One of the pressing questions for publishers moving into the busy fall season involves how, when, or even if staff will return to in-office work environments. With the Delta variant of COVID-19 causing uncertainty even for people who have been fully vaccinated, questions of worker safety remain paramount, as do issues around returning to a congregate environment after more than a year working remotely.
For Toronto’s Dundurn Press, these questions are even more urgent. In February of this year, the independent publisher announced a rebranding initiative, which involved a new colophon and the introduction of a new imprint, Rare Machines, dedicated to experimental and boundary-breaking fiction. The firm also moved its office from its home at the foot of Church Street to 1382 Queen Street in the Leslieville neighbourhood. The move was accompanied by the opening, in July, of a bookshop for the public, which presents added levels of concern with regard to safety protocols around the coronovirus.
Topping out at approximately 1,000 square feet, the new office is about a quarter the size of the Church Street location, and a quarter of that is devoted to the front showroom. At the moment, there is a rotating schedule of staff who do double duty as booksellers during the store’s opening hours, between 11:00 and 5:00 Monday to Friday. For the moment, the office as a whole operates with a minimum of one staffer at all times and a maximum of three.
“Initially we were just using our vacation calendar, but now that more people are starting to come in, it’s getting a little unwieldy,” says Scott Fraser, Dundurn’s president and publisher. “We have a shared Google sheet where we can sign up and there are only three spaces allocated each day.” Five people – those with essential roles or who live nearby – rotate duties up front in the bookshop, but as things move into the fall, Fraser hopes that more people will express an interest in returning to the office on a more regular basis.
That said, Fraser is adamant that he does not foresee a situation in which the full staff returns en masse for a forty-hour work week. “It’s not viable for us anymore because we simply don’t have the room,” Fraser says. The new office has the capacity to hold up to six or seven staff members at once in optimum conditions, and during COVID, the work area, which resembles an office-share setup, has been retrofitted with plastic sheeting to allow staff to sit across from one another while also being in a separate air space. They also have two air filters that recirculate the air regularly.
Protocols for regular deep cleaning of work stations are in place, as well as mask mandates in the bookshop and in the office space any time staff members are unable to distance safely. At this point, there is no vaccine mandate in place for the staff, though Fraser is still mulling over whether something like this will be put into effect at some future point. “On the one hand, I don’t like the idea of businesses having access to people’s health records. But, on the other hand, it’s a worker safety thing,” he says. “We’re going to keep talking about it.”
One measure Fraser instituted is a staff survey about attitudes toward returning to the office. Though he has yet to completely parse the data in the survey, one thing he has realized is that staff are not interested in returning to a five-day office work week. “I think that’s over,” Fraser says. “At least for our business, that’s not something that’s coming back.”
The possibility of allowing for a hybrid work-from-home model over the long haul is particularly attractive to Fraser, especially as the value of office space in the city continues to remain exorbitant. “The idea of spending the kind of money that we were spending on real estate prior to our move, in relation to our revenue, is just not possible,” he says. “We’re really looking to minimize our footprint.”
In that regard, having staff on board with a mixed approach to working from home and working in the office one or two days each week has great advantages. The smaller office footprint is also more environmentally friendly and could prove more flexible than what the press had previously. “Now that we’ve figured out how to do a year of publishing without that big footprint, there’s no discussion about going back.”