How Media Companies Are Deciding Employee Policies in the Age of Coronavirus

'We’re debating serious issues during a global health pandemic. It isn’t a time to fuck around.'

illustration of employees in a tech workplace
Media execs are trying to figure out how to keep employees safe and their businesses running. Getty Images

Key insights:

In mid-February, Vox Media’s leadership team began discussing how it would operate should the coronavirus move to the United States. It was March 10 when they made their first call—to encourage people to work from home. The following day, as they watched schools across the nation begin to close, the team took to their communication tools of choice, Slack and Zoom, to carve out what would be the company’s official policy on working from home 

(Adweek obtained that memo and is publishing it in full below.)

According to people who were in the virtual room, the guiding principle was simple: to keep all Vox Media’s 1,200 employees and their families safe. Vox Media declined to comment on the record for this story.

As media companies continue to navigate these uncharted waters, leadership needs to, well, lead. Vox Media’s 10-person leadership team, made up of the company’s C-suite and a couple other high-ranking execs, can make decisions pretty quickly, said a person close to this group. Sometimes in seconds.

For example, on Friday, the company said all full-time employees, including temporary workers, can take unlimited PTO “to care for their family members during the COVID-19 crisis while without childcare or are assisting their family members.” That decision, a source with knowledge said, “was made within seconds.”

“This was the obvious, straightforward thing to do. … It’s the right decision morally and ethically but also the right business decision,” said a person with knowledge of Vox Media’s leadership decisions. “Every company should be doing this; every company that has the means to stay in business should be doing it. We talk it over and make these decisions.”

Executives across the media landscape are trying to figure out how to keep employees safe but also keep their businesses running. But it’s no easy task. CEOs at media companies told Adweek that one of the most important things they are communicating is that the starting point of every conversation is safety, but then making sure people get settled into routines. People are creatures of habit, and the current environment has disrupted that.

That disruption has found its way to the offices of SHE Media, which operates sites like SheKnows and Hollywood Life, where 110 employees are navigating how to “switch modalities” from being always on with a clear break at the end of the day and leaving the office to always on and still being remote, said Samantha Skey, CEO of SHE Media.

To start the day, SHE Media is holding standup meetings at 8:30 a.m., 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. depending on where the office is located. (The company is headquartered in New York City but but also has offices in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Los Angeles.) “That gets you into your space,” Skey said.

The company is using video platform HighFive for these meetings as well as some daily meditation, something the company is starting today. SHE Media has a teacher trained in mindful meditation who will holds hourlong classes.

In addition to standup meetings and meditation, the company is doing a virtual happy hour at 6 p.m. to ensure the workday doesn’t end at 4:30 p.m., but also as a way to end the day on a positive note. And no, happy hour doesn’t have to be alcoholic, Skey said, nor mandatory.

The company, which was acquired by Penske Media in 2018 for a reported $40 million, has been operating under this work-from-home structure since Thursday. But it was a quick decision, Skey said, made after listening to the team.

“It was a communal decision. People were nervous to go to work. And instead of just doing audio, we did video. We shared our teams’ relative level of stress. I was surprised by the different concerns,” Skey said. “I didn’t think about elderly parents or people on medication that suppressed immune systems and what it would mean to be at work. As we heard all the challenges, we realized that mental health will be important.”

While the company doesn’t have a formal PTO policy in the Age of Coronavirus, like Vox Media, Skey did say that for anyone who has to miss work for any reason related to the virus, it’s not counted against their PTO.

“We’re listening to the staff and learning what’s important to them,” she said.

“This is a crisis; it’s a pandemic,” said our Vox Media source. “We’re not debating what benefits or snacks to put in the kitchen or debating whether someone gets comp time for playing video games. We’re debating serious issues during a global health pandemic. It isn’t a time to fuck around.”

Vox Media Memo to Staffers:

With schools and daycares across the country being closed due to COVID-19, we understand that many of our employees are now in the predicament of being without childcare. Further, many of our employees may need to care for elderly or sick relatives at this time. That’s a hard position to be in and we want to ensure we support these folks as best we can.  

Effective immediately and until further notice, Vox Media is putting a policy in place to help mitigate the challenges of our current situation. It has been added to our overall policy regarding COVID-19.

FAMILY CARE POLICY:

This policy applies to all Vox Media employees who have children or legal dependents at home and for whom they do not have childcare during the COVID-19 crisis due to school or daycare closures or are otherwise without childcare. It also applies to Vox Media employees who are taking care of a sick or elderly family member as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

All full-time employees (including temporary) may take paid time off (PTO) to care for their family members during the COVID-19 crisis for as long as needed while without childcare or are assisting their family members.

  • The employee must inform their manager of their intent to use PTO with as much notice as possible.
    • Managers may not deny the request to take PTO as long as it is being used to care for family members in the two circumstances listed above.
    • The employee must submit the request for time off in Ultipro (using the ‘Unlimited PTO’ option)
    • No documentation regarding school/daycare closure or illness is required while this policy is in effect.
    • Employees who can work part-time while without child care/assistance should do so.
  • The employee should speak with their direct manager about their schedule – being realistic about how many hours and when they will be able to work.
    • Part-time employees may do either or both of the following:
  • Shift their schedule in order to accommodate their needs to care for family members.
    • Take up to 40 hours of paid time off to care for family members. Sick time does not need to be used for this period.
    • This policy’s timeline is indefinite and subject to change.

An important note: Employees who do not have children or family care challenges right now should not be expected to entirely pick up the slack during this period. While some people might have to take on new work, it’s not feasible for anyone to be doing multiple jobs. This means that teams will need to ruthlessly prioritize their work and communicate those changes out to peer stakeholders or outside partners as needed.

We’ll be sending out some additional guidance for people managers early next week. In partnership with the Parents ERG (#voxmedia-parents-erg), we will also be dropping some guidance and ideas into their Slack channel.

Thank you all for supporting each other through this truly crazy and difficult time. If you have questions, concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me or your organization’s leadership.


@joshsternberg Josh Sternberg is the former media and tech editor at Adweek.
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