Published in “Current”, the national trade publication for public media on April 21, 2020
Just as you and your station colleagues have become more comfortable with a “work from home” routine, President Trump, some state governors and business owners are exerting pressure to reopen workplaces following the COVID-19 pandemic.
While you had very little time to prepare your staff for remote work, it’s important to start planning how you’ll get your station operating at a “new normal” once restrictions are lifted and people begin working from your offices, studios and newsrooms.
For stations that are licensed to universities or governmental agencies, you’ll mostly be able to follow the decisions and guidelines of your institutions. But independent, community licensees face a much heavier burden. You will have to navigate many logistical problems and public health concerns by seeking advice from local health authorities and human resource specialists.
Public media’s national organizations can provide some assistance. I’d hope that NPR and PBS will share advice on best practices they’ve learned that are applicable for stations. Local chapters of the Society of Broadcast Engineers can help guide plans for adapting your technology so that any future disruptions can be handled more efficiently. Don’t forget about your state broadcaster’s association. Even though most of their members are commercial broadcasters, they are dealing with many of the same issues.
There’s one assumption you can make with certainty: Once employees return to the workplace, personal hygiene will be of paramount concern. In the past, if someone in the office sneezed, a simple “Gesundheit“ would suffice. Now colleagues may want to evacuate the building. Your organization will have to adopt more rigorous cleaning protocols.
You will want to provide disinfectant wipes for employees and consider restricting access to visitors. If you have a contracted cleaning service, staff members should be encouraged to keep their desks free of clutter that makes cleaning more difficult.
Work with your building owner to improve air filtration. It is more common these days to have systems that reduce airborne and surface contaminants like viruses, bacteria, germs, smoke and other allergens. Such systems can be expensive but may be necessary to keep your employees healthy. They’ll gain comfort from knowledge that their employer is taking every reasonable precaution.
Public media stations have lots of equipment that multiple individuals use on a daily basis. Think of how many people touch the control board or microphones in your main studio every day. One consulting engineer cautioned me that using disinfectant wipes on some equipment might damage it beyond repair. Contact manufacturers of your studio equipment about their recommendations.
Your preparations will also need to focus on other complex issues.
Health authorities have been emphasizing the importance of widespread testing before government officials begin lifting shutdown orders. It’s possible that employees could be required to tested for COVID-19 before they’re allowed to commute to the workplace. Consider what steps you will take to ensure the health and safety of your workers. Will you require that they have their temperatures taken daily? It might not be necessary, but your staff might consider it important.
Consider that some returning employees may suffer from anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. Counseling and employee assistance programs can help your workers deal with their fears. Your institution may already have an employee assistance program in place. Check with them about what additional services they might provide because of the pandemic. Communicate what you learn to your staff and periodically remind employees that they can receive confidential counseling if needed.
In accommodating employees who are dealing with mental health issues, make sure you adhere to the privacy standards of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. For example, you may not be able to disclose why that staff person is allowed to work only part-time from the office while others are expected to be there full-time.
Which brings me to concerns about the physical workspaces that are provided by employers.
Many stations have abandoned the practice of assigning offices to individual employees for bullpen layouts where no one has an assigned desk, or where individual workspaces are very close together. Others have installed low-walled cubicles that were thought to encourage collaboration. Your employees may no longer feel comfortable in those kinds of open environments. What accommodations can you make to address their concerns and public health guidelines for social distance? Can you separate employees’ workspaces by six feet or convert conference rooms or even studios into spaces where staff work at desks? You will need to look at all facility options.
One solution is to think carefully about who on your staff needs to work at the station and when. It is also possible that some employees will want to continue working at home. They may be among those who are fearful of exposure to others, or staff who have underlying health conditions that make them at higher risk of COVID-19. Now is the time to begin thinking about what work can and cannot be done remotely. It will be more difficult to reject requests to telecommute after everyone has the experience of working from their kitchen table during this emergency.
Think about the possibilities of letting your journalists hold their daily editorial planning meetings via teleconferences from home. They can then go out on their reporting assignments. They may be able to continue filing their stories from home. Your underwriting representatives could also work in this way. As long as they have a phone and a laptop, they can continue to reach out to clients and process sales remotely.
I would caution managers not to propose employee layoffs immediately. One of the things I learned after the 2008/2009 recession was that the disruption of layoffs and the costs of rehiring staff once things improved took a toll on stations as well as staff morale.
If your station is part of an educational institution, they will likely develop new telework policies. If not, you might want to contact companies where employees have always worked remotely and learn from them.
As the head of your organization, you will also need to look out for the financial health of your station. What does your balance sheet look like? You’ve likely noticed that your expenses have risen while donor dollars have decreased during the pandemic. Come up with a plan to stabilize your organization. What can be cut or pared back without impacting service to your listeners and viewers?
I would caution managers not to propose employee layoffs immediately. One of the things I learned after the 2008/2009 recession was that the disruption of layoffs and the costs of rehiring staff once things improved took a toll on stations as well as staff morale. If your station has cash reserves, this is an excellent time to consider using them until things begin to stabilize.
If layoffs or staff furloughs are your only option, do them humanely. Be compassionate. Offer outplacement or other support options. Make sure that the departing staff knows that you are not making the decision lightly and that it is not based on performance. Explain the station’s financial circumstances. Work with your human resource colleagues to make sure that layoffs are done legally and that there is no discrimination taking place.
During the process of realigning your budget, make sure you discuss realistic fundraising expectations and plans with your development team. It will take some time before the unemployment rate declines, and in the meantime some donors may prioritize giving to social service agencies. Develop talking points that respect other needs in the community while making your strongest case for the essential services you provide and why they deserve financial support.
Make sure you keep a record of everything that happened during pandemic closures. What worked? What didn’t? What should you have planned for? In retrospect, insights into all of these things will be helpful as you plan for similar disruptions in the future.
Remember that when your station recovers from the disruptions of this pandemic, you want to make sure you and your staff are better prepared for future emergency situations than you were when this one began.
After leading WUWM in Milwaukee for more than 30 years, Dave Edwards is now a management consultant who advises public media professionals and stations around the country. He recently wrote and published The Public Media Manager’s Handbook, available through Amazon and his website, where he regularly writes about leadership.