Despite increasing calls for staff to come back to the office this fall, many employees at media companies say they haven’t faced any repercussions for ignoring those requests.
The rigidity of media companies’ return-to-office policies range from encouragement to straight-up mandates. But across the board, employees and union members Digiday spoke with at Dotdash Meredith, Hearst, NBC News, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal said they have not heard of anyone who has had to deal with disciplinary actions for continuing to work from home. (Notably, all of these newsrooms are unionized.)
“Not yet, anyway,” Tim Martell, executive director of Dow Jones’ union IAPE, said in an email.
The lack of enforcement from Dow Jones management thus far, however, could be because many of the other business units at the publisher’s parent company are either beginning their return to office or starting next month, Martell added.
There has been some flexibility, too, for those who have asked for it: Some IAPE members at The Wall Street Journal have requested and been granted temporary exceptions to the requirement to work from the office, Martell said. Others have the option to negotiate a delayed return because they relocated during the pandemic. A Dow Jones spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment before publishing time.
A Dotdash Meredith employee and union member who asked to remain anonymous said the union’s pushback against return-to-office expectations may be “a deterrent” to any action against employees who are choosing to continue to work from home. The union has outstanding Unfair Labor Practice filings with the National Labor Relations Board against the company for a return-to-office policy that the union claims wasn’t agreed upon. The employee also said management might simply be unaware that there are some employees not going into the office regularly. A company spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment before publishing time.
Unions at The New York Times made their grievances known earlier this month: More than 1,000 member employees signed a pledge refusing to go into the office the week of Sept. 12, defying the company’s requests for staff to start coming in three times a week. A member of the union said they had not heard of any repercussions or disciplinary actions against members who stayed home that week, or since then. A Times spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment before publishing time.
An NBC News spokesperson confirmed that “no NBC News Guild employee has faced any form of termination because of their geographic location.” The company is in “active discussions with the Guild over a safe and flexible return-to-office policy,” they added.
The lack of enforcement of these policies is likely due in part to unions’ pushback, as well as the way that many companies are continuing to handle the return to office: leaving it up to managers. This team-led approach gives leaders the flexibility to determine what hybrid schedule works best for the people they oversee, but also leads to discrepancies among expectations from different teams’ bosses.
Bhushan Sethi, joint global people and organization leader at consulting firm PwC, said the vagueness of companies’ language around return-to-office plans is likely because they are “fearful of reputation damage” that can be spread on social media, and from unions and employees. “They don’t want to be seen to be too harsh,” he said. “Firms are still walking around on eggshells on this topic.”
Sethi said he’s seen the language in companies’ return-to-office requests progress from “we would like” to “we encourage” to “we would appreciate” to, now, “strongly encourage.”
“Firms are being super accommodating, because they don’t want to lose talent,” he said, citing the current competitive job market. “We’re not seeing any kinds of massive implications” for employees not abiding by companies’ return-to-office requests, Sethi added.
However, it remains to be seen how ignoring companies’ demands might impact employees’ performance reviews and compensation down the line. For example, the people who aren’t going into the office regularly might “advance less quickly,” Sethi said. Employees, he argued, need transparency from their managers on how working from home may impact their ability to advance in the company, he said.