In our interview series, today Dimitra Letsa is talking with Karen Westman Hertz, Head of Next for Bonnier Publications in Denmark.
Karen is an amazingly creative and innovative person, full of danish humour and empathy, and I feel really happy our paths have crossed. She is the professional that will express the most obvious, yet more original ideas, drive the business forward while taking care of the people – be efficient and human at the same time. Creativity, humanity and corporate efficiency – all in one package!
She has a strong background in digital and audio business and we are talking with her about the audio evolution, the differences between working remotely for an international company and a publisher and the importance of having a supporting life partner.
Karen, thanks so much for talking with Moonshot today! It is indeed a true pleasure. Would you like to start with telling us a bit about who you are and what you do?
I have been working for Bonnier Publications since January, still quite new on my job. I am head of a team for optimization and development of digital content and new editorial businesses and processes.
It sounds like a fascinating position!
It is! Many different kinds of projects and great people. It’s about product development, new businesses, optimization of existing technology and new workflows and all part of the digital transformation process that the company is going through right now. Super exciting and challenging in a good way.
Is your background in the editorial part of the business?
Yes, I have experience with digital media both from broadcasting and book publishing, e-book and audiobook subscription business and digital news. All the time in this mix of content, tech and business. Before my new job in Bonnier, I was head of Microsoft News in Denmark, which I joined after a couple of years in Mofibo, a book subscription startup. Earlier I worked for a major book publisher and before that the Danish public service broadcaster.
It is the most interesting business. You can get your hands in both worlds and really get the best out of it. You started your new job during the pandemic. How was it to go between so different employers during lockdown?
I had two soft days to start with my new job but on the third day we were suddenly again under very strict lockdown in Denmark, so I have been very little at the new office. Not the best way to start a new job. I have really missed the coffee machine chats, everything just gets less personal, when you have to introduce yourself to people you have never seen before only through online meetings.
I have been working a lot remotely in Microsoft due to the global set-ups, but even though everything was designed for it, still the physical offsites and meetups became super important for all of us. You don’t have to be together everyday, but it makes a serious difference to meet physically in between.
On top of that, I am not the only one who just started, my team is also new with members from different departments and newly hired people. Because of the pandemic I have been trying to glue the team together best possible with virtual team building.
Everything takes longer time. You can’t just tap people on the back and say ‘Hi I am Karen, your new colleague’. What was the best experience in team building? What have you found most efficient?
In the beginning we include small team building exercises in all weekly team meetings, like kahoots with fun facts about the team members, break out room sessions on personal stories, work challenges right now and themes like that, just to get to know each other better and make it easier for everybody to reach out and connect. The introduction of a virtual Friday bar with different themes, quizzes and games has also been super fun and successful.
What I miss mostly when working remotely is that you do not get the full picture of the person. You get snapshots but you do not get a full idea about who that person is… something important when you interview for hiring, for instance.
I would always prefer to meet physically but we are also getting used to all these barriers now. It is for sure doable. We might even forget how fantastic it really is to meet in person. Personally I had the experience when coming back to the office for a couple of days, like: Wow! This is a kind of new 360 degree experience, I forgot how it was.
It kind of gets overwhelming when you are suddenly surrounded by so many people.
Yes, and I think, I will always prefer a combination of work both from office and remote, and we will see a lot more flexibility and new ways of working in the future after the pandemic.
I think it is also very important for the employers to know the team and to have systems in place. You have to give your employees good resources and tech equipment; to make sure that if they need something they can reach out -these are things you can easily miss when you do not see people. And it is important that people understand that they can’t be on call 24/7. I am afraid that companies that don’t have experience in remote working could actually over-use staff.
Sure. It’s demanding for both managers and employees. You need to build on trust, transparency and alternative ways of handling daily communication in informal, but still effective ways. Otherwise it doesn’t work.
Did you find any differences in the way Microsoft worked remotely versus the way a publisher works remotely?
At Bonnier we have worked remotely because of the corona virus and in Microsoft we already often worked remotely because of the global set-up. So it is rather different. The international departments of Microsoft have work-wise, tool-wise chosen to do it, the business is already global and digital only. For teams working with prints, big screens, layouts, it is of course a little bit more complicated to shift between office and remote work from day to day.
The biggest issue for both types of companies is the loss of energy, the motivation and efficiency in all the small daily communications flows between people and teams.
Do you see that this with remote working will continue in the future or will the publishing reverse and go back to working from the office?
Short term we will be happily back at the office, just with more flexibility. Long term I think the learnings about working together remotely will influence our view of future organisations, ways of structuring teams and projects, also in terms of cost saving potentials and work life balance.
