Someday newsrooms will reopen. Sumita Arora’s job is envisioning what that will look like.
As a principal at Gensler, and leader of the architectural firm’s media arm, Arora not only has to visualize a post-COVID-19 workplace, but also what journalistic habits acquired during the pandemic might be suitable in new newsroom settings.
“Leading up to this crisis, the workplace had become very dense, and particularly so in the case of newsrooms where collaboration, and eye contact and access to breaking news on digital media was very, very important,” Arora, whose clients have included The Washington Post and The Dallas Morning News, said in an interview. “I think there’s going to be a phased re-entry into the workplace. Because the same real estate footprint is not going to be able to support the population that it ordinarily would at max capacity.”
That means retaining some of the digital workflows and virtual newsrooms developed and perfected during the past two months.
“It’s a little too early to fully understand the impact of these new habits, which haven’t really settled in yet, but I think they will, because I think we’re a little ways away from getting a vaccine,” she said.
With health and safety as priorities, newsrooms, like other workplaces, will have to adapt ideas from the healthcare sector. That includes improved air purification systems, infrared fever screening systems, and a higher level of automation. Think voice activation, hands-free tools, automatic doors and touchless soap dispensers.
Newsrooms will have to be clutter-free to allow regular deep cleaning. Imagine fewer huddle rooms, more assigned work spaces and no shared keyboards or headsets. Imagine more signage with reminders to wipe down workspaces or indicating room occupancy limits.
In a follow-up email exchange, Arora described other ways news media workspaces might change.
How might newspaper editors think of their work space differently after their experience with remote work?
Arora: Newsrooms have adapted rapidly to working remotely. They had to. The need to keep the citizenry informed is more important now than ever. Also important is the need for greater transparency, fact checking, and collaboration.
As media organizations start thinking about returning to work, they must consider bringing forward some of the digital workflows that they have embraced while working remotely. As we start bringing people back to the work, there will be limited face-to-face interactions, and only a small percentage of the staff will be physically present in the workplace to maintain the physical distancing required to beat this pandemic.
Multi-platform delivery, in this era of convergence, requires a speed to market. The digital workflows embraced by today’s newsrooms rely on technology that can be both a friend and a foe. On the one hand, those workflows allow people to come together and enable content creation and dissemination.
On the other hand, they are no substitute for face-to-face connections.
What type of retrofitting might be necessary, at least in the short term, in newsrooms where open space and proximity have been valued commodities?
Arora: When we design newsrooms that support the media convergence, we strive to enable flexibility and agility. Key to that is the use of universal and modular planning — both in the design of the physical workplace and the supporting technology and infrastructure backbone.
This model will serve us well as we adapt the newsroom in the near future to maintain physical distancing. For example, raised-access floors and modular power and data delivery systems make it very easy to reconfigure the workplace without any structural changes.
Similarly, one can remove two workstations and backfill with an office, or flip a huddle room (i.e., small meeting room) to become an office by using demountable partitions. The systems (lighting, cooling, power, etc.) are already designed to accept these changes. It’s a kit-of-parts, really.
Proximity can be achieved by bringing forward into the physical space some of the digital collaboration tools that were adopted during remote work.
How about television studios? If remote interviews become more the norm than in-studio interviews, how does that affect design?
Arora: Media organizations are doing a remarkable job with remote content capture, packaging, and dissemination. However, this is not a viable long-term practice. The aesthetics of the content are not up to usual standards, and consumers expect more.
To deliver the polished content that viewers are accustomed to, media organizations require access to the spaces and technology that reside in their workplace.
In the future, perhaps media organizations will consider setting up a few remote satellite production locations with controlled access. They will be well served to train their talent on best practices, as well as equip them with the technology needed to create more sophisticated content from their homes.
After all, as we have seen in the age of social media and mobile tech, anyone with a smart mobile device can be a content creator.
What other changes do you envision in newsroom design as a result of the pandemic?
Arora: I imagine that post-vaccine we will create greater distance in the newsroom, allowing for a minimum separation of six feet and, of course, adding screens. Additionally, we will need to really adopt digital/IP based workflows and collaboration even in the physical space.
The other aspects of newsroom design that we have recommended and followed in the recent past will remain unchanged. For example, creating multiple set opportunities/a live streaming newsroom, or an immersive brand experience to communicate the values and mission of an organization.