Sometime next month, a new editor in chief will take the helm at C&EN, and I will return to my old job as executive editor for our business and policy coverage.
I can’t disclose much more, but I can say that the new editor will work in C&EN offices on the sixth floor of the American Chemical Society’s Hach building in Washington, DC. This arrangement is as it should be. The head editor of a magazine or newspaper should work in the publication’s main newsroom.
These days, though, that’s where the certainty ends. C&EN and ACS, like organizations across the country, are grappling with the questions of who should work where and for how many days a week. There are no easy answers.
The answers seemed a lot easier back in the early 1990s, when C&EN’s managing editor, Madeleine Jacobs, asked Rudy Baum, then a science reporter, to become the head of C&EN’s science reporting group. Baum was based in California, and there was no question that to do the job, he would relocate to the magazine’s main office in Washington. He went on to become managing editor and, later, editor in chief.
And for many years, the sixth floor was where the action was. Business reporters like me were an exception, working mostly out of an office in New York City. When I became business editor, I would make monthly trips to Washington, where I would see top brass like Jacobs and Baum, plus most of the magazine’s science and policy reporters.
The sixth floor wasn’t an open-plan newsroom like you see in old movies; people had their own offices. But it had a buzz, and colleagues would pop in and out of each other’s offices to share a source, ask a question, or tell a joke.
The floor’s gravitational pull started to ebb in the 2010s as messaging and videoconferencing products improved. We selectively hired remote workers, and I stopped taking that monthly Amtrak ride.
Then COVID-19 happened. Several longtime denizens retired during the pandemic, and their replacements—some of whom I helped hire—work elsewhere. Others moved out of the Washington area and got permission to work remotely. These days, the sixth floor can be a quiet place. C&EN’s sales and marketing staffers still walk the halls, but editorial employees are scarce.
Of course, C&EN isn’t the only organization contending with postpandemic office issues. Some companies have embraced remote work, but most haven’t. ACS is pretty typical with its hybrid policy requiring 3 days a week in the office. Many banks and law firms want employees in the office 4 or 5 days a week. And readers of C&EN who work or teach in chemistry labs are probably perplexed by the hand-wringing over return-to-office orders. They have to be there in person to do their jobs.
In theory, I buy the argument that working together in person builds commitment and a cohesive organizational culture. I believe that face-to-face employee interaction and casual conversations at lunch or the proverbial watercooler can lead to inspiration and new ideas.
But in watching C&EN operate in practice, I know that culture, conversation, and inspiration can happen among people physically remote from one another. I also know that broadening hiring to include people outside a certain geographic area deepens the pool of qualified employees.
For example, 20 years ago, our newest policy reporter, Krystal Vasquez, would have had to live in the Washington area. She doesn’t, though, and she wasn’t prepared to uproot herself and her family for a job. We hired her anyway because she was the best candidate for the position.
I’m happy that our two newest science reporters will work in the New York City office and at the Washington headquarters. I want the old buzz to return to the sixth floor. I hope we can make that happen while continuing to hire the best employees for C&EN, no matter where they are.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.