Can work design be applied in newsrooms? Don’t bother making the argument that the media industry is “different.” The experts disagree with you.

“If you’ve basically said ‘I can’t do anything differently because we’re different,’” said Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, “you have defined your problem as unsolvable…and that whatever problem has presented itself is going to persist. I don’t accept that.”

Christina Maslach, a researcher who co-created the Maslach Burnout Inventory, says  knowing about organizational stress and then doing nothing about it “borders on the unethical,” she writes in the Harvard Business Review with colleague Michael Leiter.

“We should all consider new models of healthy work environments, including rethinking the hours and place of work as well as how our jobs get done,” they write. “We need to take into account not just what causes burnout and what makes work harder for people but also what better place we want to get to and how we want to redesign organizations.

“It’s going to involve remaking workplaces in new, innovative ways.”

From redistributing work to reconsidering work hours, work design has plenty of potential applications for the news business. Here are some design challenges to consider for reducing stress and burnout in your news organization. We’d like to hear how you might use — or have already tried — reprogramming managers’ jobs for a healthier staff.

Design challenge #1: Equalize the workload.

In any organization, there are people who don’t do enough, those who only look like they’re doing a lot, and others who do the bulk of the work. “Overload is a pernicious problem that is usually caused by organizational demands, but employers can address it by making reasonable and feasible changes to how work is done,” say Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen in MIT Sloan Management Review.

You’ve probably seen this in every office you’ve worked in: Some managers — too often women — are targeted as people “with capacity.” Those are the people who are given more work, including “office housework,” because they’re known to get it done on time and correctly.

Kelsey Ryan, founder and publisher of the Kansas City Beacon and the Wichita Beacon, knows what that’s like and tries to avoid it in her newsrooms. “I was always the kid who did all the work on the project and everyone else got the A,” says Ryan.

“One reasonable job per person” should be the goal, says Bryce Covert, a journalist who writes about work and families, not the equivalent of two jobs for one manager and half for another.

While unfair work distribution may happen organically and without evil intentions, it can end with burnout and resentment. And it camouflages the development potential and the training needs of managers who could take on more work.

Studies suggest that around 10% of employees are “low productivity” — obviously a substantial impediment to good work design. Honest conversations and a clear-eyed look at day-to-day duties will likely expose ways to redistribute workload.

Because some tasks are tailored to an individual manager’s abilities, you might hesitate to reassign work away from a particular person in your organization who has significant skills in that work. But Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer suggests taking a closer look at training others in that skill.

“In general, it’s hard to design anything for a single individual. If I said I wanted to design some medical instrument for just your body, it would not be efficient,” Pfeffer said. “One of the advantages of life is that you can learn from experience and you can learn from other people.”

The Beacon news organizations use the work management platform Airtable to organize projects and workload, says Ryan. Besides keeping the newsrooms “hyperorganized,” Ryan says, the system helps her to balance and equalize managers’ workloads — including her own.

At Axios, a uniform writing style makes it easier to distribute work, says Executive Editor Sara Kehaulani Goo. “I can ask any editor to fill in because stories are written in a way that is supposed to be very user-friendly,” she says, with structured story components. While that solution might not be desirable for all content in all newsrooms, a standard style could be used on all newsletters, for example.

Design challenge #2: Eliminate teams.

Traditional newsrooms were dragged kicking and screaming into the team or “pod” design in the mid-90s. It wasn’t universally popular among managers. (One conference workshop held at the time was titled, “If I had wanted to be a team leader I would have majored in sports.”) But many newsrooms are still organized in old-style teams, despite significant changes in media organizations over the past two decades.

In today’s newsroom, anchoring an editor to one team is often inefficient because it can keep the editor from being available precisely when and where they’re needed. It can also create a backlog for a single editor and require a far longer workday.

Consider whether all of your teams really make sense, by today’s standards and staffing levels. Teams were typically meant to be grouped by topic and led by an editor with some subject-matter expertise. This may have sounded sensible when newsrooms had, for example, a half-dozen education reporters. But now, a deep bench for any subject matter, along with a resident expert editor, are increasingly rare in small and midsize  news organizations. Today’s teams often have morphed into a hodgepodge of beats with little consideration given to workflow and schedules.

