Library Leadership

56. Managing Remotely in the Time of Coronavirus with Candice Benjes-Small

Are you wondering how you can navigate quickly shifting realities and expectations during the Coronavirus Pandemic? On this show I talk with Candice Benjes-Small, Head of Research Services at William & Mary Libraries in Williamsburg, Virginia.

When her university moved her team to remote work, she realized she’d need new strategies to support her colleagues in this time of crisis. The thoughts she shares in this conversation are valuable as we all face the struggles of managing in these unprecedented times.

Transcript

Adriane:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast, where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

Are you wondering how you can navigate quickly shifting realities and expectations during the coronavirus pandemic? On this show I talk with Candice Benjes-Small, Head of Research Services at William & Mary Libraries in Williamsburg, Virginia. When her university moved her team to remote work she realized she’d need new strategies to support her colleagues in this time of crisis. The thoughts she shares in this conversation are valuable, as we all face the struggles of managing in these unprecedented times. I found it helpful, and I hope you will too. Stay safe, and enjoy the show.

Candice, welcome to the show.

Candice Benjes-Small:

Thank you so much for having me.

Adriane:

Question #1: Thank you for talking with me today because we are all managing work remotely in this time of coronavirus. You wrote an article on this which is important to talk about because I know none of us imagined we’d be operating like we are now. How have you helped your team deal with this? 01:17 

Candice Benjes-Small:

I took a few different approaches. A couple of years ago in a previous workplace, the HVAC had to be replaced and we all had to work remotely for about six or seven weeks. So, I thought I had it in hand. I thought, I know what it’s like. I’ll make sure that we have good communication. I know that I’ll bring my good chair home so the ergonomics are good. I thought that would pretty much take care of it.

Even within the first couple of days, I realized this was not the same as that HVAC emergency that we’d had. Everyone’s headspace was just in a different place. I found that I had to have conversations with my direct reports about, How are you today? How are you feeling?  A much more emotional approach to management than usual. Not just that, How are you today? Like we did in pre-COVID times where you just say, Oh, fine. No, this led into deep conversations about how everyone was struggling. 

I found it really important for us to have those conversations both one-on-one, and within our team meetings, just to normalize that these feelings are what we’re all having right now and this is the new normal and it’s okay.

One thing that was really helpful for us was a Harvard Business Review article that came out just a few days after we went remote on March 16th. It was called, That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief. That put into words what a lot of us were feeling and really led us to have the vocabulary we needed to talk about why this was just more than a snow day. Why this was different from your average work-from-home circumstances.

I also thought it was really important throughout this whole process to ask my direct reports what they needed, and what was working for them. So, how often should we meet? Should we meet more often, or less often? What did they hear from colleagues from other libraries, or departments that we could be doing? I just continually check-in and ask them how they want to be managed—how they want to work as a team, and how can I best support them as a manager?

As a manager, my first instinct might have been to just jump in and say, Here’s how we’re going to do things. Here’s the best practices of working from home. Or, Here’s what I think we should do. Sometimes I would bring that into the discussion but all those conversations were very much about building consensus about what we were doing, and making sure that we allowed the flexibility to change as needed, because everyone was feeling just all over the map at the beginning. Where we are now is still very chaotic, but it’s a different emotional place than it was in March.

Adriane:

Question #2: I know there are a lot of physiological layers here, it sounds like you’re getting through those so you can focus on work. In addition to that you gave a lot of tools and opportunities to provide your team with as you did this work. What were those, can you talk about that? 04:23 

Candice Benjes-Small:

Sure. We are a pretty social group. In pre-COVID times every morning I would go down the office chain and check-in with everyone. Often everyone would group-up and over a cup of coffee or tea just spend ten, fifteen minutes catching up on what was going on in our lives. People had lunch together. We’re always popping in and out of each other’s offices to bounce ideas off of one another. So, I knew that it was going to be really challenging for everyone to suddenly be by themselves work-wise, at home, and not have that ability to have those informal encounters. 

I remembered from my previous workplace experience where we went remote, so right away I said, Let’s start meeting regularly to check-in. We have an enterprise license for Zoom, with William & Mary, which has paid off very well for us. I could very easily say, I’m going to be hosting a daily meeting. We started that everyday at 10am. We would check-in with each other and see how things were going. The time has shifted a bit. Now we meet a little later.

Interestingly, the group also asked for an optional morning check-in. So, at 9am I also open up the Zoom room so people can have that over-coffee experience. Usually there’s about three or four of us. Then we just talk about more life-kind of things, or what TV shows we’re watching. Often we do an Intention of the Day. Say, Here’s what I hope to complete today. A lot of us have found that helpful to make that mindset shift from being at home to being at work.

