In large part due to the protests last year, anyone working an office job in Hong Kong had already built some semblance of an effective work from home routine, even before peak COVID-19 impact hit. Since the pandemic, it feels like organisations both big and small are having to fast-track their operational norms by years in merely months and SCMP is no different.
Having joined in December 2019, it’s been strange to go through this disruption both because I’m still relatively new to the company but also because I’ve spent more time working remotely than in the office itself. Joining when I did also coincided with both our annual budgeting process as well as our strategic planning phase which has been tricky to manage remotely when so much onboarding is normally facilitated by in-person discussion. It’s meant a steep learning curve and I won’t lie, at times it’s been quite stressful. That said, it’s given me the best introduction to understanding the inner workings of the Post and helped me pivot quickly from my prior media agency background to being able to operate in a global news organisation.
On a personal level I’ve found ways to raise my productivity compared to when I first started WFH, however I’ve had to be quite disciplined to reach that level and like many others, feel it’s not quite the same as working physically in the office which we had to close after one of our editorial colleagues was unfortunate enough to catch the virus. I’d say that at least 25% of my meetings have not been as effective by not being able to hold them in person but I’m thankful that the majority of the rest of my time operates with little difference on location. In the first fortnight of WFH however, I found myself working longer hours than normal, bouncing from video call to video call and not leaving my study. Clearly this isn’t a sustainable practice and I now schedule time to step away from the study at regular intervals, move around and eat proper meals. Here’s a snapshot of a recent WFH day:
5 am: My 2-year old Remi emerges from his room to tell me it’s still night time and that his 4-year old brother Obie is still sleeping. After employing some blatant creative license about how Thomas the Tank Engine can’t possibly have fun with friends if he doesn’t get enough sleep, he graciously goes back to bed. Almost instantly Obie wakes up asking if it’s time to eat pancakes. After some spirited (whispered) negotiation that any hard-nosed procurement team would be proud of, I counter my son’s ambitious proposal with the offer of a few slices of peanut butter toast if he concedes an extra 30 minutes kip for mummy and daddy. We agree terms and Obie goes back to bed.
6:15 am: The alarm sounds to start my day (just as I’ve managed to drift off again) and both the kids come bounding in with unfettered joy upon their faces, excited that their parents are as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as they are to conquer the day...hmm...
7:30 am: After the kids have finished their pancakes drizzled with maple syrup (oops!), they run off to play with Coco, our new puppy adopted from Hong Kong Dog Rescue (HKDR.) We’d toyed with the idea of welcoming a dog into our family for a while for all the great reasons why anyone wants a dog as well as for security and other than our poor cat, everyone is getting along. It felt good to be able to adopt her at the same time as COVID-19 was impacting animal adoption negatively elsewhere. With the boys wrestling Coco, I take the chance to check my emails and the flood of memes that have exploded across my WhatsApp overnight, mentally build a list of actions and major talking points for my day’s planned schedule, read through my newsletter dailies both within SCMP Today as well as comparing coverage across other news organisations and finally catch up on the highlights in Campaign’s newsletter to stay on top of industry trade press.
8:30 am: Like most WFH parents, through necessity I have learnt to become a master of distraction and stealth in order to find time and space to work. After a quick dog walk (and a brief assessment as to whether my dog or my son will toilet train first), I slink off and barricade myself into the study at home. I probably have an hour (max) before one of the kids discovers me and asks if he can help by randomly punching laptop keys and sending a stream of gibberish to confused colleagues over Slack.
10 am: Working at a news organisation means you need to move fast, way faster than you think! With very ambitious reader growth and reader revenue targets this year, there’s a lot of inter-department planning and build work that I’m leading. I’ll generally spend mornings checking-in on video calls with my team and workstream leaders to ensure all our projects are on track, any upcoming meetings are action rather than status-oriented and helping to troubleshoot anything that might prevent us from getting our plans off the ground in the timeframes we’ve earmarked.
11:30 am: Nap time for my youngest means a chance to bang out as many calls as I can so as to limit the chance of a kid running in and interrupting proceedings. Today I’m on a call with our CEO and editorial, data, strategy, product and corporate comms leads to discuss how best to capture flyby traffic and convert it into regular and loyal visitation. Mandating video “on” across calls keeps everyone accountable but it also creates some awkward moments when kids on occasion come into the study. As Obie comes stomping in doing his best dinosaur impression, I realise that the number of people I’m speaking with also seems to be inversely proportional to the amount of clothing he is wearing. I’m thankful my fellow leadership team has adjusted to these frequent semi-naked interruptions!
1 pm: Over lunch I’ve organised a team mukbang party where everyone can “present” their lunch, show off their WFH space and introduce their other co-workers, i.e. kids, partners or pets. 20+ colleagues join wearing all manner of costumes (my favourites are a toss-up between Alice in Wonderland and a winter queen) as well as 4 children, 3 cats and a small turtle called Jackie. The call provides some much needed levity and human connection at a time when everyone is cooped up inside. I’ve been especially nascent of morale and my team’s mental health with COVID-19 following so hot on the heels of extended protests, so any chance to laugh and revel in being a bit silly is welcomed. I’m thankful that our HR team is sending the company daily productivity and wellness tips to give everyone the best chance of managing stress and there are great organisations like Mind HK helping people cope too. I like to think of this hour spent together as a truer and better definition of what “social distancing” is, where we are even more connected than usual.
3 pm: I dial into our weekly Executive Committee meeting where we run through our past week’s metrics performance, jointly identify action plans to promote further growth and then walk-through department priorities. One of the quirks of a news organisation is that while there may be a heavy news cycle that bring a lot of eyeballs onsite, being able to effectively and respectfully monetise that uptick in traffic is not always easy and while I stand by our protest and COVID-19 coverage as equal in quality to any leading global news competitor, chasing revenue never stops.
6 pm: A clear advantage of cutting my commute out is being able to eat dinner together with my family on weekdays. My wife is a health and wellness entrepreneur so there is always something tasty at mealtimes and tonight is no different with a new delicious homemade pesto recipe to try. The boys hoover up their food and we go outside so they can ride their bikes and burn off the last of their energy. I aimed to use my extended time at home to teach Obie how to ride a proper pedal bike but after a year practising on a balance bike, he promptly pedalled off by himself on his first go so this was a bit of an anti-climax, albeit still a proud dad moment.
7 pm: Bath, stories and bedtime. We’re slowly working through my original collection of Tintin books and I chuckle to myself hearing the kids try to say “blistering barnacles” over and over.
8 pm: Kids are down so mum and dad celebrate another successful day as busy working parents by collapsing on the sofa and putting an episode of Kim’s Convenience on while I guiltily Google for “healthy pancake recipes”. My wife is about to launch her brand website so we discuss her go-to market and business model plans. I’ll generally run through a few last remaining things in my inbox before hitting the hay by 10:30pm.
I look forward to the next day’s challenges of juggling SCMP’s needs and the adventures of Obie and Remi.
Adrian Lee is SVP of audience growth at South China Morning Post