This is no news flash. The pivot to virtual learning and edtech during the pandemic has created an unprecedented demand for digital content and courseware. Sales of e-books and audiobooks are rising now that bookstores and libraries are mostly closed. In this new reality, digital adoption and content transformation are crucial risk-mitigation strategies for publishers across segments. (Luddites and laggards, please take note.)

Melding technology and innovation and collaborating with publishing partners to address the needs of the hour are top priorities in India, where the largest number of digital solutions vendors are located. But first, vendors had to contend with their own transition to work from home (WFH), including virtual conferencing and a restructured workflow—just like the very clients they serve. As IT-enabled companies, their transition was smoother and faster in many ways.

Most vendors were already deep in WFH experimentation when the March 25 lockdown was announced in India. Weeks earlier, DiacriTech, for instance, had put 20% of its workforce in WFH mode as a trial. “We saw the writing on the wall and were busy planning the necessary emergency measures to maintain critical or key services and functions, and fine-tuning our existing business continuity plan to suit the pandemic situation,” executive v-p A.R.M. Gopinath says. “We made sure that our team was able to provide the same level of service and accessibility with our XEditPro publishing platform in the office and from the home environment. The test case served to tighten our protocols and eliminate any loopholes. So, by the time the lockdown announcement came through, we were ready for a full-swing rollout.”

Nearly 40% of Lapiz Digital’s workforce was already working remotely by mid-March. Moving desktops to employee homes was an issue, especially since some had already relocated out of Chennai, where the company is based, says v-p Meena Prakash, whose team spent about 10 days purchasing laptops and securing stable internet connections.

Home is now where the work is

With its high internet and mobile data penetration, India is tailor-made for WFH. The country has 560 million internet users, representing the world’s second-largest online market, and boasts some of the least expensive mobile data plans on the globe.

“VoIP [Voice over Internet Protocol] and web chats among staff are easy now that fast fiber-optic broadband is available in most towns,” Gopinath says. “For staff who moved back to their villages during the lockdown, they may not have broadband, but fast and extensive 4G network coverage is at their fingertips.”

Secure chat and VoIP-based solutions also keep the communication channels with DiacriTech’s clients open, Gopinath says. “Webex Meetings, GoToMeeting, Google Duo, Microsoft TeamViewer, and AnyDesk are just some of the online meeting and web conferencing tools that our project managers use to engage clients. Some clients prefer using WhatsApp to keep in touch, and that is perfectly fine with us. What we want clients to know is that they are backed 24/7 by a team that has over 20 years of experience in publishing.”

Past experiences with disruptions caused by monsoons and snowstorms have left Westchester Publishing Services, which has operations in India and the U.S., with a number of protocols and proven workflows suitable for the WFH/pandemic era. “The usage of Zoom, Dropbox, Dropbox Paper, Office 365, and other tools has been a part of our modus operandi for some time already, thus ensuring a smooth WFH transition that keeps our staff and client projects going,” chief revenue officer Tyler Carey says. Westchester “is a big fan of Dropbox Paper,” he adds. “The ability to replace forms-based processes, organize documentation and client requirements, confirm client project specs, control access, and embed external documents makes it a simple and nimble platform for collaboration internally and with clients.”

Westchester Publishing Services also went into WFH mode before the lockdown order. Setting up hotspots and ordering laptops to facilitate WFH and ensuring business continuity and productivity were par for the course. “The critical issue lies in making sure that everyone involved in various publishing projects—including freelancers, clients, authors, and contributors—is comfortable with a digital workflow, and knows how to use the tools provided,” Carey says. “We found ourselves providing free consulting to our partners, sharing how we used different tools effectively, and we will continue to do so. We have hosted two webinars—now available free from our company website—that bring thought leaders from the industry to talk about WFH and the day-to-day challenges and solutions in publishing.”

Looking beyond bits and bytes

The best technology cannot replace a dedicated and motivated staff, Gopinath says. “Communication and coordination issues at the beginning of the WFH transition were the norm. We experienced a slight backlog, but the right support practices and WFH-friendly policies have played a critical role in shoring up productivity and commitment away from the office environment.” DiacriTech’s staff came up with suggestions and ideas to improve workflow, including ways to better utilize production tools through VPN, obtain clients’ approval to use low-resolution proofs to speed up communication, and provide deep-link emails with the option of editing content online.

“Our staff is definitely our strength, and, without them, this transition to WFH would not be as seamless,” says Prakash, of Lapiz Digital, pointing out that the company’s sales and business development activities took a back seat for several weeks in the early stages. “The priority was in setting up an internal system to keep in constant touch with all staff and do weekly checks on them and their immediate family’s health and wellbeing. Now, our daily review meetings to check things like productivity and quality, customer feedback, and resource utilization, for instance, are happening virtually per normal office conditions.” A program was also rolled out so that managers could get to know the families of their team members.

