Meredith Corp’s Liz Vaccariello and Dan Wakeford on managing people during a pandemic

From addressing mental health concerns while working remotely, to keeping staff safe on photo shoots, the opening event of the 2021 Digital Innovators’ Summit explored the ways the media industry has looked after its workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In what is the first of five webinars over the next eight weeks, FIPP CEO James Hewes was joined by Dan Wakeford, Editor-in-Chief of People magazine, Liz Vaccariello, Editor-in-Chief of Real Simple magazine and John Wilpers, senior director USA at Innovation Media Consulting and co-author of FIPP’s annual Innovation in Media World Report to assess how Covid has impacted those working in the media over the last year.

“From a human point of view for someone in the media, this has been one miserable year in just about every way,” Wilpers pointed out. “We’ve had to work from home which was nice, but it wasn’t without amazing challenges. Now we have to learn how to cope and adapt to this new normal.”

Innovation in Media 2021 World Report

The post-Covid world of work, People, Direct to Consumer, Podcasting, Sustainability, Podcasting, Creativity, Monetisation and Print.

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Realising the scale of the problem

As publishers faced up to the disruption of Covid-19, many believed the biggest challenge would be implementing new work practices at breakneck speed. In reality, the toughest task wasn’t setting up Zoom calls but rather helping those using the technology.

“The biggest challenge and changes have to do with staff’s mental health and the extra stress that comes with the fact that we are all more available for meetings,” said Wakeford. “With back-to-back meetings all day there is no time to think and breathe. Everybody is having longer days now that you are working in the place that you live.

“There is not a physical turn-off to where you are. Adding to that is the stresses of sickness and childcare that have come with the pandemic. Work has been our sanity, giving us a routine and purpose when the world is quieter, but it is easier for it to dominate your life.”

Vaccariello realised early on in the pandemic that those working under her were feeling the strain.

Liz Vaccariello, Editor-in-Chief, Real Simple, Meredith Corp

“It was very clear as the first two months wore on there were some teams where the stress was playing out in very different ways,” she explained. “Some of the younger members of the staff who lived alone were feeling very lost but were not speaking up to their boss.

“Then there were some very Type A people who were burning out quickly because they were unable to turn it off at the end of the day. They were just working around the clock – that was their way of managing stress.”

Becoming better managers

As the demands on their workforce changed, leaders had to adjust their management style. For Vaccariello, that meant going against her instincts.

“I tend to be a delegator. I’ve had to force myself to find a way to check in with my own team so it doesn’t feel like I’m second guessing what they are doing,” she said. “Things are happening in people’s living room that before I might not wanted to be a part of, but now I do. I’ve had to dig down and spend a little more time with people so that they feel attended to.”

A crucial part of Vaccariello’s new management approach has been to go old school, picking up the phone or writing notes to staff members.

“The biggest lesson for me was a need to personally reach out to as many people as possible,” she said. “I feel more connected to everybody now that I am having personal phonecalls with some people every week.

“And I’m writing personal notes on stories and putting them in the mail with the magazine for people – little touches like that. You get to know people. You get to know what their personal stresses are and you can adapt and pivot your management style accordingly.”

While video conferencing has given editors a valuable tool to gauge opinion in the office, it comes with the drawback that strong personalities might dominate the conversation. Both Vaccariello and Wakeford have taken steps to ensure that doesn’t happen.

“It is challenging when you have shy, reserved, introverted personalities who will not talk over people,” said Wakeford. “It’s my responsibility to try and read a room and it is harder to read a virtual room and make sure you are asking people you notice are being talked over.

Dan Wakeford, Editor-in-Chief, People, Meredith Corp.

“I am very vocal in saying, ‘does anyone disagree with that?’ to give them a platform to disagree. You also make sure people are using the chat function if that is the medium they are more comfortable with.”

