Midtown Manhattan media moguls are making employees return to 8th Avenue in newly announced hybrid work policies — a move that union reps are pushing back against as an outdated expectation in the age of digital workplaces.
As first reported by DigiDay, both the New York Times and Hearst Media have announced plans to require employees to report to their 8th Avenue offices (RTO) two-to-three days a week, citing fully remote work (also known as working from home, or WFH) as a COVID-19 temporary measure that has outgrown its expiration date. Danielle Rhoades Ha, SVP of External Communications for the New York Times told W42ST that the new policy leaves room for special accommodations and remote work approvals and will be implemented on a department by department level.
“We believe that allowing people the flexibility to work together in the office at times and remotely at other times benefits everyone by ensuring that we maintain the strong, collaborative environment that has come to define our culture and drive our success,” said Ha. While COVID-19 cases have risen sharply over the summer, “regarding masking and vaccination policy, the company has followed health and safety guidance at the local, state and federal levels since the start of the pandemic and will continue to do so,” added Ha. W42ST has also reached out to Hearst Media for comment on their return to office policy and will update this article if we hear back.
For New York Times and Hearst employees — many belonging to the News Guild of New York, which represents over 3,000 area journalists — the move to make workers report to their desks comes with a side of unsavory surveillance. Representatives from the New York Times Guild and Times Tech Guild, which collectively represent many of the Grey Lady’s newsroom and technical teams, have sent cease-and-desist letters to management over the move, and the Times Tech Guild has filed a complaint against management with the National Labor Relations Board over allegations that executives plan to monitor building badge use as a means of enforcing the policy and evaluating employee performance (Axios). W42ST has followed up with The New York Times for comment about building badge monitoring and will update if we hear back.
“Our position remains clear: Management cannot require employees to work in-person without the Guild’s agreement. Returning to the office is a mandatory subject of bargaining and the National Labor Relations Board has affirmed this position,” Susan DeCarava, president of The News Guild of New York, told W42ST. “Since the pandemic began, our members have filed Unfair Labor Practice charges against, and sought relief from, employers who have attempted to unilaterally implement a RTO date without our agreement. Employers are acting like COVID is a thing of the past, even as cases and hospitalizations rise. Workers have a right to have a say in anything that affects working conditions, especially when it comes to health and safety.”
The unions’ fight against mandated return-to-office policies is part of a larger conversation about the future of remote work. While many companies adopted a fully remote workplace as a response to early COVID-19 quarantines, the many benefits of remote work — including flexibility for caregivers and increased productivity, as noted by a recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research — have become guideposts in union contract negotiations around optimal work environments. While hybrid arrangements have quickly become the norm, a new study from Work From Home research tracker showed that on average, most hybrid workers are in office approximately three days a week, with employees desiring a two days in/three days out hybrid split. In a survey of desired remote arrangements from the September 2023 WFH tracker, the largest percentage of respondents hoped for a fully remote work environment.
City leadership is taking note of the movement. Mayor Eric Adams, once quoted as admonishing remote workers for “staying in their pajamas all day”, has adjusted his stance on the policy, recently proposing that an additional 136 million square feet of office space be made eligible for housing and declaring that “everything has changed, and we have to be willing to change with it.” Even the New York Times published an article as recently as June declaring the return to office in its “desperation phase.”
But for some area businesses, the impact of not having commuter consumers has left them hoping for the return of a lunchtime rush. Remote work has affected Midtown’s micro-economy, where workers are spending $12.4 billion less annually on local lunches and other adjacent retail due to the hybrid setup. “Things were slower, but they have picked back up,” said Aoife Canny, General Manager of the Beer Authority, a popular bar across the street from the New York Times building. “The Times is struggling to get people back in, but I feel that there is an influx of younger workers and interns who are coming back,” she added. And while business patterns aren’t the same as they once were — “Thursday is the new Friday, almost no one comes into the office on Fridays,” she noted — Beer Authority is still working with corporate clients to plan happy hours and welcoming after-work patrons.
Union reps argue that the fight against blanket return-to-office policies isn’t a plot to shut down Midtown workspaces or deprive local businesses, but rather to give employees the choice for the work environment that works best for them. “We’re not saying that the Times should close their office or anything like that,” said Goran Svorcan-Merola, an iOs developer for the Times since 2018 and the NYTimes Tech Guild’s Vice-Chair. “We just want people to have the option to do what makes sense for them. I personally really like coming into the office — I’m happy to do so — but that’s me. And I like seeing people in the office, but am I going to be happy seeing people in the office if they’re all miserable because they’re forced to be there?”
Svorcan-Merola notes that the organization has had “a lot of great success hiring people who are full-time remote, and it’s really expanded the amount of people we can hire, and where we can hire from.” Regarding concerns over remote work productivity, “the company’s doing well,” said Svorcan-Merola (the New York Times stock share price has risen more than 94 percent over the past five years). “If there has been a productivity hit in some way, none of us have seen any evidence of it. In fact, we’ve seen evidence to the contrary,” he added. “If management has any productivity concerns, we’ve maintained that they should bring them to us — let’s address them, let’s see where they come from — but none of that has been brought to our attention in a concrete way.”
Negotiations are ongoing with the publication’s management. “I would say we’ve had a disappointingly poor showing from them,” said Svorcan-Merola. “When [our unions] were formed, we were all working remotely and the holdover from the pandemic that we maintained was the status quo. If they want to make any changes to the status quo, they can’t do that without bargaining with us,” he added. “And based on the latest news from the National Labor Relations Board, the board agrees with us.”
While Svorcan-Merola was keeping quiet on the union’s plans should negotiations fall through, the implications could be long-lasting. Last December, members of the New York Times unions held a one-day walk out during negotiations with management over equitable pay. And though there is no official word on a walkout, the battle over return-to-office could very well stop the presses.