and I think the way we have leveraged the technology over the past year has allowed us to do a lot more.”

Hearst UK’s move towards more flexible working represents a tangible example of how the global Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have accelerated the pace of change in certain areas of the media industry over the past twelve months. But as Wolfson identifies, many of these changes were already in place, albeit at a much slower pace. The channels for successful remote working have longsince been available, and in many ways the key trend of the past year has been one of technological adaptation, rather than advancement.   

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