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.

We Have Already Made It

I’ve spent the last few weeks of what has been an unusually hectic start to the semester thinking lots about Emily’s post from last month, Breaking the “Fake It” Habit. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend that you head on over and do, I can wait. Emily writes about fear of not knowing at work, especially topics or workflows that it seems like everyone else knows, and feeling the pressure to present ourselves as knowledgeable and competent (imposter syndrome, for example).

Emily’s terrific post hit home for me, and I’m planning to share it with all of my colleagues in the library where I work. As the director I strive to create an environment where all library workers in all of our various titles and full-time/part-time status can feel comfortable asking questions, making mistakes, learning and adding to our skill sets. I also struggle with the embarrassment that I’ve felt and feel when I make mistakes, am asked a question I don’t know the answer to, or realize that others around me seem to know something that I don’t. In my best moments I can stall for a bit of composure-regaining time with that classic reference interview opener, “that’s a good question!” But not-knowing is hard: it can make us feel exposed and unworthy, which is an uncomfortable place to be.

In trying to build a habit of being gentle with myself when I’m in that uncomfortable space, I’ve found it helpful to remember that our patrons likely have these same experiences. When we don’t know something we are just like our students, when they come to the library for the first time and aren’t sure how to find what they need. Or our faculty colleagues, who may be newly-hired with prior experience at very different institutions from our own, or who are so busy with their work that they haven’t been able to keep up with announcements about library resources and services.

The university system my college is part of is in the midst of our library services platform migration this year, which, while stressful in many ways, could give all of us the opportunity to build stamina around not-knowing. The system will be new to all of us and used by all of us, from the folx hired just this year to those with 30+ years under their belts, for public services and technical services and everything else our small but mighty library does. No one knows everything, and there are always opportunities for learning in library work. With the migration here I’m hoping we can all — myself included — ask questions when we need to learn more, ask for help when we need it, and be gentle with ourselves, our colleagues, and our patrons.

Emily concludes her post by discussing a new opportunity she’s taking on at her library, and vowing to ask questions and stand in the uncomfortable space of not-knowing. I’m drawing inspiration from her, pushing back on “fake it til you make it,” and reminding myself that we have already made it, because asking questions is part of the job.

How To Be the Youngest Person in the Room

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Catie Carlson, Director of Pfeiffer Library at Tiffin University.

If you were a traditional student who went straight to library school and then found themselves working in an academic library shortly later, you probably experienced it. It being the confident, new librarian who wants to help students succeed only to be confused for a student yourself. At first it can be flattering, but it can quickly become frustrating when you want to have authority and respect in a room. For good examples of why and how that can happen (as well as for a few unfortunate trolls), I recommend reading the comments and replies to Jenny Howell’s tweet.

Dr. Howell is describing the biases and discrimination that exist for young women in academia. She is also touching on imposter syndrome, which is no stranger to ACRLog posts. We all feel not-smart-enough, not-good-enough, not-insert-adjective-here-enough to belong in librarianship and academia at some point. Typically this is just described as a state of mind, such as Veronica describing her internal monologue or Zoe confessing her insecurities fueling her imposter syndrome. However, age and gender can create a physical embodiment of those feelings. These can manifest in ways such as Dr. Howell’s description, being confused as a student, or even being called a “baby” within the profession.

I am no stranger to feeling imposter syndrome. As a young librarian, working with senior faculty could be intimidating with their vast experience in comparison to my newness. I would get nervous if I couldn’t come up with a quick answer for a student fearing they’d think I was useless. These are natural scenarios when you are a “baby” in a profession. With personal relationships eventually forming with these people, it became less intimidating to work with the faculty. As I became more familiar with student needs at my institution, I was taken less off-guard by surprise questions. Slowly, though I was still a “baby librarian,” imposter syndrome started to wane, which is good. Being a “baby librarian” is a problematic way to describe yourself because you’ve worked hard to be in this profession, but it’s even more troublesome when you feel you can accept the term regardless of its connotations. However, imposter syndrome would still appear at times: on an insecure day, when I made a mistake, or in a new interaction with someone.

After just a few years at a small institution, a retirement left the director role as an option. I had only been a librarian for a few years, but I had shown my value to the institution over that time. More than one person encouraged me to apply to the job, but I was on the fence. While I welcome a challenging opportunity to enable self-growth, this seemed like a stretch. Imposter syndrome would start all over with such a promotion. Despite these doubts, I applied, I interviewed, and I accepted a directorship before the age of 30 years old.

