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When the pandemic hit, newsroom leaders were thrown in at the deep end just like the rest of the working world. Publishers spent 18 months trying to figure out how to work safely and continue to serve their audiences, despite the virus.

Even a big organisation like the Financial Times has had its fair share of challenges. Head of talent development Felicity Thomas shared some of the strategies that helped journalists build their resilience and keep productivity up, speaking at the WAN-IFRA Virtual News Summit last month.

Instead of just thinking about "when is this all going to end?", the publisher was rolling out initiatives to help the exhausted teams and their managers. According to Thomas, everyone seems to have hit the lowest point around January 2021, when dark, winter days were made even gloomier by the prospect of a third lockdown.

Once it became clear that the pandemic is here to stay, the FT started to adapt and innovate. The tech was not a problem - the company set up an efficient system to connect those working from home. What was missing was the sense of human connectedness and collaboration.

Building resilience

To keep everyone in the know, Monday morning editorial conferences were live-streamed, which allowed all journalists to participate or at least follow what was going on in the company. Smaller, informal events, such as digital drinks with the team or a tea break with the editor were invaluable for keeping the spirits up.

Editors also organised daily or weekly sessions with their teams to keep everyone updated but were also setting up one-to-one sessions to check in with people individually.

To help them keep up with the pace of changes, team leaders took short training courses in building resilience that they could use to work with their teams. They were also invited into small workgroups of four to six people to share ideas and thoughts around what was working well and what was not.

Maintaining motivation

Thomas pointed out that the pandemic was the story of a lifetime for many journalists who were not only covering it but also living through it and experiencing all the downsides themselves. Although exhausting, this can also be hugely motivating.

But how do you keep the motivation up amid an endless stream of depressing news and a very real fear of the virus?

The answer: motivation workshops with career coaches. This allowed staff to take some time off their busy schedules and think about their coping strategies, plus they received tips and techniques to manage personal and emotional resources.

Pairs of journalists also got together in front of their colleagues to talk about motivation during fireside chat-style sessions. This helped everyone to feel less isolated and to express their vulnerability. The main message was that it is sometimes ok not to be ok, rather than covering it up and keeping on pushing for the story.

This also worked for "reporter roundtables" hosted by the deputy editor that allowed everyone to catch up on any events and decisions that happened outside of formal meetings.

Finally, the company provided feedback and support for those looking to advance their careers, although many have put these efforts on hold for the time being.

Staying healthy

The publisher acknowledged the so-called Zoom fatigue and ramped up its support around physical and mental health. Editors hosted discussions with mental health experts and these sessions were recorded to allow everyone to catch up, even those who were home-schooling or had other commitments. The company also provided support around home office setup to make sure everyone has the right equipment.

Most importantly, staff received coaching on self-management at home to help set boundaries around working hours. Some were also offered wellness days on top of annual leave to manage stress. To help everyone take care of their health, the company also ran an internal support network, online yoga classes, virtual coffee breaks and other initiatives.

What is the future?

Like everyone else, the FT is still figuring out how to move forward. From employee surveys to individual chats, Thomas and her team are gathering information to find the best way to shape the newsroom of the future.

Working from home makes collaboration harder, but it also means less visibility for some people. All of this may hinder career development so a hybrid model that combines working from home and in the newsroom is the most likely way forward.

Even if you do not have all the staff and resources of the Financial Times, the main lesson learned is that the leadership team needs to constantly communicate what is going on in the company and listen to the staff. A lack of communication breeds suspicion and feeds fatigue, which leads to teams being demotivated and disengaged. And, if you think about it, communication does not cost a penny.

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