Coronavirus and Publishing’s Workforce: Early Shifts to Remote Operations

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The books business is beginning its largest test of remote staffing, as publishers shift from urging to ordering employees to stay home amid the outbreak. We’d like to hear from you on how it’s working.

Image – iStockphoto: Jacob Lund

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

The End of the ‘Business-as-Usual Culture’
As the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic advances, much of the world publishing workforce is adapting to remote operations to protect employees both from exposure to each other in the workspace and also to having to commute with the public to and from work.

As we’ve said in a recent article, publishing is fortunate in a time of pandemic infection to be a business in which remote operations are possible at all. That doesn’t mean, however, that the reality is convenient or easily put into place. In Toronto, Rakuten Kobo CEO Michael Tamblyn held a dry run last week, testing how things went with the staff working from home, to discover “on our own terms” where problems arose.

Phil Murphy

And with so much of the American industry concentrated in New York, this becomes especially important as the schools close. Publishing employees who are parents may now need to be at home with their children during business hours. Many who live in New Jersey are facing that state’s new curfew, 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., as Nicholas Pugliese and Joe Hernandez report for NPR affiliate WHYY.

There, Gov. Phil Murphy—the United States’ former ambassador to Germany (2009 to 2013)—sees the curfew as part of facing a fact of life in pandemic: “We can’t allow the business-as-usual culture to continue.”

Publishing Perspectives would like to hear from our international publishers and their employees about their experiences in making this transition. Where are the pain points? What works better than expected? How readily are your colleagues accepting the importance of this move? And who is left behind, required to be on-site to keep essential services running? Let us hear from you:

Here are the outlines of how several large publishing companies have announced they’re adjusting so far.

Simon & Schuster: Mandatory Work-From-Home

Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy on Friday (March 13) wrote to her staff, describing the company’s work-at-home until-further-notice status.

Riedy wrote, “We have now moved to a company-wide, mandatory work-from-home policy until further notice. Please continue to treat today and Monday (March 16) as days to test your capabilities and note issues and obstacles you encounter in fulfilling your day-to-day responsibilities. We encourage you to communicate these issues to your manager over the next few days.

“A word about our facilities: This change occurred suddenly and without warning, so many of you might have left behind materials you need to accomplish your jobs. Even though work-from-home is in effect for the for the foreseeable future, our buildings remain open and you may go there to retrieve any important items you may need.

Carolyn Reidy. Image: David Jacobs

“For your safety and the safety of others, we do ask  that you coordinate with your team or department and stagger your presence so as to minimize contact with your co-workers.

“In addition, please know that we have identified business-critical personnel … who will need to continue to work on site to ensure business continuity, most particularly in Riverside and Milan. We will continue to take every precaution to ensure their safety, and we are grateful for their service and appreciate their dedication to keeping Simon & Schuster running and our books flowing to accounts and ultimately, readers.

“I appreciate your patience and flexibility in helping to keep Simon & Schuster operating during this challenging period and under these unusual circumstances. We have always been a company that comprised resourceful and highly motivated employees, and I am certain we will persevere through the current uncertainty.”

Penguin Random House: ‘A Global Community’

In our coronavirus update on Thursday, we looked at Penguin Random House US CEO Madeline McIntosh’s message to the staff, offering employees the chance to transition to working from home if they’d feel more comfortable that way.

By Friday (March 13), the company’s guidance had changed to a directive that “everyone in our New York, Colorado Springs, and Emeryville offices who can work from home should now transition to do so; plan for today to be your last day in the office, for the time being.”

In short, for all intents and purposes, much of PRH is operating remotely.

On Friday, worldwide CEO Markus Dohle followed with a message of his own, and we’ve been provided a copy of this to share with you:

Markus Dohle

“Earlier today, our global executive committee came together to talk about a variety of important topics for Penguin Random House, including the evolving coronavirus situation and how we are managing through it together.  We are currently facing unprecedented and uncertain times, but what’s clear and consistent is that we will continue to be guided by our core values and principles, priority among them maintaining the health and well-being of our employees.