While I knew my insecurities in accepting a leadership position going into the role, there were some things I did not expect. Having never been in the position, I had no idea what it is like to be a young female in a leadership meeting, and by that, I mean being the only young female in a leadership meeting. When I sit at a table with our three school deans and Provost, I am one of two females in the room and I am the only millennial. I think it is safe to say there isn’t even a Gen X in the room. When I attend library director meetings across our state, the scenario does not change much. Essentially, I went from being a “baby librarian” to a “baby leader” and so the problematic way of viewing of oneself continues.

It can be scary and lonely to not see a peer in the room, especially when the expectation is for you to be a leader in that room. With just a few years now under my belt, I won’t pretend to be an expert, but I hate leaving problems unresolved. Therefore, here are some things I have found helpful to shed the imposter syndrome again:

Be Confident
Years of experience are important, but they are not everything. Always remember that you got this far for a reason. I have to tell myself every day: You weren’t given a position; you earned it. I tell myself twice, three times or four when I have big meetings. It helps even if just a little.

Play to Your Strengths
I love utilizing technology in my work and life. I once sat in a meeting where the leaders talked about an upcoming survey for us. I offered to just do it then while in discussion because (as always) I had a laptop and it would take 5 minutes to create, distribute, and move on. While it prompted millennial jokes from my colleagues, one approached me after the meeting, apologized for the jokes, thanked me for my initiative, and complimented my technology skills. Moral of the story: People will notice when you know what you’re doing.

Be Proactive
Volunteer for things. It’s how they will eventually notice your great work just like in my survey creation. No one asked me to do it, but I knew I could do it quickly and it would ease the load for others. People like this, but academics must always be cautious about burn out.

Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.
You’re the youngest one in the room and you will be judged. It’s unfair, but I still think it’s the truth. If you screw up, they will notice more than if you succeed. Research, prepare, and practice for everything – then do it again and again. If you succeed enough, maybe you can continue to be that youngest-in-the-room scenario.

Build the Relationships
Senior leaders can help, and those that are willing will mentor you. Without some great mentors in professional organizations, I would not know half of what I know now. Your mentors can help you prepare as suggested in number 4. Their years of experience do come with knowledge, and we’re fortunate enough to be in a profession that values knowledge sharing. Key example, look at the blog you’re reading. Also, don’t forget that the more you work with your colleagues, the more you get to know them, and that personal relationships will again make it less scary to be there.

Be True to Yourself
When I became a leader, it felt like I had to do a lot of image related things to make it true and to be respected, especially at a young age. I’ve realized that trying to fulfill that preconceived notion won’t make it so. Therefore, I won’t be the post that tells you to network if that’s not your thing. People notice you for you and will also notice insincerity and discomfort. To be successful, you have to be yourself.

Being a good leader doesn’t mean you have to have the years of experience (though they don’t usually hurt). Not a day goes by for me without thinking about the day’s growth opportunities and how each day builds on the last day. However, being new to a field, to a position, or to life doesn’t make your ideas and hard work any less valuable. We need fresh ideas, eyes, and experiences to continue to grow and adapt our profession so don’t let anyone refer to you as a baby. (Question: Have any men new to the profession been referred to in this way? I’d love to hear from you!)

At the very least, remember that you’re only young once. You get older every day of the year. One day, you won’t be the youngest in room any more. That may be a sad day; I certainly am no longer looking forward to it. When that day comes, remember where you started and be the always-needed-mentor.

Handling It: Under New Management

I’ve recently moved into a new role at the college library where I work. Our former Chief Librarian retired, and I applied for the job and was appointed as the new Chief at the beginning of the semester. My new job is exciting and challenging — I’m fortunate to continue to work with my terrific colleagues in the library and at a college in which the faculty and administration view the library as a valued partner. While I miss the teaching I did as Instruction Coordinator, I hope to be able to add some instruction back into my days once I get more settled. As Steven has blogged here, it can be hard to move into an administrative position that affords fewer opportunities to work directly with students. I do have one reference shift this semester, and I’m also looking forward to more opportunities in my new role to make good use of what I’ve learned in my research on how students do their academic work.

