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Can You Hear Me Now?

Illustration: Kwun Yee/Adobe Stock
Illustration: Kwun Yee/Adobe Stock

When Boston College Libraries was forced to close its doors this spring during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rodrigo Castro, head librarian for access services, made a list. “I started identifying the tasks that individuals could do remotely versus tasks they could do onsite,” he says. “When you are in this situation, your workforce needs to become flexible.”

Castro is one of many library leaders who found themselves managing their teams remotely because of the pandemic, developing new approaches to meet unprecedented challenges and continue providing vital services to the community. The insights these managers developed are valuable for those still perfecting their remote management style—or planning for a work-from-home future.

Supportive management

Empathy and flexibility are central as managers support employees facing new stressors and responsibilities, according to Cinthya Ippoliti, university librarian and director of Auraria Library at University of Colorado Denver. “Remember that everyone may be struggling,” she says. “Even if things seem to be going well, taking time to discuss how people are feeling and doing is just as important as the work itself.” Ippoliti recommends building time into one-on-one meetings with staff to check in both personally and professionally—those conversations can help managers understand individual needs and find creative solutions to support them.

Another key aspect of remote management is advocacy, or representing your team’s needs and concerns to upper management and stakeholders. “That has been very important, providing that representation,” Castro says. “You as a manager are the voice of the workforce, and they have to see that.” He suggests managers think of communication with library leadership as a two-way street, with information flowing both to and from their departments.

Streamline remote communications

It’s easy for employees to feel isolated and disconnected from colleagues while working remotely. “Even the nature of informal communication changed,” says Sonia Alcántara-Antoine, director of Newport News (Va.) Public Library, highlighting how her team’s communications have adapted. “It has to be more intentional, more structured when you want to communicate with those who are working remotely. I found that I missed seeing my staff and colleagues. I’m now more inclined to do a just to get that face-to-face interaction and connection versus sending an email.”

A common side effect of remote work is an overwhelming increase in email, which can slow crucial communications. “Sometimes when you are onsite you are able to solve any sort of situation through a one-minute conversation,” Castro says. “But that conversation, when it becomes email communication, becomes something else.” He recommends being open to quick calls or taking a moment during a regular meeting to replace a lengthy email
chain and minimize email burnout.

Jason Kucsma, executive director and fiscal officer at Toledo–Lucas County (Ohio) Public Library, says it’s critical to establish and communicate a clear schedule for yourself. “As a director trying to lead a team remotely, I made sure I had a pretty set schedule so people knew when they could definitely reach me,” he says, highlighting the need to create clear boundaries. “It’s important for leadership to stress work-life balance, to lead by doing.”

Effective virtual meetings

Compared with their in-person counterparts, virtual meetings generally require more planning and structure. Renee Grassi, youth services manager at Dakota County (Minn.) Library, recommends managers establish a new set of norms for meetings and communicate them to staff. “For example, if your employee is also caregiving, it may be commonplace for a distraction to occur during the meeting,” she says. “Planning ahead how both of you will respond when this happens will create less stress for the employee and build trust and understanding.”

Best practices for virtual meetings involve distributing agendas, giving advance notice to anyone expected to present, and specifying whether participants are required to enable video. Many workers appreciate the freedom to call in by phone or turn off video to maintain privacy.

“The fatigue level on virtual meeting platforms is higher than in a face-to-face environment,” Ippoliti says. “Though meetings are a great way to keep people connected, be reasonable about how many are required and consider integrating informal and optional opportunities to catch up.”

Continual improvement

As when navigating any new challenge, it’s important that managers have the humility to accept feedback from employees and reflect on how to better balance employee needs with library goals.

“If a breakdown in communication occurs, a manager needs to have a strong sense of awareness to reflect on how their communication could have been improved and make those changes the next time around,” Grassi says. Since employees may not feel comfortable offering negative feedback, consider adopting new venues for constructive criticism, such as anonymous surveys.

No single piece of advice or new procedure can address all the novel challenges posed by this pandemic, but some adjustments can help alleviate stress, contribute to a supportive work environment, and put your team on the path to success in a post-COVID world.

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