WFH: A Crash Course in Remote Workflow for Publishers
So here we are. Whether by government mandate or executive fiat, at some point in the past few weeks the publication you and your team usually write, edit, produce, market, and distribute from an office landed in your living room. It probably happened suddenly, in many cases with almost no time to prepare. And you may have discovered – quickly – that the workflow underpinning the whole operation did not make the transition with you.
There may be a lot of scrambling going on. Perhaps you have total chaos. Perhaps issues are still getting printed, newsletters sent, websites updated, subscriptions delivered, and ads sold… but the production schedule is scrambled, bandwidth is strained, and burn-out looms. No matter what, it’s probably clear that something needs to change to accommodate this new reality.
Here are a few suggestions to point you in the right direction. The good news is that, once you make the transition to a digital workflow, life will improve. Possibly dramatically and probably fast. It is even likely that your remote workflow will become your regular workflow once you are back in the office.
Step 1: Assess the Damage
You can’t fix what you can’t see. The only way to fix a broken workflow is to make it visible and start to tinker.
If you are the boss, bring everybody together in a virtual space of some kind and map the workflow you currently have. Identify problems together. Your job is to ask your team what they need and give it to them; their job is to brainstorm and implement solutions.
Step 2: Address Skills Training
Now that everyone is working from home, everyone needs to be self-sufficient with regard to technology. That means there may be skills gaps to address.
My go-to tech tools, which are simple and accessible to most people, are Zoom (useful to connect face-to-face, share screens, and host meetings), Google Docs (a group editing tool in which multiple people can make changes and comments in real time), Trello (allows list-making, process-tracking, and tagging for assignments), and Slack (useful for internal team communication). Find out up front who is familiar with what, and how much each individual thinks they can handle. Then ask those who have more skills to bring those with fewer up to speed. Publicly document and track each person’s skill set as it evolves and make sure to celebrate improvements!
Step 3: Stop Emailing Documents
Immediately. Most of us no longer print out paper proofs and send them around for colleagues to review, but emailing multiple rounds of PDF layouts so everyone can sign off on text changes is essentially the same thing. I’ve seen editors add weeks to an editing process as they lobbed a manuscript back and forth on email, and the lack of transparency means no one can ever be sure what state the text is in.
Use Google Docs or some other cloud-based tool to edit, and make the link available to everyone on your team. Use Slack for intra-team communication. And lead by example: I also once watched two CEOs stretch a two-day editing job into four months then wonder why their employees worked slowly.
Step 4: Create Checklists and Standards
Each part of your workflow should have a checklist and a set of standards. They should be available online so the whole team can access and update them as things change. (Do not keep these documents on paper; none of the dozens of paper standard books I’ve seen in 20 years were less than two years old.)
Consistently adhering to checklist procedures and applying standards simplifies and increases output per person. The New Yorker just produced their first completely remote issue essentially by following the rules – stored in checklists and standard documentation – that they created for each part of their workflow.
— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) March 23, 2020
Step 5: Add Structure
Many editors are used to seeing exactly how a text will flow as they work on it, and continue to make small adjustments until the very end of the production process. This can create delays in an office setting and all-out chaos when remote.
The solution is shared access to a text for everyone who needs it, keeping editorial review and sign-off as far upstream as possible (in Google Docs). This allows copy editors to read rather than constantly reread the text, production people to make things fit only once, and I have yet to meet an art department that isn’t thrilled to avoid last-second changes. If you are an EIC who wants to reread entire articles, simply do so in the Google Doc stage like everybody else.
Step 6: Put Content First
Essentially, this involves each story working its way through the editing process as a single Google Doc. Everyone contributes to that document, and it includes all revisions, comments, research links, and images. The simplicity virtually eliminates the time and effort required to prepare content for specific channels, and anyone responsible for distributing that particular story – in print, on the web, on social media, or in audio form – need only verify that the text they are working with matches the master copy.
If web headlines, keywords, and social headings go through the same process before being routed to their respective channels, any fixes are made only once. It’s much easier to maintain consistency and fact checking is a breeze.
Step 7: Step Back
It may feel like a leap of faith, especially in a remote setting, but it’s important to give your workflow permission to operate. Make sure your people have the tools and skills they need, keep the communication channels open, and let them do their jobs.
These practices will pay dividends: One of my clients was able to reduce the lead time between idea and reader from four weeks to four hours. In another case, six editors now take less than three hours to write, edit, check, post, and send a weekly newsletter. America Media group-edits each text, allowing queries and changes to happen simultaneously, and the many hours (if not days) it once took to do exactly the same thing on paper have been reduced to minutes.
Most telling of all, America’s workflow has been fully digital for four years, and when the coronavirus closed their offices two weeks ago, the tweet from their EIC read: “Readers and subscribers should expect to receive their print issues as usual. Digital coverage will be similarly unaffected.”
There will be no disruption to the production and distribution of the print edition of @americamag. Readers and subscribers should expect to receive their print issues as usual. Digital coverage will be similarly unaffected. 2/7
— Matt Malone, S.J. (@Americaeditor) March 13, 2020
An expert in workflow design, Kilian Schalk helps editorial content creators adapt to a changing world. He led the 2015 ‘Moonshot’ effort to transform America Magazine into America Media, and created the blueprint for a 2018 workflow overhaul of Vanity Fair. Formerly Managing Editor for Editorial Development at Condé Nast and Technical Director of Digital Projects at The New Yorker, he was the youngest Production Manager in Rolling Stone history.