Keeping the operations running smoothly for staff and clients tops the to-do list at Newgen KnowledgeWorks, says Subhash Panicker, v-p of human resources. “The shift to WFH is more about a state of mind rather than any specific piece of technology or infrastructure,” Panicker says. “Technology is, of course, important, but rather than using tools to micromanage working hours or track staff activities, we prefer to give people the freedom to work when it is best for them and their clients.”

Constant client engagement has seen Newgen staff at all levels forming deeper connections with clients and international colleagues. “For a copy editor to sit face-to-face, albeit via a video screen, with their editorial counterpart on the other side of the world has fostered more collaboration than we ever achieved through email alone,” Panicker says.

Keeping business on an even keel

When it came to managing a whole WFH team at Lapiz Digital, “the first few days were rather confusing,” Prakash says. “But videoconferencing glitches were surprisingly few, and we quickly got used to the household noises in the background. Online audio/video meetings are now the norm, despite the initial skepticism on its usage and effectiveness. Going forward, even if things go back to pre-pandemic times, virtual meetings may replace some of our business travels.”

The lack of differentiation between WFH and WFO (work from office) is proving to be a major advantage at Lapiz Digital. “Our productivity and quality benchmarks remain the same whether we work from home separately or within the same office building together,” says Prakash, whose remote team recently transitioned a complex project on online training sessions. “We do not ask clients for longer turnaround time or leniency in meeting their requirements. In fact, with our staff being able to operate in flexi-shifts and spend less time commuting, we actually see our turnaround time improving across projects when compared to WFO.”

The tweaking of tools and solutions to suit the WFH environment was minimal, says V. Bharathram, president of Lapiz Digital. “Over the years, we have developed and refined workflow solutions for specific journal and book publishing, and as these solutions reside in the cloud, they are accessible from anywhere at any time,” he says.

Now that employees are working remotely, finding the best ways to support publishing clients is crucial for digital solutions vendors. “Some publishers relied on their vendors to ship paper proofs, but now everything has to be digital whether the publisher is going fully digital or not,” says Carey, of Westchester Publishing Services, whose team had put a client portal in place and utilized Dropbox and digital proofs long before the pandemic started. “But not all clients are as conversant with these types of tools or in working in a digital-only distributed environment, and these have prompted us to provide training to some clients so that they could adapt these tools for internal use or adopt these for their author collaboration. We continue to provide such training whenever it is needed with new clients.”

Paying attention to social issues

Two topics have come to the fore in recent weeks, Carey says: “One is about addressing the questions of racism and representation raised by the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. The ongoing discourse, hopefully, will result in better representation in publishing companies, as well as within the content produced by our industry. For now, many publishers are requesting statements from their vendors on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and are working within their own organization to better address these issues as well.”

Then there is the issue of empathy within the workplace. “Most companies operating nine-to-five have to adapt to the new realities of WFH, including blurred personal and professional barriers, remote supervision, and social isolation,” Carey says. “It is up to the employer to empathize on these challenges and work to make WFH viable through a collaborative way and not in a top-down manner.” Carey says his team has seen productivity improved in numerous ways despite working remotely.

WFH has certainly created challenges with childcare while changing the ways that busy households are organized, says Panicker, of Newgen KnowledgeWorks. “One of the most important changes we made in moving to WFH mode was to increase our infrastructure capacity so that we can guarantee a productive and responsive system whenever our staff need to work,” Panicker says. “Our people understand what is expected of them, and we work hard to have simple and well-defined processes that are supported by good and intuitive technology so that we can focus entirely on good business outcomes for our clients.”

Recruitment, hiring, onboarding, and training programs have to be reengineered to support the new reality, as well. “Long-term support for flexible working hours and WFH is crucial to our future success,” Panicker says. “We are, and will continue to be, a ‘work from anywhere’ employer. In fact, many of our staff in India and other sites have relocated to be closer to family and away from urban areas.”

Tweaking for better efficiencies

The need for collaborative and agile processes during WFH mode is undeniable. Newgen KnowledgeWorks’ end-to-end journal-management system, PubKit, meets such criteria. “PubKit enables not only collaboration between various stakeholders in the publishing process but also integration of systems,” says Jo Bottrill, managing director of operations in the U.K. and U.S. “As an inherently flexible and open platform, PubKit allows us to move content and metadata to various tools and then push them to our publishing client’s in-house system as well as those from third-party suppliers as the project moves along,” Bottrill says. “This helps to ensure that everything is kept up-to-date, rework is reduced, and efforts are not duplicated. Ultimately it supports a more timely and effective publishing program.”

The marked increase in demand for digital development services—from repurposing K–12 content for online learning to building an automated e-book-only workflow—requires a different platform. “Facilitating faster digital content production is an essential factor in shoring up publisher revenues,” Bottrill says. “They need to monetize content quickly, but also to bring valuable scholarly and education information to the international community faster. Our ResearchPad tool, for instance, helps disseminate quality open access content to the global community in a user-friendly and multiplatform environment.”

