5 ways Singapore Press Holdings is using SARS newsroom lessons for COVID-19

A temperature screen station at the SPH main lobby. All visitors have to walk past the station before they are allowed to register at the reception area. The yellow camera mounted on the tripod in the picture is an infra-red camera. The security officer is there to monitor the heat signatures of all visitors and to prevent those who are running fevers from proceeding further.

By Eugene Wee

Head of Media Strategy
Singapore Press Holdings
Singapore, Singapore
March 13, 2020

The WHO has just declared the COVID-19 outbreak to be a pandemic. And companies all over the world are rolling out their business continuity plans (BCP) to ensure their operations are not disrupted by the outbreak.

Newsrooms are no different. In fact, journalists are arguably more at risk as they need to be out and about to serve their readers, keeping them updated on all matters related to COVID-19, as well as other important local and global developments.

SPH, which has eight newsrooms under its roof, is keenly aware of how an outbreak like this can affect its operations. And this is why we have put in place a BCP that we hope balances the need to keep our newsrooms fully operational with the need to keep our staff safe.

Here are five things we did to achieve this.

1. Split-team operations

Like many other organisations, we split our staff into two teams — Team A and Team B. Team A works “onsite,” which is in the newsroom. Team B operates “offsite,” which means they can work from anywhere as long as it is not in the newsroom.

For example, the Straits Times newsroom operates with a relatively small Team A. Team A is made up mostly of “coordinators” — mainly the senior editors and desk editors who remotely manage Team B members. Where possible, their deputies are part of Team B so that if Team A falls, there is a group of editors who can come in and take over.

Team B is basically the rest of the newsroom. Reporters can work and file from wherever they feel comfortable. Sub-editors got help to take back their large displays and desktops to operate from home. For those whose job functions require a hard wire to our servers due to high bandwidth requirements (e.g., video editors), they are given a space in Print Centre (our industrial building located about 30 minutes away where our newspapers are printed).

The idea is that if any member of Team A gets tested positive for COVID-19, and everyone in close contact gets quarantined, we can simply empty the newsroom, send in a cleaning crew to disinfect the premises, and have their Team B counterparts come in and take over. Having the bulk of the newsroom be in Team B helps us build in redundancy because if a Team B member gets tested positive, he doesn’t take down anyone else in the newsroom by being on close contact with them.

2. Give staff options on where they can work

Not every is able to work productively from home. Some have young kids who demand attention. Others may have slow broadband connections or are easily distracted by the comforts of home. And to do this for months at a stretch can be extremely challenging.

So what SPH did was to convert some vacant office space that we had in our building into dedicated Team B zones. We outfitted them with desks, TV screens for the cable channels, copiers, and whatever equipment they needed so that Team B members who weren’t comfortable working at home could work in the building while still being segregated from their Team A colleagues.

Having this space was important to us because we realised it was not sustainable to have staff working from home for extended periods of time.

An interesting side note: We have one small newsroom (about 30 people), The New Paper, that puts out both digital and print products, and is working entirely from home. The experiment will last for two weeks to see if it is sustainable. Another newsroom, The Business Times, runs with just two or three people in the office and the rest from home.

3. Beef up IT infrastructure and train staff to use it

When the bulk of the newsroom is working from home, or filing from outside the office, they need to be able to do so without lag or dropouts. For SPH, we had to do two things:

First, we had to procure more licences for our VPN users as the number of concurrent users had been capped at 300. This was sufficient before we went into split operations as the number concurrent users rarely hit 300. But with more than half the newsroom externally logging into our servers, we had to increase the number of licences to more than double that number to support all staff working offsite.

Second, we had to increase the bandwidth of the VPN pipe between our staff and the servers. We did tests internally and without the increase in bandwidth, staff had to endure a lot of lag and dropouts during periods where there was a high load.

We also did not want to assume that all staff were tech savvy enough to be able to bring their equipment home and be up and running without any hiccups. So before we implemented our split operations, we held training sessions for staff to make sure they knew how to do things like how to connect and set up their desktops and displays, connect to our servers via VPN, use collaboration tools for meetings like Hangout Meets. We also made them aware of how to reach our help desk if they encountered problems.

4. Make staff feel safe when they come to work

For staff who have to work in the building, we made sure they felt safe doing so. The following measures were put in place to ensure this:

Team A members were given bright orange lanyards to wear while Team B were given blue lanyards. This gives visual cues to staff on who they should be distancing themselves from when passing through shared spaces like lift lobbies, hallways etc. It also makes it easier to spot when you accidentally wander into a workspace dedicated to the other team.

Hand sanitizers were made available at all the lift lobbies in the building.

Reporters going out to the field are given access to surgical and N95 masks should they feel they need them.

All visitors to the building had to walk past a temperature screening area to ensure they did not have a fever, then register at our reception with information such as recent travel history and contact details so that contact tracing can be done if necessary.

We designated specific times when Team A and Team B are allowed to patronise our in-house cafeterias (we have two). That way, we don’t have Team A and Team B mixing during meal times. The tables are also cleaned and disinfected during the switchover so that each team comes into a freshly cleaned environment.

We encourage our staff to use their staff passes to “tap” through all our security areas individually (instead of one staff member tapping for a whole group to pass through). We also have QR codes on tables at our cafeterias for staff eating at those tables to scan and clock their time at the table. This allows our systems to track staff movements around the building so contact tracing is easier should we have a confirmed case.

Temperature checks are carried out twice a day, and the results recorded in a shared drive to ensure that colleagues at work who suddenly feel ill can be identified and sent to the doctor.

Access to all newsrooms (which require a staff pass) were restricted to just its own editorial staff. This is to ensure that non-editorial staff and staff from other departments do not use the newsroom as a shortcut or make unnecessary visits to cut down on contamination.

All staff who plan to travel must fill in a travel declaration form that is tracked by HR. This allows us to keep track of which countries they are traveling to in case any of these countries suddenly become hotspots. We had a case recently where reporters who attended the Milan Fashion week were asked to work from home because North Italy suddenly became a hotspot.

Facilities such as prayer rooms, nursing rooms, and the gym were catered for exclusive Team A and Team B use.

A COVID-19 information portal was created on our staff intranet to act as a one-stop resource for anyone looking for information on company policies and updates related to the outbreak.

5. Management needs to reinforce the message that staff need to be socially responsible

Emphasis on being socially responsible comes from the highest levels. As we were rolling out the BCP, we had daily meetings chaired by our CEO to keep everyone updated on what was going on and to gather feedback to fine-tune our processes.

All heads of departments are then informed of any breaches or non-conformity to the safety measures (eg, staff coming to work despite having a bad cough) and they need to remind staff consistently to adhere to the measures. HR also sends frequent advisories to staff to keep everyone apprised of new measures being taken and any updates on protocols due to COVID-19.

This article was first featured in the INMA blog.