I also make sure that people don’t have to go to all of the Zoom meetings because Zoom fatigue is another one of those documented, psychological effects we’re seeing where people are getting very tired of being on video conferencing. Whenever possible I say that if we don’t have an agenda I will cancel the meeting—morning meetings are optional, and I check-in at the end of every week and say, Are you happy with how often we are meeting, is there anything we need to change? 

The other thing that I offer, but do not require, are team building opportunities. I know that some people have really strong feelings about mandatory fun. I’m a big fan of team building, but I respect those who are not as comfortable with those kinds of activities. Our HR has made a point of advertising, and I think it’s true that we need to keep those relationships going in these circumstances. What I offer is really low-stakes, like one week for one huddle, we all wore or brought something that was green, or changed our Zoom background to green—really low-stakes, like that. 

Another time we played a game of Yuck & Yum. Someone would offer food, and then we’d vote as to which one thought it was yuck, and which ones were yum. Really little things that keep the social lubrication going. We also have Slack as a department and we use that a lot. We have channels there, devoted to just-for-fun topics. We also have Teams as a library, and those also have a water cooler section to allow for those more informal conversations to keep going.

Adriane:

Question #3: So you talk about transparency and flexibility as being important to help our teams navigate remote work, as well. Can you tell us about that? 08:05 

Candice Benjes-Small:

I think inclusion was so important as we were getting up and running. Then as communications started to flow, transparency was the next priority. I’m very lucky that my university is very communicative and we do have library administrators who sit at the President’s Cabinet, working on the very first few weeks of when we were moving to remote working. So, they were very well informed. The administrators would then inform the heads, one of which I am, of what was happening in those meetings. Then I made sure to bring everything I could from those meetings to my team.

Here are the priorities that the President is saying, here are the plans under these circumstances. Here is what they’re projecting is going to happen. By sharing all that information I’m hoping, and my team seems to agree, that having the information does help you adjust to all the unknowns. Even though we would really like to know, Are we definitely opening in the fall? Are we going to have full staff in July? How are we going to address the budget short-fall? All these things would be nice to know. But, if we know how the university is making its decisions, and how they are prioritizing different things, and we feel like we trust what they’ve done so far—that gives us hope that the decisions they make as our new reality rolls out will be okay.

Adriane:

That definitely helps.

Candice Benjes-Small:

I also think flexibility is really important. One of the first things on Twitter that really resonated with me was when Neil Webb posted, You’re not working from home; you’re at home during a crisis trying to work. I think we see that in so many ways. People are at home and they’re trying to homeschool their children. They’re trying to be care-givers for small children and for other relatives. They may be sick themselves, or have relatives who are sick. They’re not in the headspace to be 8am to 5pm in their office chair working, working, working with just an hour for lunch, right? That’s just not realistic. 

So, as long as the essential work is completed I trust my reports to figure out when they can do it. Some get up really early and work in the morning. Some instead have duties they need to fulfill during the day, and then work into the evening. As long as the essential work is done, it doesn’t matter to me. I’m not going into Butts in Seat mode at this time. I also keep telling them, If you need help, if you need more flexibility, if you’re getting overwhelmed, let me know and we’ll work it out together.

Adriane:

Question #4: That’s good. And, even with the things we talked about so far, people working in these circumstances are likely to have moments of feeling overwhelmed, right? So, what can we do to help them focus in those times? 11:16 

Candice Benjes-Small:

That is so true. Even from the beginning we spent a lot of time talking about self-care and the importance of putting both mental and physical health before productivity, or work. Sometimes work can be a very welcome distraction but it also can be one too many things. Sometimes it can be a burden, and it can be both those things in the same day, right? In the morning you might be feeling good, and in the afternoon you just can’t take it anymore.

A few things we do in my department is really try and share strategies and techniques that work for us. People have posted videos about meditation. People have talked about the virtual wellness classes that our campus has offered. I’ve talked about my walking around the neighborhood. Whenever I have a Zoom meeting that ends early, I know that it takes me exactly nine minutes to get my shoes on and walk to the end of the walk and back. So, if I have nine minutes that’s what I do. I get out and walk back and forth. It really clears my head, just makes me feel so much better getting away from the computer, to get out of the house for just a little bit of time.

We bring articles to each other, and talk about the importance of self-care in these times. When I have my one-on-one meetings I always remind my employees of the Employees Assistance Program, which includes four free sessions with a therapist. And that they can, and should take their vacation days as needed.

One thing I really appreciate is that our library has declared Fridays to be meeting-free. I have also made it check-in free for my staff and talked about how, This is a time for you to just step away from the computer and do any kind of self-care that you need to.