Though there is less demand, particularly from trade publishers, for services related to print products than there had been before the pandemic, there has been little change in the type of services sought by educational publishers. “In general, publishers want more automation to increase efficiencies by reducing the amount of manual work, the number of handoffs, and other dependencies within the publishing workflow itself,” DiacriTech’s executive v-p Mahesh Balakrishnan says. “They are looking into automated publishing tools to support content authoring of different formats, including formulaic math, interactivities, and animations. They are also interested in creating online educational apps that provide access to lessons, which are most relevant to these times of virtual learning and uncertainties pertaining to classroom reopenings.”

The DiacriTech team is monitoring and assimilating client requirements that arise from pandemic-related restrictions and new norms. “We are customizing the tools and outputs from our XEditPro publishing platform to match rising demand for digital products and new marketing needs,” Balakrishnan says. “For instance, authors will benefit from a complete electronic workflow with reduced manual intervention, while publishers will need metadata that is captured at a granular level and rendered automatically in EPUB to enhance content discoverability.”

With new tweaks to XEditPro, Balakrishnan and his team are also making it easy for publishers to use the platform to meet the needs of their end users. “One client who previously had no inclination to create online resources is now generating a whole new revenue stream within a short period of time using XEditPro,” Balakrishnan says.

Monitoring business needs and trends

Cybersecurity is the topic du jour in the pandemic era. “It has gained momentum after a series of breaches,” says Bharathram, of Lapiz Digital. “With WFH the new norm and people connecting to business networks from home, multifactor authentication practices are required to identify and allow access. Add rising hacking activities, and it becomes imperative to have in place a foolproof security infrastructure. Implementing solutions such as Zero Trust, VDI infrastructure, and adaptive authentication to manage remote users is essential.”

When the initial lockdown occurred, WFH security options were one major issue that Lapiz Digital faced. “We used third-party cloud-based tools to maintain data integrity and confidentiality,” Bharathram says. “The first week was a challenge in setting up the IT infrastructure for team members, especially in getting the right internet options. Thus far, everything is working well and we have met all delivery schedules for our projects despite the lockdown and ensuing WFH confusion.”

Automation continues to be a hot topic in content creation and production at Newgen KnowledgeWorks, Bottrill says. “Boundaries are blurring as digital solutions vendors take on more of the product development and creation process while editorial staff—from vendor’s and client’s side—become increasingly equipped with the tools to drive the production process as well as editorial functions,” he adds. This, Bottrill says, has brought “a renewed focus to user experience to make sure that all our tools are intuitive and that the entire workflow depends only on those processes that truly add value for the end user.”

Revenues from audio content have been a particularly important lifeline to publishers facing market disruption, says Bottrill, whose team offers recording and production services. “These audio services support digital learning content for K–12 educators, as well as more traditional audiobook publishing,” Bottrill says. “By combining print, digital, and audio production together, Newgen KnowledgeWorks is able to provide a truly end-to-end service, which is not only efficient but also ensures that content hits the market sooner.”

The demand for engaging and interactive content for online educational curricula is rising. “The same uptick is also seen for apps that incorporate digital learning assets, practice assessments, content authoring system, and e-book reader functionalities,” says Gopinath, of DiacriTech. “Growing requests for educational web portals that offer PDF e-reader apps compatible with mobile devices—that allow students to view allocated subject PDF pertaining to their grade—are indications of an urgent shift towards online content.”

Some publishers are busy incorporating hub-based content on dealing with the pandemic and its consequences. “LMS training materials, content porting, and testing on platforms is on a surge,” Gopinath says. “The same goes for content creation and modifications to existing products. We have been providing videos to support surveys and GFX content—incorporating infographics with video—to support research relevant to the current pandemic. Assessments, work sheets, and additional learning materials that are suitable for offline deployment but are electronically delivered in a secure environment are in now.”

More Westchester Publishing Services clients are delving into their backlists and putting together print-on-demand files, or adapting older academic content into XML and HTML5, Carey says. “Whether it is straight text or fixed-layout EPUBs, cookbooks or children’s titles, there is a much higher demand for digital conversion,” he adds. “Our teams have been working with different and less-common types of incoming files, and we even established a partnership with a scanning operation should a publisher have only hard copies available.”

Which brings us to this: business (and life), whether in WFH or WFO mode, does go on. Recent acquisitions, such as HighWire (by MPS Limited) or Cenveo Publisher Services/Cenveo Learning (by CJK Group), highlight the ongoing tech-centric strategy to expand digital platform offerings, diversify distribution channels, and increase resources. For vendors and publishers, digital competencies and transformation make all the difference to the bottom line during this pandemic waiting game—and beyond. So stay agile and adopt digital, or go broke.

Tyler Carey, chief revenue officer at Westchester Publishing Services

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