As organizations wrestle with the question of whether or when to return to in-person workspaces, public media leaders are aware of the seismic changes that have taken place since their teams filed out of buildings in March, 2020. Some employees have endured great hardship and loss. Many have altered perspectives on work-life balance. There may not be consensus about what constitutes a safe return. And our nation’s wider public consciousness about race and racism demands our attention.
We spoke with two system leaders, Tina Pamintuan, general manager of KALW in San Francisco, and Debbie Hiott, general manager of KUT Public Media in Austin, Texas to learn about their approach to leadership at this moment in time.
Greater Public: Have you settled on plans to return to in-person workspaces?
Tina Pamintuan: After we sheltered in place for much of 2020 and into 2021, we put out a survey to understand what was positive about working from home and what had been hard. We’re developing a plan from that feedback. We will likely return to work with a hybrid situation because we know that people do want to see each other, and being in the same space makes a difference.
We want to accommodate people’s comfort about returning; they want to know that the other people in their workspace are vaccinated [for COVID-19]. We will require that volunteers and staff be vaccinated, but there are conflicting opinions about how to work with interview guests.
We are also going through intense cultural change right now which has its very real challenges, especially when working remote. Still, in many ways, we have a happy workplace, where people celebrate each other’s successes. Spontaneous dance parties occasionally break out—even on Zoom. Our newsroom has a barbeque that is well-used when we are on-site.
Debbie Hiott: We made plans to come back in September, and then pushed that back. Then our [affiliate] university required that we come back by September 16, which we have been able to change to October 1. We’re part of a state agency and our [state] government doesn’t want things shut down. Legislation was passed in Texas that forbids us from asking about people’s vaccine status and we can’t require mask-wearing. Our university went to a flex work system, which is something I’d been wanting to do at KUT even before the pandemic, in part because our content floor is bursting at the seams. Both our music and news teams have experienced a lot of growth over the past five years.
Flex work allows for people to coordinate working outside of the office on some days, so we’re setting up hoteling desks and the team is excited about having that flexibility. I think [whether or not we return fully in-person] is a business continuity issue. The Delta variant has shown us how precarious things can be. I’m [at the station] a few days a week and about 50% of students [at affiliate University of Texas at Austin] are wearing masks. The vaccination rate in our county is about 67%, but that doesn’t capture the rate among students who come from other areas in Texas whose rates can be lower than 50%. We try to stress to our university that we need to protect our on-air staff. Even though they’re vaccinated, illness could take them away from their jobs for days.