Any new job comes with a learning curve, even one in the same institution you’ve worked at for a while. Some days I feel a little bit like Atta in this scene from the movie A Bug’s Life:

And other days I like to channel Manfried from Adventure Time:

Luckily there haven’t been any literal (or even metaphorical) grasshopper infestations or fires to extinguish (…yet?). But I’ve been a bit surprised by how busy I am. In other new jobs I’ve always had some breathing room as I learned the ropes, some down time in those first couple of weeks in which there wasn’t anything immediately pressing to do. But moving into a new job in the same place has kept me nearly constantly busy with meetings, planning, and other duties.

I’ve got my eye on a couple of books to read about academic leadership and library management, but with my time so short I haven’t been able to carve out a space for reading them yet. Instead, I’ve been collecting shorter reads — blog posts and articles — about library management and leadership in general. Here are some that I’ve found really helpful so far:

Jennifer Vinopal’s blog post My job? Make it easier for employees to do their jobs well was published at the perfect time for me, right before I was interviewed for my new job, and I’ve kept it in mind ever since. It pairs well with an article published in the May issue of C&RL News: Start by interviewing every librarian and staff member: A first step for the new director, by Scott Garrison and Jennifer Nutefall. Even though I’ve worked with most of my colleagues for 6+ years, I’ve adapted these questions and am meeting with everyone one on one to learn more about their jobs and goals.

I’m also learning from several folks who’ve been doing this for longer than I have. At the end of last summer Karen Schneider posted her reflections on five years of being a library director, a post chock full of characteristically level-headed and wise advice. I’ve been reading Jenica Rogers’ blog Attempting Elegance for a while now too, even before the thought that maybe I would be interested in being a Chief Librarian entered my mind, and I’ve always appreciated her transparency about the large and small tasks that come with being a library director, and the highs and lows.

One of the things that’s been occupying my time this semester is working on hiring in two faculty and two staff positions. While I’ve been on search committees at my library in the past, this is the first time I’m acting as chair of these committees. I thoroughly enjoyed this well-written post about orienting new staff by Megan Brooks — Hospitality and Your New Staff Member — on Jessica Olin’s Letters to a Young Librarian blog last week. This post provides a great reminder about what to do (and the reverse, what not to do) when bringing new folks on board.

Do you have a favorite or recommended reading of the shorter-than-a-book variety for busy new library managers? Let me know in the comments!

Working With Undergraduate Student Employees: An Appreciation

At my library we are celebrating “student appreciation week” this week, and it’s got me thinking about the wonderful students I work with, and all of the ways that my own position has evolved and adapted to meet the challenges of supervising them.

I am the junior member of a two-woman librarian staff in my library unit.  My job description includes hiring, training and supervising the 5-6 person undergraduate staff that works for us.  So I assumed that when I was hired, I would act as a kind of “bad-cop” or “vice-principal”; that is, that my job would involve a lot of nagging people to do their job, and taking corrective action if/when they did not.  I know it sounds strange, but I didn’t really think about the upsides!

I’m happy to report that supervising students is quite different than I expected.  Our crew is a self-selected bunch of high achievers, who applied for jobs with us because they are constantly studying in the Research Commons anyway.  In addition to taking great pride in their work for the library, they are also a deeply hilarious, bright, and inquisitive group of people.  I really enjoy conducting interviews, managing trainings, and writing recommendations, and I find that these activities offer unexpected rewards in the form of opportunities to reflect on my work, notice issues in the workflow, or discover new ways to articulate our mission.

As is common in many libraries today, the Research Commons Help Desk is staffed by student employees the majority of the time. We rely on our students completely to be our public face.  This makes sense in an area like the Research Commons, where we do not have a print collection, and reference interactions are limited. Help Desk interactions typically consist of equipment checkout and directional questions. However, the Research Commons is very busy, particularly now, as winter quarter draws to a close. The traffic doesn’t slow down on weekends and evenings, when most of the librarians go home. It is therefore essential that our student staff be prepared to exercise sound judgement in a variety of situations.

As their supervisor, I find that modeling, encouraging, and rewarding the behavior that is expected of our students is a big job. For example, a student that I supervise was recently called upon to assist emergency personnel in a crisis situation that occurred in our facility during our evening hours.  It was a tremendous relief to realize that the student was prepared to act appropriately in that situation. Coping with the trauma of that event and supporting that student and the rest of the team thought the uncertainty that it caused has been difficult, but it has also provided an opportunity for our staff to come together as a group.

Ultimately, I am very grateful for the contributions of our student staff.  Incredibly, a couple of them have even expressed an interest in librarianship as a profession.  Does that make me a role-model?!  It’s an identity that feels weird to me, but I’m starting to get used to it.