One year ago this month, I posted about the experience of transitioning my Technical Services staff to working from home in response to the pandemic .One year later, we’re still here. Passing this milestone has caused me to reflect on how our situation has changed over the year and take stock of the lessons learned from managing a Technical Services staff remotely.
Technology is Key
As I mentioned in my post last year, the sudden shift to working from home shone a light on the Digital Divide among my own employees. On one side of the divide, there was an employee with a personal desktop, laptop, and tablet at home as well as two internet service providers. On the other side, there was an employee whose tech consisted of a cell phone with a very limited data plan and no internet service at home.
Thankfully, we had the resources and support to get everyone equipped to work from home. But just as technology in the office requires regular maintenance and troubleshooting, so does technology at home. Over the past year, we've dealt with OS upgrades that wouldn’t install outside the campus network, software licenses that had to be updated to work off-campus, wifi hotspots with dying batteries, and more significant hardware failures requiring planned trips to campus for socially-distanced meetings with IT support.
We also had a variety of communications technologies and platforms to work with, some a lot more successful than others. My Technical Services department took readily to Zoom for group and, later on, individual meetings. We had fun with virtual backgrounds and appearance altering filters. However, we learned that those features have pretty high system requirements that not all of us could meet. To this day, I still do not know the joy of going into a meeting accidentally looking like a cat. For the most part, though, I have found Zoom to be consistently reliable and intuitive to use.
Less successful for my department was a foray into Microsoft Teams. While we have found it to be an adequate platform for storing files (if not as good for finding them later), it has been abysmal for purposes of working collaboratively on documents. For that, we have mostly settled on doing work in Google Drive and then copying to Teams as needed. Further, I tried having one-on-one meetings with my staff via Teams calls. But after several instances of frozen screens and dropped calls, I gave up. We now meet exclusively in Zoom. We handle other communications over phone calls or texts and the old standby, email.
While I have become a big fan of Google Drive since working from home, it is not without its own issues. Most of us already had personal Google accounts. Even though switching between Google accounts is easier than it used to be, it’s not always easy to remember to do so before creating a document to share. Further complicating matters is that my institution’s sign-in to Google requires a form of our email address that is being phased out. You have to remember to use the old form when inviting others to your document or else they are treated as permanent guests, unable to fully collaborate.
One big lesson learned is that even the best communications platform is useless if your home internet service goes out. The early days of the pandemic, with more people working and learning from home, seemed to put a strain on the two big internet service providers in town. Outages were frequent. During those times, I was relegated to working from my cell phone, using mobile data. Only once did I nearly reach my data cap and risk additional fees, however. I already mentioned an employee affected by the dying battery of a wifi hotspot. There was another employee who discovered that his home wifi disconnected every time someone turned on the microwave.
Communication is Even More Key
When the directive to work from home was issued, I asked each of my staff to send me a daily summary of their work activities. They have been diligent about that. As a result, I have a very well documented year of their activities. The daily reports may run the risk of getting repetitive but they are a good way to make sure everything stays on track and that I stay in the loop. As an added benefit, they helped inform annual employee reviews.
The daily reports are not the only communications I have with my staff. Every day, I have email conversations with all of them about specific (or general) topics or we collaborate on documents together. As mentioned above, we also have regular one-on-one and group meetings in Zoom. Last year, our administration asked that each department meet as a team once a week. After several months of working from home, we felt comfortable cutting that back to twice a month. One-on-one meetings are also scheduled for twice each month. Frequently, I will ask others to join in a one-on-one meeting to discuss a certain topic. That helps keep everyone on the same page and cuts down on the number of meetings and emails.
It’s not just internal communications that offered lessons during this year of working from home. We learned to adapt to different levels of communication with other departments around the University and with vendors. We weren’t the only ones adapting to working from home and other impacts of the pandemic. The level of customer support we got from certain places plummeted while others rose to the challenge. Some places reached out to us more frequently to see how they could adapt to our changing work environment or help us adapt to theirs. Other places were less accommodating, such as a few vendors who were suspicious when we tried to temporarily change our shipping address. We learned to be crystal clear in our communications and to try to be proactive in anticipating issues caused by what we thought were relatively small requests. It wasn’t business as usual for any place. We learned to be patient with others because we knew we’d need patience from others.
Everyone Reacts Differently to a Pandemic
One thing I learned soon after the transition to working from home was that each member of my staff reacted to the pandemic differently. For one, the isolation of working at home was hard to adjust to and a sense of claustrophobia began to set in. They were eager to get back to the office and I was asked almost on a daily basis if I had gotten any information about when that would be. For another staff member, working from home was a welcome relief. It meant less time away from home and less chance of exposure to COVID-19. The others fell somewhere between those extremes. One thing we all shared was an acknowledgement that we work someplace that allowed us to keep our jobs while minimizing our risk of getting sick. The pandemic was stressful for each of us in different ways but some of that pressure was mitigated by the extra time we all had by not having to commute and be at the office most of the day.
The lesson here is one of compassion. As a manager, I relaxed my expectations. And I let my staff know that. I let them know they could work odd hours if they needed. I was especially forgiving if something slipped through the cracks. We shared our concerns in a more familiar way, dispensing with professional formalities at times. I made accommodations whenever possible that allowed my staff to deal with personal issues. The result? We’ve gotten as much done this year working from home as we would have gotten done had we been in the building. I might even argue that, in some ways, we’ve accomplished more because on top of our regular duties, we’ve all had the added work of dealing with the pandemic and everything else 2020 brought.
I was recently asked by my director to list my department’s accomplishments this past year. Not to brag but we have accomplished some significant things. There have been publications and presentations; starting the process of dismantling racism and de-centering whiteness in our collections; shifting our collections more toward electronic resources and cancelling print subscriptions; providing new services to our users. All the while, my staff has also been keeping up with the important, regular duties of ordering, cataloging, and paying the bills. And we’ve done it all while working from home.
Of course, working from home was a big transition. Obviously, there were issues to address and challenges to overcome. It has not always been easy, from professional and personal perspectives. But we managed to make it work and work well.
A year later, we’re still working from home. We’re still dealing with the pandemic. Our approach has changed as we’ve learned more about COVID-19. For one thing, we’re not as strict about isolating shipments and deliveries as we were in the early days of the pandemic. Also, as the University relaxed guidelines about being on campus, some of my Technical Services staff began to make routine visits to the library. I, however, have not set foot on campus since one quick visit last July.
The University is counting on vaccinations in hopes of having a more vibrant campus in the fall. However, with the vaccination rate slowing and infections of COVID variants seeming to strike younger people harder, I will wait and see what this fall looks like. No matter when and how it happens, I know that going back to campus is going to be as big a transition as leaving it was.
The pandemic was upon us so suddenly, it drove home the idea that you can’t plan for everything. No matter what the future ends up looking like, we need to stay flexible, adaptive, and compassionate. That is the big lesson from this past year.