“As a global community, we care deeply about one another, and I know we will overcome the challenges ahead with the strength, support, and compassion that have always defined us.

“The geographic nature of the spread of the virus means that we won’t adopt a one-size-fits-all approach for all of our offices worldwide.

“Instead, we have established localized coronavirus taskforces that are constantly monitoring the situation in their country of operation and regularly meeting to determine how best to keep all of you healthy and safe.  I am also meeting frequently with Bertelsmann to collaborate on our plans and align our approach.  The taskforces have quickly and actively mobilized on the ground and fully embody our spirit of thinking globally to mutually share knowledge and advice, and implementing those plans locally.  Many thanks to all involved.

“It is difficult to predict the impact this outbreak will have on our business in the coming months, but I know that our company is strong, our colleagues are committed, and our responses are rapid and proactive.  Please know that we will do everything to ensure business continuity, so that we are able to share our books with readers around the globe during this difficult time.

“Though books are not a panacea for what the world is going through, we hope that our stories can provide a small escape and some comfort for our readers, and of course for each of us, too.

“Our highest priority continues to be you and your families and safeguarding your health.  Please be well, stay safe and healthy, and rest assured that we are a global community of colleagues who care about one another, always—and especially—in times like these.

Cengage: Rapid Response Team

At Cengage, Michael Hansen’s digital educational systems publisher, an announcement intended to reassure both staff and consumers reads, “We have activated a cross-functional, rapid response team to ensure business operations continue across a range of possible scenarios.

“These include, but are not limited to, contingencies for customer support, technology and systems. We will fully support our customers and workforce during this unprecedented period.”

Dated Friday (March 13), the statement goes on, “Given the categorization of COVID-19 as a pandemic by the World Health Organization, we have strongly advised our employees to prepare to work from home and/or remotely over the course of the next week, and we are implementing shift scheduling for offices where in-person presence is required.

Michael Hansen

“Our offices will remain open for certain essential, business-critical activities and we are performing enhanced cleaning measures at our facilities. We continue to restrict business travel and encourage employees to stay home when sick.”

For customers, the statement says, “Cengage is working diligently to provide assistance and resources as many prepare to move learning environments online. Each of our businesses – Higher Ed and Skills, K-12, International and Gale – are taking a tailored approach based on the individual circumstances of their customers. For college students at U.S. campuses that have closed, we are working with institutions and instructors to extend access to our course materials and are providing free access to all Cengage platforms and e-texts through Cengage Unlimited.”

At this link, Cengage offers resources for faculty members, students, and educational institutions during the pandemic emergency.

The messaging concludes, “The Cengage response team is regularly reviewing updated guidance from the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and local government authorities, and we will adapt our response as needed.”

Macmillan: Working from Home

As we reported on Friday, Macmillan staffers are working from home, full-time, in the Trade and Shared Services divisions, beginning today (March 16).

“The office will remain open for now,” according to a company spokesperson, “and will be accessible during normal business hours, but the goal is to minimize work happening in the office to the greatest extent possible.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on the coronavirus outbreak is here

Download your free copy of our Spring Magazine here

In our Spring 2020 Magazine, Publishing Perspectives has interviewed publishers, industry experts, entrepreneurs, and authors to present a look at the book business for the coming year. Inside this issue of Publishing Perspectives Magazine, you’ll find articles and resources including:

  • Publishing and the coronavirus
  • Richard Charkin’s view of key industry challenges
  • China’s growing comic book market
  • Brussels Book Fair debuts its rights center
  • Eksmo CEO Evgeny Kapyev on Russia’s book market
  • Matchmaking for publishers and producers in Latin America
  • Book market data
  • A world tour of copyright developments
  • Translation sales resulting from Norway’s Frankfurter Buchmesse guest of honor program
  • An AI startup creating interactive stories
  • An interview with author Andrew Keen

Download ‘Publishing in Times of Crisis’ free of charge here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.