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“There were seven cases across different floors that week”: Confessions from a media employee who returned the office

Hearst was one of the few big media companies that began requiring employees to show up at the office at the end of last year, before reinstating a flexible work policy this month. In this edition of our Confessions series, in which we exchange anonymity for candor, a Hearst employee recounts her experience of returning…

Hearst is one of few media companies that required employees to report to the office at the close of last year before introducing a flexible work policy. This edition of Confessions, in which anonymity is exchanged for candor, features a Hearst employee who recounts her experience returning to Hearst Tower, nearly two years after working remotely. She believes that her colleagues’ lack of compliance with safety and health measures may have contributed to her contracting the virus.

Since this interview was conducted, Hearst Magazines president Debi Chirichella sent a memo on Jan. 13 to notify employees that the option to work remotely is being extended “until further notice” and that the company “will provide at least two weeks’ notice once we have confirmed our new return date,” according to a copy of the memo obtained by Digiday. Hearst reiterated the policy in a request for comment.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What was your first day back at the office like?

We were required to go back the week of Nov. 29th. It was my first week in the office. I’m not ashamed to say that I didn’t want to return. My colleague was in the same row as me when I arrived at work on Monday. We measured and found that we were 6 feet apart. That’s six feet, and neither of us was happy about it. That’s the guideline. But, I don’t know if it was accurate. It still felt very close. We were not required to wear masks in common areas, but if we were at our desks or could maintain appropriate social distance. It was an anxiety-inducing experience when we discovered we were sitting so close together. [My colleague and I] decided that we would wear our masks to work all day. Many of my coworkers were unmasked. You can walk up to someone’s desk and say hello if you are in real life. Unmasked people were still walking around unmasked. I was able to ride the elevator with unmasked people. Even at the beginning, there wasn’t much compliance.

How did you feel about being back in the office?

It was a strange feeling to have it in the office. It was impossible to accommodate all the people attending our weekly team meeting in one conference room. We are maybe 50 people. Because we couldn’t all meet in person, we had to do our meeting online. You’re sitting at your desk, on a Zoom call at work with others. Now you are wondering: What’s the point? It felt awkward, even though we were all in the same office building. Do I need to send them a message? It felt a lot like the first day of school, but with a pandemic.

What was the layout of the office? What was the office’s layout before the pandemic?

Previously [my team] had all been on one floor. Each row could hold up to three people. However, now only one or two people could be in each row. We were divided between two floors because it was half of the floor’s population. [Management] divided us into A and B teams so some of us moved to [on different days of the week].. Half the team may not be there at the same time as you, and the other half is on a completely different floor. It’s difficult to work with people I work with. They might not be there so Slack-ing or Zoom-ing is possible, or they may be on another floor. In either case, you won’t have the opportunity to speak to them without a plan. Your badges can only be activated on the floor that your desk is located. To get into another floor, you must stand [outside the doors] at the door and stare through it like a lost person.

Did you feel more or less productive working from the office versus working from home?

I was less productive. My job is such that if I don’t have the ability to collaborate with someone, I can just Slack them, or have a Zoom chat if I’m at home. If you are in the office and know that the other person is there, it is expected to meet them in person. You start to wander around in search of them. You are now sitting in a different place than you were before they moved our desks. If the person isn’t at their desk, they will walk back to your desk to check five minutes later. It’s nice to be able to chat with someone in the office. The mental health aspect is also important – feeling anxious about going to work. It can be very difficult to focus when you don’t know if there’s COVID in your building.

What do you mean? What do you mean?

I had PTO to burn, and was out on Monday [December 13]. Because I don’t check my emails when I’m not at work, I didn’t go to my email. Later, I discovered that we had received an email from the entire team stating that we were to work remotely on Tuesday. The email didn’t reach me because I wasn’t in on Monday. I was astonished to see that everyone had gotten the email. Why am I the only one? My manager said that there was a COVID patient on the team, but they don’t know how to share it. I wasn’t quiet. [The union and I] discovered that there were initially seven cases spread across different floors during that week. This was very stressful for everyone. We received an email later that week from the company stating that they had not acknowledged the COVID cases but that we could still work remotely until we return from the holidays to be able to spend more quality time with our families. This email was a shock to all of us who knew about COVID. The day after that email I g

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