To help draw out shy members of her staff, Vaccariello mails out copies of Real Simple to everybody and then have a “comments and compliments” session on Zoom. “Everyone has to give a comment or a compliment and it’s a low stakes way for everyone to say something,” she said. “Everyone makes an effort to talk about the unsung heroes.”

The importance of empathy

In these extremely hard times where no-one has been left unaffected by Covid, it has never been more important for managers to be empathetic.

“You have to listen and care,” stressed Vaccariello. “I work for many media companies and they always say – our inventory rides the elevator every day. Well, now your inventory is in apartments and homes all over the United States so you have to get out there and reach out to them to hear how they are doing.

“You have to listen to what you are hearing so you can provide empathy. To understand that everyone has had their own version of hell in some way has been very important as a leader and a manager.”

Wakeford echoed those sentiments. “You have to have empathy, have a connection and pick up the phone. I am a big believer that transparency and honesty are always good places to start when you are managing anybody. Treat people the way you want to be treated.”

Part of showing empathy is allowing your staff the switch off. Vaccariello has implemented ‘no-meeting Fridays’ for the Real Simple team to give people the opportunity to have a full day of creativity to write.

Meanwhile, Wakeford does not send emails out of hours unless it is extremely urgent. “That is the minimum that I can do,” he said. “There used to be an idea that working from home is easier and I think we all realise now that it is not.”

Getting the best out of your staff

Vaccariello and Wakeford’s approach to management has clearly had a hugely positive effect, with People and Real Simple storming ahead during lockdown.

Real Simple has been refreshed using small group sessions by beat so editors could talk about the changes they want to implement. People, meanwhile, has created a new magazine, People Royals, a new daily TV show and podcast.

Both publications have found creative ways to keep on doing photo shoots, using production bubbles and Covid testing to keep their staff and those in front of the camera safe.

“It’s been challenging but it’s also been creative,” said Wakeford. “We’ve had celebrities in production bubbles, where we had to shoot Regina King while she is on set in a production bubble and had to do it remotely with a photographer being somebody else who is on set. There’s always a solution and that is what you find empowering and exciting.”

The work put in by Vaccariello, Wakeford and their teams has been noticed by consumers, with surveys showing that print could be set for a bright future.

“We did research into why people buy certain issues that did well and the verbatims have been: ‘I wanted something I could turn to at the end of the day. I want to turn my computer off and relax with my People magazine or with my Real Simple’,” said Vaccariello.

“It’s that escape, that ability to hold something in your hand and to process the narrative and the visuals. As you see book sales rising we will see time spent with print products rise as well.”

Wakeford agreed wholeheartedly with the rosy outlook for print. “We have reignited the passion for that lean back experience in terms of reading,” he said. “All our numbers and all of the metrics prove that.”

John Wilpers, author, Innovation in Media World Report

Looking towards the future

One of the biggest questions facing the media as we inch out of Covid is how many pandemic-enforced changes will be permanent. According to Vaccariello a hybrid work arrangement is now inevitable.

“Working from home, having the freedom to come and go and have a walk without going on an elevator first while you are on a phone call – that has just been game changing,” she said.

“I look forward to a hybrid approach when we all get back. Everybody at Meredith Corporation is thinking that, yes we will all be back at the office at some point but what is that new reality going to be? Butts in seats from 8am to 7pm, Monday through Friday – those days are over for all of us.

“We have all been forced to find a mode of self care that works for us whether that is taking meetings while walking or doing the creative work on a Friday. I hope that strategies will remain in place.”

Whatever the landscape looks like post-Covid, John Wilpers believes the industry is heading in the right way when it comes to managing staff. “Things are going to be better than they have been before because we have developed a habit of paying attention to our people as human beings,” he said.

“Managers were never in touch with their people, they never had any idea of what motivated them or was troubling them. Now we’ve been forced to do that and as a result we are going to be much better managers and our people are going to be happier.”

The webinar video will be available soon to DIS2021 delegates and FIPP members. Sign up to our (free) the FIPP World newsletter to learn when it’s live.

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