Anchoring an editor to one team is often inefficient because it can keep the editor from being available when and where they’re needed. It can also create a backlog.

During the past year or so, some newsrooms created “pandemic teams” and “protest teams” and assigned managers to them. We now know the impact on journalists who consistently cover intense and deadly topics, and that includes editors who edit those stories and guide those reporters throughout the day. This is where secondary stress syndrome becomes a real possibility. The team structure inhibits the sharing of those intense editing tasks. Eliminating teams could help dilute the trauma load, distributing stressful work among several editors.

Breaking down the team barrier also exposes reporters to a variety of managers. We know that all editors have their own strengths and weaknesses, and reporters can benefit from the skills and knowledge of multiple editors if given the opportunity to work with them.

Assigning a reporter to a team with one primary editor “might stifle the reporters’ experiences and … also underutilize other editors,” said Erin Perry, who worked in a legacy team-based newsroom before becoming managing editor at Outlier this year.

At The Athletic, sports news coverage spans several time zones, which requires consistent sharing of editing duties, notes Tyler Batiste, a manager editor for The Athletic. The company culture is clear that “you should not be in front of your computer for 12 hours a day,” he says. That also means writers need to work with a variety of editors, which “hopefully helps to mold a more well-rounded reporter because they’re learning different skill sets and areas of expertise.”

Kim Bui, director of product and audience innovation at the Arizona Republic, suggests creating a short-term team as needed — for instance, to cover a growing housing shortage problem — and assigning a reporter with editing aspirations as its leader.

Like many nonprofit newsrooms, The Beacon staffers don’t organize into traditional teams. When reporters have stories ready for an editor, they post a link in the newsroom Slack channel, where an available editor picks it up. “I think this could happen in larger newsrooms as well,” says Kelsey Ryan, who worked in legacy newsrooms before launching the Beacon sites.

Some reporters might miss the support they feel by being a member of a team, but consider this alternative: If you have a physical newsroom, arrange seating so that reporters can support each other, not necessarily in subject matter but by skill and experience. Reporters helping reporters behind the scenes is a tradition in many newsrooms, so why not support it openly? Untethering from a loosely organized team can relieve some of the burden on editors by encouraging more staff autonomy, self-direction and effective peer-to-peer learning.

It’s important to note that eliminating teams doesn’t mean eliminating personal contact or collaboration. Collaboration can still happen through discreet projects that necessitate forming a focused, short-term team. And at Axios, an automated weekly Slack survey helps managers keep up with personal staff concerns. Executive editor Sara Kehaulani Goo gets an alert if there are problems. “I’m checking in with that person immediately. When I can’t put eyes on people physically that’s actually really valuable,” she says.

Design challenge #3: Give people more autonomy.

As mentioned earlier, redistributing autonomy and control is a key ingredient of work design — and in reducing burnout. Managers who are given more decision-making authority get a feeling of control that helps eliminate stress. A study of companies that had been downsized showed a decrease in stress for people who were “given authority to make decisions about how and when they did the extra work required of them.”

Distributing the decision-making also can reduce the perceived need for constant meetings: planning meetings, editors’ meetings, team meetings, meetings about meetings, and so on. Obviously, communication is key in newsrooms, particularly when some staffers are working remotely. Allowing managers to decide how and when to communicate can also reduce stress from what’s known as “filtered communication.” That’s the type of communication that happens in large Zoom meetings, for instance, where the information source can be unclear and where it’s difficult to ask for details.