From a business perspective, what do you foresee?
The magazine business of Bonnier Publications is of course, like so many other media businesses, impacted both by the general structural changes in the media market and the corona related challenges in advertising.
At the same time the pandemic is accelerating digital, impacting all media business, and there’s a global growth in subscriptions and paid content, also making room for more small niche media, like Moonshot, with new business models focusing on strong relationships with the users.
Expanding the existing subscription business from our magazines to digital subscriptions and digital content offerings is also the most important exercise for Bonnier right now. On top of that we are exploring how to build new business, add new digital products, like eg. online courses, apps, audio formats and unfold the potential of the unique content we already have.
There has been a huge boom in audio in recent years. This was really accelerated by the pandemic like for instance audio chat app Clubhouse, pods and audio books. Is that here to stay or was it a peek created by the pandemic?
No, no, it will stay. I am sure that these new media habits will continue and grow, both for audio books, pods and new kinds of audio based media. Some of the business models e.g. for podcast and audio based communities like Clubhouse are still in development, but the general growth in consumption of all kinds of audio is significant.
I think we see a general behavioral change in media usage these years, more people are becoming more accustomed to listening while commuting or doing other things, we are optimizing our limited time with new audio content, it is so convenient and fit for a modern life – also after the pandemic.
Do you have any other aspects of the difference between working for an international company and a national?
Well, I really enjoyed working with my international colleagues in Microsoft and in the global atmosphere. Having colleagues all over the world was a great experience. It is very fascinating to be part of a company with such a big impact as Microsoft and learn about the mechanisms and power of the global tech companies.
On the other hand, not surprisingly – I feel much closer to the core business today in a smaller company, I am in the machine room in another way. I have a stronger sense that I can make a visible difference on a daily basis and much easier to influence strategic decisions going forward. Both related to the specific job and the nature of the organization.
For me the biggest challenge was that it is more difficult to face those when you are a manager than when you are an employee. I was used to report to the CEO in a company and he was a much more senior person that the middle managers you get in an international company.
Agree, that can be very complicated and you can get pretty exhausted trying to navigate these organizational layers. But again, when it works, the global company also has these amazing capabilities to drive change in society if used in the right way.
For sure – like for instance in the diversity field. What’s your view on that? Denmark is one of the countries with the highest equality indexes; it is supposed to be easier to be a woman in Denmark than in other parts of the world. When you were in an international environment, did you experience differences between you and women coming from other parts of the world?
No, I don’t think so, not in terms of our daily work, but listening to stories from female colleagues from other countries made me appreciate my own experiences more.
Not that we have fixed all equality issues in Denmark, we are still missing out on women in tech, female managers on C-levels and in the board rooms, and a lot of women are still struggling. I just feel privileged that personally my gender has not been a daily concern in my work life as it has for many others.
In general, I haven’t felt my gender blocking my career, maybe even the opposite with the growing focus on diversity in management teams already back then. It was up to me to grab the chances and do my best. During my first job in digital media I became the youngest female manager in this big company, but I don’t remember paying any attention to it – not as part of a problme. Probably also because I was lucky to have some great managers and colleagues, that kind of support is just very important for all of us.
That is really positive to hear! I had not experienced it as a problem either when I was starting, but when I grew older, I realized how much harder I had tried compared to my male peers.
Things like maternity leave still put us in a different position, a lot of women feel that they have to perform harder to compensate for that kind of break.
Men could also get ill, have a surgery or something and be out for four months. Employers should treat maternity leave as part of life. You do not get an employee just for four months. You get them for a much longer period.
Agree. I got pregnant during my first management job and my former husband, also in management, insisted on having three months paternity leave on top of my maternity leave. He wanted to support me in coming back and also wanted the experience of being close to the baby himself. He was in a big telco and the first male in that company asking for three months off and he became kind of a role model for male managers asking for paternity leave in this company. This was back in 2003, today this is luckily getting more normal in Denmark.
I would actually really like to do interviews with several women at the same time to say how important it is to have a partner that is really supportive and the difference it makes in your career.
Yes, it is super important to have a partner that agrees with you on these kinds of topics, and it goes both ways – some women are also insisting on having the maternity leave themselves and being off for a year or more, as well as lots of men that still don’t dare being off at all, despite the options given by their companies.
I would really like to gather some women to discuss how important it is to have the right person in your life, to support you and to work with this person for ambitions and to not fight alone without support.
Yes, great idea, let’s do that… maybe in audio?