Here we are, 10 months into COVID, and the jury is out about the effectiveness of work-from-home. (If you're at home with kids, the impact of tele-education is a whole different topic for another day.)
When it comes to assessing whether radio stations actually operate any differently – better, worse, or about the same – since the onset of the pandemic, well, it depends on who you talk to.
Some people thrive on working in their bathrobes, walking the dog, and making their own hours in an unstructured work environment. Others, however, are suffering from the lack of systems, distractions on the home front, and the lack of camaraderie so unique to working in radio.
Many of the programmers I've spoken with tell me that outside of personality shows (we'll come back to them in a moment), many on-air talent are just fine broadcasting from their home studios, or spare bedrooms or basements. Part of this may have to do with spending time alone in enclosed studios with glass walls. The at-home environment is different, to be sure, but a laptop or tablet nearby can keep you in touch with the station, your community, or the world.
As for personality teams, it's a big “depends.” Some shows were broadcasting in some form of remote configuration pre-COVID, so this year has been an extension. But more often than not, most morning shows seem to be understandably more comfortable being nearby one another at the station.
As for the engineers, well, they tend to be lone rangers to begin with. Even more so with traffic directors who tend to be more comfortable talking to neither programming nor sales. They almost always want to be left alone – they're got logs to crank out.
But then there are the sales people. And from the stories I'm hearing, they are often the ones struggling the most during these WFH months. Their jobs, by definition, are less structured and focused. When you're in an untethered environment – and there are children and other people around – it can be difficult to stay on-track.
I have also heard that many salespeople simply seem disconnected from the ebb and flow of the station (or stations). By definition, radio sellers tend to truly be outgoing, “people persons,” as we used to call them. They are social by nature, they enjoy hanging out with others, and tend to be affable folks. Doing their jobs from home – away from the coffee maker and the football pool boards – must be painful for many of them.
So, what will radio stations look like on the other side of this ordeal? Will the physical layout of radio stations as we've known them survive COVID? In the biggest and smallest markets, the overall structure of radio stations – and their organizational flow charts – has remained quite static through the decades.
Until the ultimate game-changer, COVID-19.
The higher you go up the food chain, executives will tell you that radio's physical plants will get smaller with less square footage post-pandemic. Chances are, some employees will be required to work in the building, others will be allowed to/asked to WFH, while many will “enjoy” hybrid approaches that include time both at home and at work.
Clearly, money will be saved in the process. And that's part of the appeal of WFH. While we all may be a bit Zoom fatigued at this point, the fact is, we've gotten pretty good at virtual meetings: making presentations, collaborating, brainstorming, handholding, and even looking at someone right in the “virtual eye” to deliver an important message.
Video streaming technology was around long before there was a coronavirus, but it took being locked out of our offices and radio stations to learn it, manage it, and optimize its value.
What will be lost in COVID translation if the radio station – or the space that is home to a cluster of them – is no longer the hub of activity, the gathering place where jokes are told, ideas are hatched, and people socialize with one another. How will new hires be onboarded into the building, and more importantly, the culture of the station?
It wasn't that many months ago we talked a lot in this blog – and in person – about the value of company culture. And in many cases, the station culture – or vibe. Those who have been around in radio for more than a couple of cups of coffee will be able to maintain that esprit de corps, but what will the “feel” be like a year from now, two years from now, as more people WFH, simply not interacting in the same space with one another? Will stations be able to maintain that attitude – the warmth, the swagger, the attitude that makes those call letters special?
It's possible we were all part of the “good old days” of radio – and didn't know it. And there may be no going back.
An ongoing survey for Axios conducted by the research company Glint reveals that 37% of U.S. workers feel less connected to their colleagues than they did pre-pandemic — and three in ten (31%) feel less connected to their managers. And nearly one in five workers say their companies aren't doing enough to make employees feel engaged with one another.
Is it the same for radio? Let's do a little “research” of our own.
In a JacoBLOG first, we've set up a one-question poll. If you work in radio, here in the U.S. or anywhere around the world, answer the question, click on “vote,” and you'll see the running tally. Then hit “refresh” and your browser will return you to this post.
Obviously, the results will change throughout the day today and over this week, but we should come away with a pretty good sense of whether work from home is working for radio.
And in that spirit, JacoBLOG is dedicated to keeping you up-to-date with new technologies in the COVID world of work. Or better put, new work spaces designed with the pandemic and WFH in mind.
Last summer, we introduced you to the home version of your office cubicle. Made by Panasonic, the Komaru desk creates the “Dilbert Experience” – or perhaps a scene out of Office Space. The desk measures out at one meter square, and retails for $835.
It comes with its own perforated board, suitable for tacking up memos, photos, and other personal stuff that will make you feel like home…er, work.
Panasonic describes this innovation as the ability to “create a space for concentrated work.”
But that's 2020 technology. And the downside, of course, is that your cubicle (just like at work) is in the middle of a very frenetic scene, likely populated by children, pets, delivery people, and other distractions.
That calls for innovation. And to answer more complex WFH demands, next year you'll be able to work circles around the “old school” Komaru.
That's because an Estonian company – ÖÖD – has come up with the next generation of WFH. Originally marketed as a way to purchase your own on-site Air BnB, the designers now see a smart COVID application for their mini-structures.
It's a self-contained pod that can sit virtually anywhere – your backyard or any open space, thus allowing for both proximity and isolation at the same time. Isn't that exactly what you want during a pandemic?
At $20,000 (to start), it's a pricier solution, to be sure. And there's a 7-step installation process that requires utility hookups and building a foundation. But once you're done with those minor formalities, in just a day or two, you'll be ready to write memos, do Zoom calls, shred important documents, fill out a bracket, and actually get work done – all from the comfort and safety of your own space.
TechRepublic's R. Dallon Adams reports the “office-in-a-box” may soon be available on Amazon. Costco can't be far behind.
As I was wrapping up this post, I took a closer look at this ÖÖD concept, and got a flash of déjà vu – a distant but distinct memory of working in a temporary box that sat out on a lawn, isolated from the hubbub of activities. It was strangely familiar.
And then it hit me.
Four house trailers butted up against a tiny house was where WRIF was located for more than a decade before moving to a beautiful new building. It was isolated from its sister TV and AM station that occupied “Broadcast House,” just a stone's throw from our temporary facility.
They were happy with us in trailers. And so were we. And I will say this: there was no lack of culture in those trailers.
What's old is new again.
Don't forget to take the poll.