The pandemic has significantly accelerated the publishing industry’s switch to working remotely, with publishing houses closing their offices seemingly overnight and employees acclimating to the digital workplace. Now, as mass vaccinations and Covid-19 rates decline, many are wondering: do we return to the office?

In the U.S. Book Show's opening professional panel, hosted by John Maher, news and digital editor at Publishers Weekly, experts discussed the many concerns surrounding the future of the publishing office, the best practices to help bring them back safely, and how the business has changed in an age of remote work.

“[Surveys suggest that] 87% of employees want to retain the work flexibility found in the digital/work-from-home dynamic,” said Tsedal Neeley, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School and the author of Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding From Anywhere (HarperBusiness), while "68% want to return to in-person office spaces” in some capacity. The disparity exists, but Neeley stresses that there is no one-stop solution: “Choosing one or the other is easy, but the answer—and future—is more complex. It is hybrid.”

As a result of this change, there is an intense amount of pressure on publishers in terms of how they will pivot as the workplace of the past becomes increasingly challenged, if not obsolete. “Flexibility is definitely the word of the moment,” confirms Adrienne Vaughan, executive director and COO at Bloomsbury US. “Enforcing a sense of flexibility will lead to balance.”

Before the pandemic, the industry had already been questioning what the future of the office would look like; the acceleration of the virtual office due to Covid-19 has inadvertently aided in what would have been the industry’s slow but eventual adoption of a more hybrid workplace model. “It’s a fantastic and exciting time to be in publishing,” said Thad McIllroy, principle of The Future of Publishing. “[Hybrid models] give the industry a chance to reach out to wider talent pools outside of the New York publishing landscape. The change won’t happen quickly, but in two to three years, we are going to see changes.”

Among those hybrid changes is the increasing popularity of “hot desking,” a system in which workers use whatever work space is available instead of having an assigned space. “Employees bring their laptops and work in different locations, storing their stuff in a locker,” explained Lorraine Shanley, president of Market Partners International. This idea has been in practice in various corners of the tech and advertising industry for years, In fact, hot desking was once called “hoteling” and, Neeley said, “the practice goes as far back as 1976.” Such publishers as HarperCollins will move toward a hot desking office model going forward, staggering employee in-office shifts to meet new Covid-19 related precautions and norms.

The advantages to a virtual and/or hybrid workplace for publishers “is starting to come into a clear focus, with new advantages and opportunities to grow working relationships and implement management programs [to manage workplace culture],” McIllroy noted. Still downsides—including the fear and anxiety that stems from sudden and drastic change—remain.

“We are in the middle of a global pandemic,” Neeley warns. “Employees take the intensity into the workplace.”

Though some groups are more affected than others, Neeley observed, the biggest concern is professional isolation, which affects staffers of all levels. “Employees have less contact with the outside world. They become out of sync and out of touch,” she said. An worry, she added, is employee burnout: “On average, employees are working 6.8 hours more per week. The time saved on their commute is being replaced by work.”

To the dispassionate eye of the employer, this might appear at first to be a good thing. But Neeley offered a disclaimer: this extra work is not good for the mental health of employees. “We’re working too much and we’re burning out,” she said. “We need to recalibrate. Hyperproductivity is productivity gone wrong.”

The issue, the panelists agreed, is the ease with which boundaries between life and work are blurred. To combat this, companies need to step up and be more proactive. “Human resource people have said that they have never talked to as many employees at a personal level as they have in the past year,” Shanley said. And managers, Neeley added, specifically need to pay more attention to how their employees are doing.

“When you have a distributed workforce, a hybrid workforce, you need to be a stronger leader,” Neeley said. “This is not the era for mediocre or ordinary leaders.” She suggested, for instance, that managers actively check in on the mental health of those who directly report to them and consider it while assigning them tasks.

Another major question is that of "face time." The book business is built around personal working relationships, and networking between professionals from all sectors of the business is crucial. But has the pandemic put the final nail in the coffin of the famed three-martini lunch? And is that hurting staffers trying to get ahead?

For her part, Vaughan said that she has actually “had richer conversations” during the pandemic than before. But that, she said, is because she took such a proactive approach to networking and connecting with her staff to counteract the physical remoteness. “We have to learn to adapt and build our empathy with new muscle,” she said. “We have to build an arsenal of networking skills that work both virtually and in-person.”

The future of the publishing office, the panelists agreed, looks brighter than one might think considering the concerns. In fact, Neeley noted, decentralizing the office actually opens up more options—both to publishers and to those who would like to work for them.

The pipeline problem is a fallacy,” Neeley says. “It’s about looking at the right pipes. If we are not wedded to a building or city, we can look for excellent and diverse talent, allowing them to thrive in their existing communities. And economically it helps too.”