Remote Managing in the Time of Corona

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Candice Benjes-Small, Head of Research Services, William & Mary Libraries.

When my university moved us to remote work on March 16, I immediately began thinking about how I could best support the colleagues I manage.  Most of the articles for work from home management focus on productivity and accountability, though, and I soon realized that these priorities did not match our new reality.  As Neil Webb posted on Twitter, “You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.”

As a manager, what could I do to acknowledge the struggles we were all facing?  In my social media feeds, I saw many peers asking themselves the same question.  Although everyone’s situation is different, I thought it might be helpful to share some things that my team has found helpful:

1. Explicitly talking about how these are strange times. When we first moved to remote work, I think I expected it to feel like a prolonged snow day.  Many of us, including me, were caught off-guard by how emotional we felt.  That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief was published just a few days after we began working from home and it helped us to discuss this weird, chaotic situation we find ourselves in.

2. Asking your direct reports. It can be tempting to make plans and develop policies and procedures on your own, but your colleagues should be part of the process of creating the new normal. What is succeeding for them?  What is challenging? What would they like to see more or less of?  What have they seen at other workplaces they think we should try?

3. Offering- but not requiring- lots of Zoom check-ins. We are a pretty social group; we often gather in the morning to chat over that first cup of caffeine, and we are always popping in and out of each other’s offices.  We began with daily Zoom huddles, then added in optional daily morning check-ins. We now cancel the huddles occasionally, but I’ve  also reinstated monthly one-on-ones so I can talk with individuals more consistently. Zoom fatigue is a thing, though, so we also communicate regularly via Teams and Slack.

4. Offering- but not requiring- team building opportunities.  I am a big fan of team building but am cognizant that some abhore “compulsory fun.”  My direct reports’ threshold for these types of activities is pretty high, but I make it very low stakes.  About once a week, we will spend some of our meeting time playing a quick game like ‘yuk or yum’ or ‘2 truths and a lie’. Once, we chose a color and all either wore that color, brought an object that color, or changed our Zoom background to that color for a meeting.  Sometimes we’ll have an informal chat in our Slack channel on a random topic, like how we take our tea or coffee.  Speaking of coffee, I also organized a virtual #randomcoffee for the library. My colleague Liz Bellamy has written about our library’s efforts to retain community.

5. Being transparent as possible with what I know about the larger organization’s plans and decision making. My university’s administration has been very communicative about its handling of the crisis, and library administrators sit on the emergency planning committee. I share the news I hear in various meetings with my team. Everyone would prefer if we had less uncertainty (When will we return to campus? How will we do so safely? Will we hold classes in person in the fall? How will the budget shortfall be addressed?) but my anxiety is lessened by knowing how the university is approaching the crisis and what it is prioritizing. I hope that my colleagues feel the same.

6. Providing flexibility in hours and days. People are working while also homeschooling, taking care of children and relatives, and coping with the onslaught of dire news related to Covid-19, the economy, and the future of higher education. It’s not the time to micromanage employees’ schedules or insist people be as available between 8-5. As long as the essential work is completed, I trust my reports to figure out the how and when- and to let me know if they need help.

7. Encouraging people to focus on their health. At the beginning, we spent a lot of time talking about self-care strategies and the importance of putting mental and physical health first. Work can be a welcome distraction or it can be a burden, sometimes in the same day. I’ve tried to emphasize that the “life” part of work/life balance needs to be everyone’s focus, and model it by talking about the Virtual Wellness classes I’ve attended, the neighborhood walking breaks I take in between meetings, and my attempts at meditation (a definite work in progress). Articles we’ve shared with each other in Slack include Coronavirus Has Upended Our World. It’s Okay To Grieve and Brene Brown’s 4 Tips for Navigating Anxiety During the Coronavirus. I also remind them of the Employee Assistance Program, which includes 4 free sessions with a therapist (hurray for telemedicine!), and that they can take vacation days as needed. We’ve also designated Fridays as meeting-free and check-in free, so people can get away from their computers.

8. Explicitly and consistently saying productivity will look different now- and my expectations are very flexible. At the beginning of the quarantine, I confessed to my manager, “I just feel like getting out of bed is an accomplishment some days.” I was ashamed because I had always been a fast, productive worker.  I was comforted by articles like You’re Not Lazy- Self-isolating is Exhausting and Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure, which I shared with my team.  As a library, we’ve talked about how this is a marathon, not a sprint, and we need to be gentle with ourselves and each other. 

9. Advocating for my team. At first, this was logistical. Does everyone have the equipment they need to work from home? Our library supervisors arranged for staff to check out laptops and MiFi devices, and bring home computer monitors and office chairs. Now, it’s finding ways to make visible the work my team does every day and help my supervisors share our successes with the campus community. 

10. Taking care of myself.  I can find it difficult to take my own advice; sometimes I work through lunch, skip exercising, and read too many news stories.  In the past few weeks, I’ve reconnected with old friends, attended Zoom happy hours and trivia games, and cut myself some slack.  This is exhausting and I need to extend grace to myself as well as others.

So those are my top 10 tips for remote managing during a pandemic! What has been helpful for you and your colleagues?

Thank you to my colleagues in the Research & Instruction Team at William & Mary Libraries: Liz Bellamy, Morgan Davis, Alexandra Flores, Natasha McFarland, Katherine McKenzie, Mary Oberlies, Jessica Ramey, and Paul Showalter for helping me to develop these practices and to edit this piece.

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