During WAN-IFRA’s Virtual Newsroom Summit conference, Felicity Thomas, Head of Talent Development at the FT, shared the changes the company implemented to maintain motivation during the pandemic.

“Once we realised at the beginning that things weren’t going back to normal, the immediate need was to focus on building resilience at an individual level, but also at a company level,” Thomas said.

For the FT, moving to remote working from a technology point of view was a huge success, as the tech department had been trialling days where different departments would all work from home.

“What we observed was that there wasn’t really that much of an impact on our productivity and our journalists were still able to write and file their copy from home, and every other department was able to deliver what they needed to deliver. We’ve seen some really, really great results. So the transition from that point of view probably couldn’t have gone any better,” Thomas said.

“What we couldn’t reproduce remotely was the collaborative working and the learning from each other in the moment, those inspiring conversations that you would have in the newsroom. So we saw mental well-being and lack of connection become an issue.”

Focusing on mental health and connection

To address this, the FT introduced a range of initiatives to facilitate communication and to ensure journalists stayed connected during those first few months of the pandemic.

They began live streaming their morning conference so that all journalists could be part of it and see what approaches the newsroom was taking, and what was going on in terms of strategy.

From a social point of view, the FT arranged digital drinks and tea breaks with editors and assistant editors. They also encouraged editors and team leaders to organise daily or weekly sessions with their team members to discuss their work, and to check in individually with people in case they had a personal issue or just needed to talk to someone.

“I think everybody needed to be heard at that point, and we supported team leaders to do this through various support initiatives,” Thomas said.

These included one-on-one meetings with a member of the talent development team, short training sessions to give ideas on how to help build resilience, as well as management learning groups where managers from across the company shared ideas and thoughts on what had worked and what wasn’t working.

“So once we started really getting into our stride in terms of working virtually and it felt almost like normal, it was then really about how do we keep this productivity high and maintain motivation,” Thomas said.

Motivation workshop, discussions

In response, the company brought in a career coach to run a motivation workshop with the goal of exploring the impact of the last 12 months on staff’s motivation and energy, and to share tips and techniques on managing personal and emotional resources.

“We also had pairs of journalists discuss motivation and what it meant to them in front of colleagues and I think this was really important to show others that they weren’t alone in how they were feeling, and to show that it’s okay to not feel okay, rather than covering it up and still pushing for the story,” Thomas said.

By introducing reporter round tables, which were hosted by the deputy editor and proved hugely successful, the FT provided another avenue for staff to discuss work priorities with editors.

They also relaunched their career conversations to show that careers weren’t on hold during this time for those that had the capacity to think about that topic.

Addressing the risk of burnout

With reporters constantly covering the story of a lifetime – that had a personal impact on them as well – the risk of staff having a burnout became very real, according to Thomas.

“Providing support to all of our employees to stay healthy became paramount,” she said.

Ramping up support around mental health, the FT hosted sessions with mental health experts, developed a list of working from home tips for team leaders, desk editors, and employees, supported employees with their work from home set up, and introduced wellness days.

They also delivered training courses on self-management focused on how to manage productivity, and how to work in the best possible manner at home, introduced online meditation and yoga sessions, and one-on-one conversations.

What’s next?

Thomas said they are still debating what the newsroom and the future of work at the FT will look like, sending out surveys, consulting with employees, and trying to get a sense of what’s important to them.

“There are all of those intangible things that we need to be thinking about to ensure that people still feel connected, have the flexibility to do their work, and be as productive as they possibly can be but also still be part of the FT and its culture,” Thomas said.

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