This guest post was submitted by Justin Fuhr, University of Manitoba.
Never a forced smile from the sun in the sky
Never the same cloud as it passes by
As the earth takes shape, as so should I
The weary are weary for they always ask, “why?”
Daniel Romano, “Never a Forced Smile”
At the beginning of the global pandemic due to COVID-19 when my work moved to working from home, I was in the middle of my five-week parental leave following the birth of my second child. I feel fortunate to have had this time with my family but more than a year later, have a feeling of emptiness that I continue to work from home. Don’t get me wrong, I feel extremely privileged to have a job that I can do from home, as well as an employer that is not rushing their employees back during an extremely volatile, unpredictable, and quite frankly dangerous, time.
My WFH situation also could be much worse: my kids could be home during the day while I try to work, as was the case in Spring 2020. Again, I am privileged to have childcare for both, allowing my wife and I a quiet house in which to work. The isolation, however, is difficult a year into this thing. I have little in-person contact beyond my immediate family and small bubble. I love my family and my friends, but it is difficult to go from seeing your co-workers in-person daily to seeing them solely over video conferencing software. For me, it’s a missing piece of the regularness of life.
This feeling of isolation prompted me to talk and connect with my colleagues. Connection to colleagues, which for me led to vulnerable, authentic, and trusting relationships, is extremely valuable to me, something I have appreciated at a deeper level while working from home. These connections can lead to collaboration, throughout both research and work-related projects, in addition to providing much needed support and community.
I have been working at the University of Manitoba Libraries (UML) since 2015. I began work as a library technician, before attending grad school in 2016 to get my MLIS. I graduated in 2019 and was hired as a two-year term librarian at UML at the beginning of 2020. I have known many of my colleagues for a long time; there is a stable staff at the Libraries. I switched positions several times as a library technician and later as a librarian, so I have worked with a fair number of library staff and worked closely with quite a few. You naturally get to know your colleagues better the more you work with them. However, I tried to maintain a work/home balance, which included my relationships with co-workers. Work was work and home was home, the professional and the personal stayed on each side. This changed while working from home, as I simultaneously became comfortable working as a librarian and found I needed more connection with colleagues. I felt isolated from my colleagues without seeing them daily. I wanted to connect with them at a time of isolation, to not only be more engaged in my work and research, but to actively build a community of collaboration and collegiality by bringing the personal back to the profession.
Connections can also be important to get to know more about your colleagues’ work, research, and professional interests. This can lead to collaborative and trusting relationships, extremely valuable and rewarding in any workplace. Connections also build community. One of UML’s strategic directions is “building community that creates an outstanding learning and working environment.” One of the goals of this strategic direction is “the Libraries promotes staff success through…developing our internal communication tools and mechanisms for conversations within the UML in order to enhance our ability to provide efficient and effective services and increase satisfaction with our own work.” In this strategic direction, I see clearly two aspects that I really relate to: using unified communication software and conversations between colleagues, both of which are important for building connections and for future collaboration with colleagues.
A benefit to everyone working from home was library staff using the same online communication software. I found when working from home, if your colleagues are connected by the same online communication platform — we use Microsoft Teams — it was in some ways easier to connect. Sure, you no longer run into your colleagues before and after meetings or chat at the front desk when you’re passing by, but it connects you to your colleagues in other ways.
Not only does the University of Manitoba have two campuses, separated by almost eleven kilometres, but there are also eleven libraries at UML, ten on the main campus. This separates staff located on different campuses and in different libraries; it can be difficult to connect with colleagues spread all over the place. Having many library staff using the same communication tool connects us in a way that working in-person throughout our eleven libraries and two campuses does not.
However, online communication is often an intentional act. You initiate conversation with others in a way that’s different than in-person communication. Often this is a one-on-one interaction. This can be vulnerable and you will need trust, which I touch on below.
Conversations as an Early-Career Librarian
Another factor for my feeling of isolation is that I am an early-career librarian. I need guidance as I navigate how to become a better librarian and researcher, and my colleagues, who are extremely friendly and supportive, are a fantastic support. As a librarian, I have flexibility and independence in my workload. I am early in my career and I have tons of questions about my work, research, future career plans, and direction to take in academic librarianship. I am eager to ask my colleagues for answers or advice, having an appreciation of perspectives different from mine, especially with their deep and varied experience. My colleagues very graciously share with me their own experiences, which I can apply to my own context, and otherwise provide support and advice relevant to me.
