Coronavirus Worklife: OUP’s Nigel Portwood on ‘Weathering the Challenges’

In News by Mark Piesing

An international publisher, Oxford University Press is ‘managing employees and navigating markets at different stages with the crisis,’ says Nigel Portwood.

Oxford University Press, no stranger to crises in more than 500 years of operation, has ‘experienced minimal disruption,’ Nigel Portwood says. Image: OUP

Editor’s note: As we publish this article today, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center in its 11:32 a.m. ET update (1532 GMT) reports that the United Kingdom, home to the Oxford University Press, has 270,511 cases of the coronavirus COVID-19 infection. Its death toll, at 37,919 in a population of 67 million is second only to that of the United States’ 101,706 fatalities (population 328 million). —Porter Anderson

By Mark Piesing | @MarkPiesing

‘How Resilient and Adaptable We Can All Be’
The largest university publisher in the world, Oxford University Press is second in age only to “the other place,” Cambridge University Press, which as Publishing Perspectives readers know, has opened a series of compelling daily essays from international specialists relative to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

The OUP is a department of Oxford University with some 6,000 employees, overseen today as it has been for centuries by a group of academics appointed by the vice-chancellor.

“The OUP is more than 500 years old and has survived many crises during its long history,” says CEO Nigel Portwood. “Our response to the pandemic has shown us how resilient and adaptable we can all be.”

Nigel Portwood

That resilience and adaptability has been “very quickly” put to the test, Portwood says, with the pandemic requiring that crucial behind-the-scenes decisions be made, including making sure the staff had the right equipment to work safely and effectively at home to meet customers’ rapidly evolving needs.

“In the face of lockdowns in multiple countries,” Portwood says, “most of our employees are now working from home for the foreseeable future.

“Thankfully, we experienced minimal disruption, and it seems productivity is holding up well.”

Employees: In Touch and Mutually Instructive

Staffers of Oxford University Press at the Hong Kong offices, which are reopening. Image: OUP

A key to keeping the publishing house’s people engaged has been a “working from home hub” on the OUP’s internal social network, Yammer, where people can share advice, swap tips for effective home working, or simply connect with colleagues in many parts of the world.

Some roles within the OUP have been impacted by the pandemic more than others. “Where this has happened, we’re redeploying these individuals to other teams whose work has escalated and who could benefit from the additional expertise,” Portwood says.

The staffers of the Oxford University Bookshop on High Street, for example, were redeployed to support the customer services team when, like other retail outlets, bookstores were required to close.

“We’re fortunate,” Portwood says, “that as a global organization, our different markets can learn from each other. But our global presence does come with challenges, as we’re managing employees and navigating markets that are all at different stages of dealing with the crisis.”

‘The Demand for Online Resources Has Increased’

Masked, and gloved in the Oxford University Press Pakistan offices. Image: OUP

In February, when the Japanese government recommended that people avoid crowds, the OUP allowed employees in Japan to stagger their working hours to avoid overcrowded public transport. In the UK, the publisher took steps to ready its employees for remote working before the lockdown.

“We know that our business might look very different in the future. The pandemic has significantly changed the way people teach, learn, research, and access information. This is an important shift.”Nigel Portwood, Oxford University Press

Now that the offices in mainland China and Hong Kong are moving toward a “new normal” as lockdown measures lift, the OUP’s offices in other countries can learn by their examples in such issues as managing social distancing and hygiene measures.

“Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has had a significant impact on our trading,” Portwood says. “We’re not alone in this situation.

“The good news is that education and research continues to be valued and in demand, so we’re confident that while we have some difficult months ahead, we’ll be able to bounce back. But we know that our business might look very different in the future. It has significantly changed the way people teach, learn, research, and access information. This is an important shift.

“As expected, the demand for online resources has increased, and so we’re accelerating the transition to digital across OUP.”

The OUP’s education team launched an initiative to support children’s learning in international markets and has offered free access and extended free trials to some of their flagship education platforms such as Kerboodle, which is used by 80 percent of UK secondary schools. Since British schools closed on 20 March, there have been 24,000 new Kerboodle trials and a daily average of four million page views. Kerboodle training webinars have drawn some 3,000 teachers.

“We also took the time to listen to customers to understand what resources would help them the most,” Portwood says.

“For example, in mainland China and Hong Kong we gathered the views of 24,000 teachers to inform our suite of free resources, which included coloring books, online games, and self-learning videos. Alongside this, we’ve run a series of professional development sessions to prepare teachers for delivering learning online.”

Thousands of teachers across the world recently attended an OUP webinar series aimed at helping teachers to support student well-being, and the publisher launched a free ebook, Everybody Worries, to help children who are feeling worried or concerned about the novel coronavirus.

“The products and services we provide for higher education, and for researchers and academics,” Portwood says, “have undoubtedly been affected by the coronavirus. But we’re still taking a number of steps to support those communities.”

In one instance, the OUP is offering temporary free access to student ebooks via RedShelf and VitalSource in the US, and through Kortext and BibliU in the UK. It’s also offering online training resources to help universities adapt to teaching online.

‘To Reap the Benefits of Digital’

Oxford University Press business operations trainer Natalie Catchpole at her desk at home during the pandemic. Image: OUP

As part of the university, the OUP embraces a mission to share research. In response, the decision has been made to make resources relating to the coronavirus emergency publicly available to all those who are working to fight the virus, through an online hub.

“On the whole, university presses are more likely to be ahead of the curve when it comes to embracing the opportunities of digital,” Portwood says, “largely because the demand from customers is greater.

“The OUP is different from other university presses because of our scale, global reach, and the diversity of our portfolio. This has always put us into a good position to be able to weather challenges in our markets. The pandemic is of course on a different level, but we hope this breadth will protect us, and help us to recover in the long term.”

Although schools and universities will reopen eventually, many observers say that the coronavirus will have a permanent impact on how people learn, as digital has now become more deeply embedded in teaching and learning.

“As a result of this shift,” Nigel Portwood says, “we’re thinking about how we can reshape our business to reap the benefits of digital and emerge stronger than ever.”

If You’d Like To Alert Us to Your Plans and Updates

We’re receiving good input from many associates in the world book industry as you can see in our collection of Coronavirus Worklife series. We’d be glad to consider having you join them in telling us about your coronavirus-related news for our international readership. If you’d like us to consider doing an interview with you, contact

Oxford University Press. Image: OUP

More from Publishing Perspectives on the UK market is here. And more from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

About the Author

Mark Piesing

Mark Piesing is a freelance journalist (and teacher) based in Oxford, UK now writing mainly about technology, culture and the intersection between the two for some of the biggest brands in the UK media such as The Economist,, and The Guardian. He also contributes to Warwick Business School's Core magazine. WBS is one of the top business schools in the UK.