Lessons on Working from Home

I used to think I was the textbook example of a classic introvert–that is until I started working from home.

Now I realize how much I crave those social interactions. My family is at home with me, so it’s not like I’m “alone alone” but it’s just different not seeing co-workers and patrons/students every day. The now ubiquitous Zoom and Microsoft Teams video meetings get the work done, but are not a replacement for our in-person interactions.

As Covid-19 was ratcheting up nationwide, it was just starting to gain attention in my corner of Wisconsin. The week of March 9 we were on Spring Break (read: super quiet in the library). Then the university extended Spring Break by an additional week as it assessed the situation. I migrated the library to skeletal staffing (2 people rotating per day with the remainder working remotely). Then the situation became worse as the number of cases in our county started to rise. On March 20, we closed up the library building and have remained closed. The university moved the rest of Spring classes all online. Since then, we have all been working from home.

I’m grateful for this privilege–for all of our staff to have this privilege–recognizing that some in the library profession have not been afforded this opportunity. They should have.

It’s also given me time to think about working from home. Something I always wished I could do. I guess be careful what you wish for! Now that I’ve been doing it for the past two months, I’ve learned some things about myself and some about being a manager. Here are a few things that come to mind.

Don’t Say “When We Get Back to Work”
Nothing raises my hackles more than someone saying “when we get back to work.” Just don’t. What you are trying to say is: When we get back to the building. We HAVE been working: answering chat questions from students/faculty, holding Microsoft Teams meetings with student groups doing research, loading e-books into our catalog, processing interlibrary loan requests for e-content, and figuring out how to transition services/resources to online only. We’ve been doing this from home and actually it’s been A LOT of work.

Forget Productivity
So when a lot of Americans began telecommuting during Covid-19, people started tweeting how productive Isaac Newton was during the bubonic plague (read this rebuttal)–like he should be our role model. This is the time to write that novel, discover a new breakthrough, or learn to speak another language. OK, more power to you, but how about just trying to get through the day? I consider that productive. As a manager, yes you should check in with your employees and work toward goals. But productivity is a myth. I know some managers require remote workers to log their activities. Please STOP. I don’t have time to read that! Let. People. Breathe. (just not on each other)

Try New Things
Productivity aside, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the opportunity to try new things. In the library setting, this whole online-only world is new for most of us. We’ve done great work in turning our libraries into community hubs. But what do you do when everything is now virtual? At our academic library, we experimented with offering online professional development for faculty/staff. Our Library@Home series, conducted via Microsoft Teams, was well received. Sessions focused on: genealogy research, citation management, Wikipedia, and journal publishing. We’ve had requests to offer more sessions. So it has been a good time to do some beta testing.

Kid and Pets: All in a Day’s Work
Participating in a lot of Zoom meetings or Microsoft Teams calls? The occasional appearance of kids, babies, and fur babies is OK. This is not a sterile office environment. You’re working from home; there are no boundaries. You’re managing to be a parent or pet parent AND working from home AND social distancing? This likely isn’t the work life (or home life!) you signed up for. We even did a Twitter post of library employee’s pets just to show a different side to us. On Fridays we do a “virtual happy hour” where those kids and pets are even invited to make an appearance. It helps keep us as a cohesive team while we are all distancing. Managers, cut your employees some slack. It’s not unprofessional; it’s called life.

Ready for Your Close Up?
All of these video calls can be draining. Don’t force people to use a webcam. Yes, I like to see faces (and the fun backgrounds!). However, it’s more important to respect people’s privacy. You can make do with audio. It’s not the end of the world. Same goes for wearing “professional” clothing. There’s a lot of classism tied to that. I’m not getting “dressed up” to work from home. Also if my webcam is off, it might be because I’m in my pajamas. OK, that last line is a joke…or is it?

Encourage Self-Care
If I hear “we’re all in this together” again I think I will scream. But that’s my cue to take a walk. That’s what relaxes me. As a manager, support self-care for your employees. In a remote work environment, that might mean taking lunches at weird times (as in, OMG it’s 10:08am and the sun is shining…I need to go outside!). In general, remind people to TAKE YOUR LUNCH. Going for a walk, taking the dog out, supporting a local business, etc. are all good things.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term
One of the hardest transitions has been navigating short-term vs. long-term projects. Working from home I’ve encountered a lot of starts and stops. When I’m at the library, I typically do some short-term stuff at the beginning of my day. At home, keeping a running list of short and long-term projects has been helpful. Some library staff have also had to switch their routine around. A few staff who had more physical tasks in the library had to switch their work-from-home routines to focus on long-term projects that we typically did in the summer. That’s OK. It’s not “back burner” work. It’s stuff that needs doing anyway. We’re just doing it now.

Everyone Needs an Office
Even though we are working from home, it’s made me think about how when we are back at the library everyone needs an office. Will Covid-19 officially kill the open office plan? I hope so. Having worked in a cube farm before, I didn’t like it. Everyone needs privacy and the ability to concentrate. Now they need a space that also protects them from viruses.

Managers Need to Lead
If you’re the library director working from home while the rest of the staff has to come in, you’re doing your job wrong. If you’re the library director who is having staff out doing curbside pick up and you’re not participating, you’re doing your job wrong. I get that sometimes things are above your control (the library is part of a municipality/county or the library is part of a school/university). In those cases, you need to be the advocate. You may not win, but you at least need to make your case.

Protect Staff
It’s a weird time to be a librarian. Budgets are precarious. We’re not sure what will happen on the horizon. Above all else, protect staff–from a financial standpoint and public health standpoint. Again, you’re probably not going to win every battle, but you owe it to them to try. They are at the core of the library. Not the building, not the books.

lone tree

lone tree

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