By reaching out to colleagues to get their advice on a wide range of topics, I can shape my direction and outlook on my work and research, now and in the future. With greater independence in my position compared to when I worked as a library technician, this guidance and connection is all the more important for me. Over the past year, I have found three important aspects to connection with my colleagues: vulnerability, authenticity, and trust.
Connecting with others and bringing the personal to work may mean you are vulnerable. Sharing your fears, doubts, and reservations can be difficult to do (and not necessarily necessary). This is even more difficult to share with your co-workers. I don’t know about you, but I try to cultivate a ‘better me’ at work. Wouldn’t sharing your vulnerabilities run counter to this? You would think so. However, confiding in your colleagues on difficult issues or scenarios can be really rewarding for both you and your co-worker. You would be surprised how putting yourself out there can benefit both you and the person you’re confiding in, in a mutualistic-type of relationship. Also sharing vulnerabilities does not negate the ‘better you,’ in fact it enhances your image by being authentic to present the ‘best you.’
Mentioned earlier, online communication is often intentional. On some level, you have to put yourself out there to contact others. You trust that the person you’re contacting is supportive and collegial. In addition, confidence in your co-workers, in terms of privacy, is key here, which also helps to build trust. Sharing professional vulnerabilities is difficult and immensely personal, so if your confidence is broken that can do long-term damage to you and your colleague’s relationship. Also be cautious about sharing very personal information. Though I advocate for bringing the personal back to the profession, there still should be some sort of line between work and home. Where this line lies, though, is for you to decide.
Being authentic with your colleagues builds a stronger community and deeper connections — authentic connections. I advocate for being authentic in your work relationships, regardless of past experiences or history with your colleagues. Of course, don’t let yourself be taken advantage of, but learn to forgive and forget. Collegiality plays a large role here and should not be forgotten.
I also think honesty begins with yourself; knowing your boundaries, being aware of your work style, and conscious of your personality. Be honest with yourself and you’ll find it easier to be honest with others, especially in the workplace.
Trust is integral for strengthening connections among co-workers. Wojciechowska (2020) claims trust, when looked at from a social capital context, “strengthens relationships with the neighbourhood, facilitates cooperation with partners and colleagues, reduces fear and conflicts, and may also stimulate development.” Trust is built in different ways. Sometimes it’s built over years of relationship building. Sometimes it’s based on someone’s personality, reputation, or history at the workplace (or your own!). Sometimes you just click with someone and trust comes quickly.
When you trust who you are speaking with, it is so much easier to have honest conversations. There’s also an element of trust where you need to trust that your conversations are honest. I find vulnerability and trust work hand in hand: it is easier to be vulnerable when you can trust your colleague has your back. In addition, trusting that the colleague you are speaking with won’t pass on any conversations held between the two of you is so important, and of course goes hand-in-hand with being authentic.
Another thing I had to get over was my worry of bothering my co-workers, especially because I have so many questions! I had to learn to trust that my relationships with my colleagues were strong, that my colleagues are eager to chat and help, and that they would let me know if they had to complete time-sensitive work.
I appreciate the camaraderie and collegiality received from my colleagues over the past year. I’ve said in the past that it takes a village to raise a librarian, which I find is more relevant than ever right now. I am very fortunate to work in a library system that has so many supportive, knowledgeable, and friendly colleagues.
I feel that over the past year, I have connected at a deeper level with a substantial number of my co-workers in vulnerable, authentic, and trusting ways. These connections have provided me with a strong librarian mentor who is encouraging, empathetic, and experienced, colleagues with whom I regularly meet up with to go on walks, and co-workers who I now consider friends. Most of all, I can connect and collaborate with my colleagues on work, research, our future careers, and just life.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the importance of Daniel Romano’s music over the past year, whose lyrics appear at the beginning of this reflection and whose music has brought me comfort during the isolation of working from home.
 Romano, D. (2011). Never a forced smile. On Sleep Beneath the Willow [LP]. Welland, ON: You’ve Changed Records.
 Unlike Christopher Moltisanti, I love the regularness of life and can’t wait to get back to it.
 University of Manitoba Libraries. (2021). Strategic infrastructure. https://www.umanitoba.ca/libraries/administration/strategic-infrastructure
 Wojciechowska, M. (2020). Trust as a factor in building cognitive social capital among library workers and users. Implications for library managers. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 47(1), p. 1. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2020.102300