Adriane:

Question #5: It’s good to set those expectations. And, you also advocate for your team. Can you tell us how you do those things as you go? 13:24 

Candice Benjes-Small:

When we first started, the advocacy was much more logistical. It was making sure everyone had a laptop. We had one employee who didn’t have WiFi at her house so we were beginning to arrange for her to have a MiFi that she could use. She was able to arrange for internet, but it was really important that the library was stepping up and trying to make sure that she could work from home.

As time has gone on I’ve also found it really important to share stories about our work with my supervisors. First off, when they go to these meetings with the wider campus they know the successes we are having and talk about the role of the library in remote teaching, also just to make our work more visible so that even within the library people know what it is that we’re doing.

Adriane:

Question #6: That’s good. And Candice, I know many of us work hard to support others which it sounds like you’re doing. But, we can’t forget that these effects are coming in on us as well. Have you been able to apply some of these things to yourself? 14:35 

Candice Benjes-Small:

That’s definitely an aspiration goal. What I try to remember is that I’m a better manager when I take care of myself. It can be so easy to work through lunch, or skip exercise, or, Well, I do have ten minutes between these Zoom meetings, but maybe I should just check Facebook rather than walk outside. It can be hard to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

In the past few weeks I have found that it is just so beneficial to me to reconnect with old friends. I came in 11th out of 39 teams in a friend’s trivia contest on Zoom—I’m pretty proud of that.

Adriane:

Very nice.

Candice Benjes-Small:

Again, I have to remind myself that this is a marathon, not a sprint and I have to extend grace to myself and well as to others.

Adriane:

Question #7: I’m glad you’re doing that. Is there anything else you’d like to share? 15:34 

Candice Benjes-Small:

I would say that I do recognize the privilege I have coming from a library with a high functioning team. I have no question that they are productive and I don’t have any real accountability concerns there. I have a supporting administration. And, I am so appreciative that our President, and Provost, and various Vice Provosts have been so communicative with the planning. I would say that if you do not have all those facets still find the areas that you do have control over and if you employ the strategies in those areas it will still help your team immensely. 

Adriane:

Question #8: Do you have a favorite management or leadership book, and why? 16:15 

Candice Benjes-Small:

I do. I highly recommend Alison Green’s, Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. Alison Green writes a blog called, Ask a Manager. It’s an advice column and she provides really practical advice. What I really love is that she also provides scripts you can use. So, in her book, which is laid out for managers and employees so you can work at it from either angle, if you’re experiencing this, what are some things you can say to the other person to try to ameliorate the situation?

I think it’s just so useful to have those scripts. They are very kind, but practical. I think it’s something that librarian’s in particular really appreciate. It’s something that you can walk away and employ right away.

Adriane:

Great resource. Scripts are so helpful. I like that. I haven’t heard of this one, so I’m glad you recommended it.

Candice Benjes-Small:

Yes, the blog is a really good rabbit hole to fall down into.

Adriane:

Question #9: Nice. Candice in closing, what does being a librarian mean to you, personally? 17:29 

Candice Benjes-Small:

I go back to Roy Tennant’s quote about how librarians like to search, everyone else likes to find. To me, searching is so much fun. I became a librarian because I love the whole search process. I love being inspired by a topic. I love falling down those rabbit holes as I’m researching. I learn cool facts and stories, and I love to tell people about what it is I’m researching. 

I was a history major in undergrad and I loved every aspect of that right up until I had to write the paper. I hated writing the paper. I find that being a librarian takes that whole process into my professional realm, and I don’t have to write the paper. Instead what I get to do is share the journey with researchers and help them learn how to navigate data bases, and tricky resources. 

And, I love to have those moments of shared joy when we find a really cool fact or gem together, and we bond over an interesting story. For those who just want to find, I totally understand that. And there’s the satisfaction of connecting the researcher with what it was they were looking for. I have enjoyed a few marriage proposals from successful patrons. I just really love being able to help people in that way.

Adriane:

It is a joyous journey, I like your description of that, complete with marriage proposals, wow.

Candice Benjes-Small:

They are almost always over email, which you know…[Laughs]

Adriane:

[Laughs] That’s great Candice. Thank you so much for being on the show today and sharing your thoughts about this very unusual time we’re experiencing. It’s been so helpful.

Candice Benjes-Small:

This was really fun, and it was a great escape from the chaos that is our reality right now. Thank you so much for inviting me, Adriane.

Listeners, if you would like to support this content and more like it, you can become a patron at https://libraryleadershippodcast.com. Thank you for your help.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Adriane Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at https://libraryleadershippodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your email inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.

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