The tricky question is, of course, figuring out which decisions can be handed off for autonomous decision-making. Here are some ideas:

  • At the Virginia Mercury, editor Robert Zullo made the decision to hold only one news meeting per week. And he’s opted not to write the traditional “From the Editor” column each week as some of his colleagues do at other States Newsrooms publications. His company has “left a lot of room for people to figure things out and figure out what works for them,” said Zullo, who spent years in traditional legacy newsrooms before joining the Virginia Mercury.
  • At the Beacon newsrooms, publisher Kelsey Ryan allowed the staff to decide on the frequency of news meetings. (They’re twice a week, and under an hour.) As in other newsrooms, story budgets are kept up-to-date, eliminating the need for more meetings.
  • At Outlier, hiring a newsletter writer with specific expertise in his subject meant other editors could give him “a lot of autonomy,” says managing editor Erin Perry, alleviating some of the editors’ workload. “He just knows more than we do, and we accept that.”
  • “I actually took this job because I felt like my boss was the kind of person who would give me autonomy,” says the Arizona Republic’s Kim Bui. She’s been able to make decisions about designing a new role to keep a talented employee, for instance, and to pursue her own “passion project.” “In theory, it’s a stress relief” for managers to create and execute an important project, Bui says, but only if their job is designed to include time for those activities. “There’s a difference between autonomy with support and autonomy without support,” she said.
  • Cutting social media responsibilities can reduce stress and save time. Many staffers are pressured to be constantly present on social media; in fact, a Tow Center survey shows that 62 percent of journalists said dependence on social media had grown in importance. But newsroom social media requirements shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all. Managers should be given authority to determine if the time spent — and the stress of being harassed and attacked by social media users — has any real benefit over simply allowing the newsroom’s main account to do the posting.

Design challenge #4: Flex your schedules.

In media companies, it’s a rare manager who works anything that resembles an eight-hour day. Another significant outcome of a work redesign is finding ways to reduce those long hours. And that will likely involve considering solutions that haven’t typically been embraced in traditional media, like flexible work and meeting schedules.

The Georgia woman who famously quit her job after she was called into the office for a six-minute meeting should unsettle the majority of managers who still believe that employees should be in the office from three to five days a week “to maintain company culture.”

Sarah Nagem, editor of the startup Border Belt Independent in North Carolina, says she’s “stopped thinking in terms of the traditional workday” since she joined the nonprofit after leaving a career in legacy newsrooms.

“I want to get people to work when they’re at their best,” says Nagem. With clear communication and expectations about accountability, she said, “it can work.”

Options like a four-day week can help solve some coverage or overlap problems, and keep editors from working unreasonable, often unpaid overtime.

Moving to more flexible schedules can be difficult initially, says Kason Morris, an organizational behavior consultant who works with corporations on job design, because “most people don’t want to build their plane while they’re flying it.”

But the traditional five-day week is rooted in the industrial age, says Morris. “Now we’re in the knowledge economy and empowered by technology where that same structure doesn’t necessarily apply. I think the biggest challenge for most organizations is that they’re entrenched in a certain way of working” — or what an MIT study called a company expectation for “butts in seats.”

Options like a four-day week can help solve some coverage or overlap problems, he says, and keep editors from working unreasonable, often unpaid overtime.

Official “on-call” rotations can be useful as well, ensuring that one manager will be available for breaking news or emergencies, but not tying them completely to their office chair.

A word of caution: Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen, the authors of an MIT study, warn companies against setting up flexible schedules as “accommodations” strictly for women with children or for individuals who made a good case for themselves. This can create “gender inequality” or “an undesirable ‘Mother, May I?’ negotiating dynamic, which positions the worker’s personal needs as unimportant,” they wrote.

Outlier Media avoids that “Mother, May I” dynamic, says managing editor Erin Perry. Staffers, who are given generous vacations and unlimited mental health days, let their managers know they’ll be gone but they don’t need to ask, “Hey, can I do this?” said Perry. “We just know people will get their work done.”

Perry said she appreciates the flexibility in her schedule as she balances her job, family and graduate school work. “I don’t think the daily go-go-go [of a traditional newsroom schedule] would mesh well with that.”

At the Virginia Mercury, editor Robert Zullo has set a 6 p.m. final deadline, but otherwise skips the time-consuming task of creating schedules for his staff. “I mostly leave it to everyone to set their own schedule” — which works, Zullo said, because reporters are clear on goals and expectations.

