Alex Entwistle, assistant editor, BBC Radio 5 Live
What do WhatsApp alerts, coffee shots and Elvis have in common? For one journalist they represent both the problem and the solution to message overload.
It is now a given that newsrooms are struggling under a combination of wires, notifications, social media updates and an avalanche of emails. Combine this with diminishing resources and a traditional long-hours work culture — and you have a recipe for journalist burnout.
Alex Entwistle, assistant editor, BBC Radio 5 Live is dialling down the pressure in an innovative way. He has turned off social media messages during certain office hours, introduced meetings at the end of the working day and has encouraged his team to express their feelings through a musical ‘mood board’.
“This mood board could look like management rubbish,” he says with a chuckle. “But it is important: you can't expect people to be switched on 24/7 because all the evidence is there.
“People are less effective. You’re not getting the most out of your staff if you're asking them to work out-of-hours all the time.
“Obviously, there are things like the Manchester Attack, London Bridge and Brexit. All kinds of news like that when people will have to work over and above. That's part and parcel. But to expect that all the time… it's not great for the employees, it’s is not great for the employer.
“People have got to look at the model. They should be able to walk into work, get an update and then do their eight hours to their maximum capacity. Rather than checking in two hours before the start. Going into work, needing to overload on caffeine. It's not a healthy or a good way for people to work.”
Entwistle, who leads a five-strong news digital pilots team at the station, is part of a cohort of 15 journalists working for the European Journalism Centre’s News Impact Network (disclosure: so am I) — we are looking at ways to make our industry more sustainable and forward-thinking.
“People aren't set up correctly,” he adds. “Just having that space in the morning — that's something I've said right across the team.
“I have switched off alerts on my phone for WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and work emails. And what that’s done is helped me prioritise a lot more - and I felt a lot more in control of my working day and have been able to map it out.
“I know that doesn't work for everyone as far as day-to-day breaking news because the team that I work on, we've got our remit of reporting stories and topics of interest.”
Turning off alerts during your working day makes practical sense – but it is a hard ask for journalists (like myself) who desperately do not want to miss out. Entwistle is a fan of Jeff Sutherland’s ‘Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time’ where a logical rather than a FOMO-driven emotional approach is taken.
“All this talk of multitasking and being connected all the time isn't the best use of your energy because there is a little bit of waste that comes in when you're switching between the things that you're concentrating on,” he explains.
“So, you're typing away, your phone buzzes. You look at your phone, then you get back to your work. Then your phone buzzes again, you check that and you think: ‘Do I reply to it or do I put it on my to-do list?’ And it really interrupts the flow.
“Whereas, if you can turn those alerts off and think: ‘OK, I'm going to check my emails and my WhatsApps when I get in the morning. Then I'm going to concentrate on task X. And then two hours in, I’ll set time aside to reply and respond to emails and check WhatsApp again’.
“It's just a lot better to work that way because you were concentrating and you were fully involved in what you were doing rather than flitting between the two, three or four tasks.”
He is now looking at how visual indicators — such as a mood board — to indicate how people are best feeling.
“The ‘jukebox’ is a little mechanism we use on the team to gauge individual’s feelings,” Entwistle says.
“It is just a big piece of A3 with some record artwork on there and that will represent a different array of emotions. So it could be ‘Bright Side of the Road’ by Van Morrison; ‘Just Fine’ by Mary J. Blige; ‘Help’ by The Beatles or ‘Invincible’ by Tinie Tempah.
“It’s just a short-cut mechanism for the team. They don't need to go into detail, unless they really want to.
“But it is to say: ‘This is where I am. And this is my mood’. So it's a really quick indicator for everyone to be across. And I kind of like it.
“They choose a track which relates to their current feeling. When they’ve marked it with their magnet, they say why they chose that track in a couple of sentences — i.e. ‘I’ve picked 'Trouble' by Coldplay because the case study isn’t getting back to me and everything else hinges on them’.
“Something like this gives the team a chance to offer alternative suggestions, back up plans and reassurance.
“I may have picked ‘Invincible’ because I completed all my tasks yesterday and am planning my next shoot. In this instance, this person has more or less said they’re free to support and help anyone else to complete team priorities.”
The ‘jukebox’ is used at early morning stand-ups which have replaced meandering meetings. Showing some vulnerability clearly can bolster collaboration, but what is the thinking behind evening gatherings?
“It's accountability,” Entwistle explains. “It might mean that someone's priorities have changed. So there are two reasons for that: what you set out to do in the morning might have changed and the team needs to be aware of that for that person.
“Or it might be that they have hit a blocker. Because if you just have a morning meeting all the time, people can say the same things every day and it doesn't necessarily indicate to anyone how things have progressed.
“But there's also that kind of personal aim for the individuals: ‘OK, I know that I'm going to be held accountable at five or six o'clock. So I need to concentrate. And I need to cut out the noise of everything else because this is my priority for today.’ That's been agreed as a team working together. So it really helps focus the mind, I think, for the team.”
The issue, of course, is not limited to newsrooms. One recent study from the University of West of England says commuters are so regularly using travel time for work emails that their journeys should be counted as part of their working day.
Asked whether his new approach has made the journalism he produces better, Entwistle responds: “I think it's made me a better manager and, as a result, is that reflected on other people's work as a journalist? All I know is that I am performing better — perhaps as a result the team are also benefiting without me burning myself out."
For many of us, the Elvis song on the mood board rings true. I am ‘Doin’ The Best I Can’. For Entwistle and his team, they are achieving far much more.
John Crowley is a freelance journalist who can be found tweeting @mrjohncrowley.