Communication Successes and Challenges

As the semester winds down to a close, I’m finding myself thinking often about communication within our libraries. Like many colleges and universities, mine is still firmly in a hybrid work mode — on any given weekday we have some library personnel working onsite in the library, and others working remotely. Since this is my first semester in my new position I’ve been spending a lot of time in face to face and online meetings with colleagues, but as I’m settling in I’m thinking more about how we all communicate with each other, and ways for us to feel connected to one another and reduce the barriers in our work.

This month I’m the ACRLog blogteam collaborative post coordinator, and I’m wondering about how we all communicate at the different libraries and institutions where we work. What’s been effective and successful? What still needs some refining?

Angie: As Maura knows, *I* *am* *always* thinking about communication, both theoretical and practical. So I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to collaborate on this topic. Almost a year to the month before COVID changed our work dramatically, I wrote this post (mission statement?) on how I understand communication and work in libraries.  

Still rings true — maybe more so — in a post-pandemic work environment. The short of it calls for an intentionality we may take for granted when experiencing work the same way – onsite or remote.  

The first communication hurdle I hoped to solve returning to a hybrid work environment was making schedules more transparent. Right? I’ve found any and all ways one can communicate their particular schedule definitely worth the effort. I used to be the first to call out these extra, sometimes duplicate approaches as inefficient. Now I realize how fundamental their role is to whether communication happens at all. 

Some practical examples include physical IN/OUT cubicle signs. I created these and have used them for years at my office. The email signature is another opportunity some use to share onsite vs remote day. This creates visible and regular reminders through something you use everyday, as well as a subtle model for your recipient. My department also uses MS Outlook’s “Work Time” Settings and “Working Remote” free/busy status. As a department head, this makes it way easier to see everyone’s differences at a glance, plan for in person meetings or celebrations, and assess for schedule adjustments that may be needed. Harder to get library-wide adoption on this one, but baby steps!

Observing my own overreliance on email communication since working remotely, I try to build simple intentionality by starting emails with a greeting and gratitude. Like “Hi, Angie. Thanks for doing this.” Yes, I have to intentionally remind myself to do this. I learned this working with folks on this blog team and others in my library for whom this comes naturally (or else struggle, but remember). While “This meeting could have been an email” remains relevant, there is also benefit to flipping this adage around on the regular. Now when I’m inclined to email, I ask myself if there is a better opportunity to connect in this communication in person.


I still sometimes wish face to face communication could be thought, typed, backspaced, cut, rearranged and sent as fluently and coherently as an email – or this blog. But the more intentionally I seek connection and dialogue through all types of communication, the less often it tends to feel like a jerky dance of mouth words, awkward pauses, and apologies. 

Hailley: As a department head, I’m frequently thinking about how I communicate with my team. We have a Teams group for the department, which functions for throughout the day chats and information sharing that feels too informal for an email. Sending a Teams message is definitely the quickest way to get a hold of me; I try hard to not have email up unless I’m actively sending emails. I send emails to the department for more formal purposes and it usually involves providing updates, reminders, and next steps. If possible, I try to gather several things I want to share before I send out an email. Recently, I’ve noticed that I started to use more headers and formatting in these emails, in the same ways I use headers in other types of documents. Helps me ensure I share all the information I want to share and hopefully it allows for easier reading from the people receiving it. 

Two other miscellaneous thoughts related to communication: 1) timing is important! Everyone has different gaps in their days/weeks and that is often when big emails go out. However, for some folks, receiving an email late in the day or close to the weekend can be stressful. Sometimes that timing is unavoidable, but I try to think strategically about when I’m sending things out. 2) I just finished reading Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere by Tsedal Neeley. She provides some useful tips and pointers about communicating across hybrid and remote teams. I’m still mulling the book over but it was definitely a good way for me to reflect on my own communication style! 

Maura: What we’re doing now is, I imagine, similar to how many libraries are communicating internally. Our institution uses the Microsoft suite and we in the Library use Outlook for shared calendaring. My colleagues and I each try to keep our own calendars up to date, and we have 3 shared calendars: planned vacation or other absences, remote workdays, and the reference desk schedule. I also put my institutional meetings on the shared calendar so that everyone knows when I’ll next meet with the Provost or the university’s library leadership. Our shared calendaring is working fairly well, and while Outlook is not my personal favorite it does have the advantage of being a system that all of us have access to both onsite and remotely.

Where I think we could use some discussion and perhaps change is for sharing files and communicating electronically. For filesharing we’ve got a shared drive that’s only accessible onsite or via VPN, Sharepoint via our institutional Microsoft suite, and the ever-present Google docs which many of us use with our personal Google accounts (we don’t have an institutional license). The shift from the shared drive to Sharepoint was well underway when I got here and I suspect will continue fairly organically. But Google is trickier — many (most?) of us have used Google docs heavily for years: outside of work, in our research, or (in my case, at least) at previous jobs. It’s hard to disinvest from the Googleverse, even if we know we should.

Electronic communication is the one I’m struggling most with right now. We have email, of course, and there is a Slack instance with multiple channels that all library faculty and staff have access to though not everyone uses. I’ve been thinking about Teams — again, not my personal favorite (I find the interface to be much less intuitive than other platforms), but my primary goal is to find a way for us to communicate that isn’t as overwhelming (for some) as email or as separate from institutional platforms as Slack. I’m happy to conform to whatever all of us decide on — it’s my strong belief that while we’ll never find one platform that everyone prefers, if we can find something that’s good enough *and* make sure that everyone is trained and supported in it’s use, that’s a reasonable goal.

Alex: We have a few different things going on as far as knowing who is where in this hybrid set-up we’ve had for two and a half years. The staff who cover the service desk have a set schedule that’s mostly in-person, but they each have their time to work at home. There is a group of three librarians who rotate being the in-person “manager,” which just helps everyone to know that (1) there is a librarian there every day, and (2) which one it is. We print a copy of the monthly schedule for us three and stick it to the service desk for quick reference, but it’s also on the shared Outlook calendar. That calendar was already in place in the before times, to share library closures and everyone’s time off (to reduce the number of “is Alex working today?” emails). There are a few other individuals with their own hybrid schedule, and those are on the shared Outlook calendar too. Most of them work with in-person things like interlibrary loan and the 3D printer, so this helps us know when we might expect those things to take place. Some people are still 100% working from home, so they aren’t listed on the shared calendar except for their days off. Beyond Outlook, we are a Teams institution, although some people dislike Teams enough that you’re better off emailing those individuals. We have an unspoken but ubiquitous assumption that everyone actively checks their email throughout their workday. So even our communication is pretty hybrid: email and Teams combo is usually all we need. We are also a Sharepoint institution, although I don’t think I’ve ever used that among my campus library colleagues, only with the wider institution.

Maura: Many thanks to my blogteam colleagues for all of this useful detail on communication in our workspaces! After the winter break I’m hoping to convene a communications working group of library faculty and staff, full-time and part-time, and I will probably recommend that they begin by reading this post. And we’d love to hear from readers in the comments — what’s working/not working in communication at your workplace?

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

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