At the Arizona Republic, Kim Bui recently restructured the weekly schedule so that some staffers can have one day when they’re not on call or scheduled for a particular shift. “They don’t need to be responsive” to emails or calls and can work on any project or activity, no questions asked.

On a smaller scale, the Associated Press has designated a daily meeting break for its employees. “We have an hour a day that’s supposed to be free of meetings for U.S. news employees,” says Janelle Cogan, a deputy director in AP’s Atlanta office, “a ‘no Zoom zone’ from 2 to 3 p.m. Eastern.”

This year in Spain, government employees are trying out a pilot program that offers a four-day week with no pay cut. Officials in Japan announced a similar effort in July, after an Iceland experiment showed that productivity remained the same or improved when employees were placed on a four-day work week.

While U.S. media companies haven’t typically supported a four-day week, a shorter workweek also could provide this bonus you might have not considered, says journalist Bryce Covert. “If white-collar professionals were no longer expected or required to log 60 hours a week but 30 instead, that would be a whole extra job for someone else.” And that would allow more hiring opportunities, she notes, particularly for newsrooms trying to diversify their workforce.

Design challenge #5: Remove useless walls.

As the example at the top of this report demonstrates, artificial boundaries among managers who work for the same company, with the same mission, are evidence of a poor work design. University of Central Oklahoma professor Desiree Hill says “interdepartmental support” in newsrooms should be part of the workflow, improving efficiency and reducing stress-inducing meddling. Managers’ job descriptions should allow them to step in when and where they’re needed.

As in other smaller newsrooms, the entire staff at Outlier Media, including the business department, sits shoulder to shoulder in the same room. Hill says that simple physical proximity builds trust and communication — and it can help in a news emergency.  “Who says someone from the sales team can’t help answer phones?”

At times during her career, Kim Bui has found the walls between newsroom departments so impenetrable that she’s had to resort to what she calls “Sherlocking” — tracking down the right person in the company to talk with about a question or project. So she recently created an organizational chart that described in detail the roles in other departments. “This will save me so much time,” she said. “It’s not a visible wall…it’s a wall of lack of clarity.”

Other managers credit tools like Slack for helping to break down barriers between departments. At some media companies, the newsroom Slack account is open to other departments including advertising and circulation. At the Kansas City Beacon, “everyone can weigh in” on any question, says the non-profit’s founder Kelsey Ryan. “It’s really cool to see.”

What about the walls between editors and reporters, or between journalists and the community?

Managers can identify reporters who have editing skills or future management aspirations to help fill out schedules and fill in during emergencies. And, of course, pay them accordingly.

Breaking down barriers between the news leaders and the community is a goal of many startups, and in Outlier Media’s case, this also lightens the staff workload. Outlier editors work directly with dozens of community “notetakers” who attend public meetings around Detroit, resulting in broader news coverage and fewer hours for staffers to sit through meetings.

The walls with competitors have been crumbling over the past few years, with many newsrooms working together in partnerships. In theory, news partnerships are an excellent way to decrease workload by sharing resources and tasks. But as this guide by the American Press Institute and other studies have noted, partnerships need to be created carefully.

Ryan says she’s careful to ask “How are we going to make sure this isn’t cumbersome? How can we do this and not add to our overall workload?” before her newsrooms enter into a partnership.

Design challenge #6: Trash the old-style performance reviews.

Performance reviews are typically criticized and even ridiculed as a pointless and time-consuming chore. A Washington Post business writer once called it a “rite of corporate kabuki.” Yet managers and editors can literally spend days filling out evaluation paperwork for their staffers and still question the value of doing so.

Corporate-designed performance reviews can be even worse: When one review form needs to apply to every employee in a large and diverse company, managers waste  time trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

Considering the potential time savings, it’s worth thinking deeply about the performance review. What’s its purpose? How can it definitively help you, your employee, and your newsroom? Is your performance review process a relic from an era when your newsroom, and the state of journalism, looked very different?

