Remote Work Works

Catherine Cocks's picture

A post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.

Guest post by Rachael Levay, acquisitions editor, University Press of Colorado and Utah State University Press

For most of us at university presses, it’s been about a year and a half since we took our work home and as of August 2021 most of us haven’t yet returned to the office. I’ve occupied this privileged space, of being able to work remotely, for a long time—I’ve been out of the office for over a decade while working for two different presses. During those years, I have navigated the accommodations required to make remote work sustainable, and it’s been a great relief that my current employer, the University Press of Colorado, is entirely comfortable with remote work, and I am not the only employee working remotely, even during “normal” times.

I hope that we, as an industry, can now acknowledge not only that it’s possible for remote workers to be part of the team, but also acceptable.

I’m often asked how I’ve been able to make this situation work—and the answer is sheer luck and the dogged determination of a woman terrified of being forced to leave the industry she loves because she has no mobility and lives well outside the university press world. While university presses are “everywhere,” they certainly aren’t most places. My husband is an English professor who teaches at an institution in southeast Idaho, a location that for years made my career growth or change impossible.

So in 2020 and 2021, for the first time in my professional life, others are working the way I have been (albeit having two kids also at home is a new challenge). During the first few months of the pandemic, I felt optimistic that scholarly publishing would understand that we can shake up how we think about living and working. And yet, job postings continue to offer remote onboarding but expect employees to relocate when it’s safe to do so. Our professional development events continually feature managerial staff who say they aren’t interested in bringing on remote workers in the future because “it’s better when we are all in the office together.” Inevitably someone says that the good news is that the experience of working from home will encourage us to stay home when we’re sick (though I’d argue that working from home while sick isn’t real progress).

We’ve done the work and we’ve done it in new ways, day after day, month after month—so why would we go back to the traditional expectations?

And yet, some presses have also acknowledged that unit sales have increased this year, while most saw little disruption in producing new titles. Work has become more efficient. We’ve challenged norms about marketing and acquisitions and found ways not only to keep publishing books, but to publish books well. We’ve done the work and we’ve done it in new ways, day after day, month after month—so why would we go back to the traditional expectations? Is it simply because they feel familiar and we’re nostalgic for an office and the steady hum of a copy machine while we gather around a big table to look at printed-out covers and theorize about how they’ll look on the screens on which they’ll mostly be seen?

I very much understand the warmth and camaraderie of the office. As someone who has gone without that experience for a long time, I miss it—these days, I would give a great deal to see my colleagues in Colorado, Utah, Alaska, and New York—but that has more to do with what we lack right now in larger, structural ways than it does with getting my job done. Remote work is hardly a new concept and, as Anne Helen Petersen has written about the challenges of remote and/or flexible work, it’s imperative that we get it right moving forward, both as managers and as staff at all levels of an organization.

As diversity, equity, and inclusion conversations continue to build around the industry, it’s worth considering what limitations we impose when we require relocation. We automatically exclude those with families who are rooted in places because of partners with jobs, children, aging family members, or a desire to be nearer to loved ones. We work in places like Seattle, Boulder, Boston, Philadelphia, Stanford, Berkeley, and Austin where the cost of living is extremely high, rental markets are tight, job markets are competitive, and we know our wages can’t keep up. We ignore generational wealth gaps, which are greater for historically excluded racial groups. Many of us are partnered with people who are scholars or academics, and spousal appointments are impossible. By insisting on in-person work, we force people to choose between growing their careers and living their lives and it’s really unclear why.

At the University Press of Colorado, we are always asked how we do it, how our office can function with multiple staff working remotely. The answer is pretty simple: we’ve invested in widely available systems like Slack, Box, SignNow, Zoom, and Google Suites that allow us to share our work online. We have Slack channels and Google Docs where we share pictures, chat, goof around, and come into one another’s workspaces and lives.

But most importantly: we trust each other. We have worked to better understand how to manage remotely and how to be managed remotely, drawing on existing resources and evaluating the work itself rather than who is working when and where (“are books getting published?” instead of “are we all working at the same time?”) to help with this. We have prioritized our professional needs in each position. We have always had weekly meetings via video and we schedule virtual happy hours or lunches for birthdays, work anniversaries, milestones, and, yes, just for fun. We commit to making the work work. I feel far closer to my colleagues now than when, in the past and in a previous position, I traveled monthly to spend a week in an office and burn through as much in-person work as possible.

What else does making remote work work mean? It means we see and hear each other’s lives—our children, our pets, our homes. We respect each other’s obligations and embrace that our work and our lives were never separate: we just used to pretend they were. While it will be good to empty my house a little as my spouse someday goes back to his office and my children someday go back to school and daycare, I don’t want to again try and pretend this life isn’t here. And I’d like my colleagues across scholarly publishing to have the same opportunities to balance their lives and work.

Rachael Levay lives in Pocatello, Idaho, with her family. She is an acquisitions editor at the University Press of Colorado and Utah State University Press and was formerly the Marketing and Sales Director at the University of Washington Press, where she worked for eleven years. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro MFA program and a BA from the University of Washington.

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