A short history of a ‘crazy’ idea

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In a piece posted on the Beacon last week, I wrote about local executives’ views on the abrupt shift businesses have faced with most employees working from home. 

Here’s one remote-work story I left out: my own.

Paul Ericson

Long before the coronavirus pandemic struck, I managed a group of employees who had the option to do their jobs without driving to the office each day. It wasn’t always that way. I’d been editor of the Rochester Business Journal since 1987, and for nearly two decades our reporters, editors and other Editorial Department staffers worked at our downtown office. Around 2005, I fielded my first request from a staffer who wanted to work from home.

Telecommuting was not common in most industries back then, and it was easy to think of reasons why I should say no. Nonetheless, I OK’d the request. Over time, the number of staffers who wanted to work from home—some part time, others full time—grew steadily. In my last years at RBJ, more than half of the editorial staff worked remotely at least several days each week.

One summer, Managing Editor Mike Dickinson and I attended the annual national conference of area business publications. At a “best ideas” session, we described our remote-work policy. Our peers thought we were crazy. How could we efficiently manage and communicate with the staff? How could we be sure these reporters and editors were actually working and not goofing off?

These were the same questions I asked myself in the beginning. First-hand experience had provided the answers.

In the journalism business, the key performance metrics are quality of work, productivity and ability to meet deadlines. Is lurking over someone’s shoulder in an office the only way to measure and evaluate those metrics? No. If a staffer was falling short, we knew it—no matter where he or she did the work. (It didn’t require remote surveillance, either.)

Communication and training were trickier, at first. But they were not insurmountable challenges. Long before Slack and Zoom were born, we found effective ways to communicate and share work. Phone and email often were good enough. But we used other tools as well. Yahoo Messenger was a great way to communicate on the fly. Like traders in the oil industry, we were sad to see it go in 2016, but by then Slack was off and running.

I won’t lie: WFH did not always work perfectly. Nor does working from the office, however. With each, there are trade-offs. On balance, allowing telework had more advantages than drawbacks.

The upside included retaining employees who, for health reasons or family circumstances, could not continue working full-time from the office. Likewise, we were able to recruit some experienced journalists who valued the flexibility more than a salary we couldn’t afford to pay. We also were nimbler when breaking news occurred. And when winter storms hit, we had no reason to require reporters and editors to waste an hour or more commuting each way. 

Among the highly valued staffers we easily could have lost: Mike Dickinson, who’d been with us for years and managed the day-to-day news operation. He’d told me that his wife had started to search for a new job, one that definitely would require a move out of state. One day, he sent me an email with an unexpected question: Would I be open to him continuing as managing editor after they relocated? We had staffers who lived on the outer edges of the Rochester region, but not out of state. Could it really work to have the managing editor of a local business paper telecommute from hundreds—or thousands—of miles away?

“No” was the easy answer once again. But after we discussed the idea, I concluded: Why not?

Technology was not an issue—we’d already determined that. His daily interactions with staffers who reported to him seemed a higher hurdle, but not a deal breaker. So, we drafted an agreement that called for a six-month trial period; either one of us could pull the plug. That didn’t happen; in fact, it worked out much better than we expected. Mike continued as RBJ managing editor—from Delaware and then Pennsylvania—for more than a decade.

As the lockdown has shown, telework on a large scale is not a good option for every business. But many had clung to habits or longstanding policies that went unquestioned—until now. They might want to return to the “old normal” when COVID-19 no longer is a grave threat, but will their employees be on the same page?

As for the Beacon’s work setup, the pandemic has changed, well, nothing. We’ve always been a virtual operation. Still, it will be nice to see one another again someday.

Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor. All Rochester Beacon coronavirus articles are collected here.

4 thoughts on “A short history of a ‘crazy’ idea

  1. I would applaud efforts to expand working from home when this pandemic is “over.” Look at how certain aspects of nature are already rebounding with less commuting — people seeing mountains for the first time in years and animals returning to habitats! A certain amount of on-location, in-person communication may be necessary, but why not cut it back to a minimum if it helps our environment? There may be some people who would have a difficult time disciplining themselves to work from home (although it’s never been a problem for me during my 15 years of doing so), but I think it would become pretty obvious to anyone with oversight.

  2. Paul – your thoughtful, practical approach to finding a balanced flexibility in work settings for the professionals you manage is one (of many!) reasons you are tremendously respected by your former RBJ colleagues. Your peers would do well to pay attention to the wisdom you’ve shared in this piece. Permitting WFH isn’t the real story here; rather, it’s taking a people-first approach to decision-making as a manager, finding solutions that allow employees to focus on getting the work done, regardless of where they’re seated.

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