Less formal touchpoint discussions every few months are more actionable than an annual review.

Some companies have eliminated the annual performance review altogether, says design consultant Kason Morris, for logical reasons. “One of the big challenges with performance reviews is that they’re not really indicators, they’re a point in time,” he says. “If I’m going to tell you what my goals are in January and you’re going to measure me on those goals in June, there’s so much that can happen and it really isn’t a fair indicator of those factors.”

Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer is more critical, calling annual reviews “too subjective.” It is not, he said, “a review of your performance. It’s a review of whether you’ve been able to ingratiate yourself with your boss.”

In their argument for getting rid of performance evaluations, two management professors note that the future needs of business will always change. “It doesn’t make sense to hang on to a system that’s built mainly to assess and hold people accountable for past or current practices,” wrote Peter Cappelli and Anna Tavis in Harvard Business Review.

More critically, research has demonstrated that performance evaluations have a racial bias problem, including a finding that women managers who promote women and Black managers who promote Black employees are penalized for it — while performance reviews upscore white men who do the same.

A study of performance reviews at The New York Times showed “a strong pattern of racial disparity in reviews. Employees of color were disproportionately likely to receive low ratings, while white employees were more likely to be rated highly,” according to the study’s authors at The News Guild.

Morris says that less formal “touchpoint” discussions every few months are “more actionable.” And they’re more helpful when peers and managers who’ve worked with the employee on specific projects provide input.

At Axios, a media startup largely staffed by leaders with traditional media backgrounds, employee evaluations are conducted twice a year. But employees can choose to be reviewed by peers, says executive editor Sara Kehaulani Goo, which can lighten managers’ workloads.

Kelsey Ryan, publisher of the new Beacon startups in Kansas City and Wichita, is currently examining how to create performance reviews that make sense. The yearly process she’s experienced in other newsrooms, she says, are not only time-consuming but “are scary and bass-ackwards.” There’s always the suspicion that companies are working harder to justify not giving raises to employees rather than awarding performance increases. She suggests conducting “post-mortems” on projects as they occur, rather than holding traditional evaluations which rely on a year’s worth of memories.

Design challenge #7: Improve the office space — wherever it is

“Work design” in some cases also includes the actual design of a workspace. Not surprisingly, an unworkable workspace adds to stress — something to keep in mind as media employees file back into their offices after the pandemic.

Remember that managers are usually tied to their desks for hours, so look closely at physical workspaces and decide whether the design really supports the job, not vice versa. I’ve seen or worked in news companies that, for example, mandated televisions on each editor’s desk, no matter what their role; did not provide office space for top editors, or, provided an office space and a newsroom desk with the expectation that the editor appear in both; and purposely provided very little desktop space in an effort to reduce clutter, which worked fine for some journalists but caused stress for others.

A recent study that combined psychology and architecture found that these five design elements helped make employees feel less stress:

  • the “legibility” of the office, meaning the ability to see and find things;
  • having the right technology;
  • access to daylight;
  • adequate storage;
  • employees’ control over their space.

Outlier encourages that control by giving each employee a $100 stipend to decorate their office space —  with removable wallpaper, artwork, plants and other decor, says managing editor Erin Perry.

Mobility and choice also are essential, says Dana Coester in this American Press Institute study — and that’s even more important in the pandemic age. Media managers and everyone else became accustomed to the comforts of working at home, and the right equipment allows people to stay there.

Next chapter: How to start your work redesign

Share with your network

You also might be interested in:

  • This is a column on how to measure well-being for yourself and your organization. By the end, you’ll have a clear direction and quantitative ways to chart a healthy path forward for your journalists.

  • Experts define moral injury as the suffering that comes from witnessing, perpetrating or failing to prevent events that violate one’s own deeply held moral beliefs and values. It is not classified as a mental illness, but it can lead to depression, substance abuse or burnout, which is one reason news managers need to understand the phenomenon of moral injury — and ways to address it or head it off.

  • For many newsrooms, changing the systems that protect unhealthy culture could be a few sustained decisions away from reality.