Canada is a bit behind the US in reopening after the pandemic. Our law library – membership and courthouse-based – is still some months away from reopening. But I’m already starting to tinker with things because, no matter when we reopen, we are unlikely to ever have our staff entirely onsite again. Organizational teams have realized that they can do the work in a variety of different ways. The question that remains in my mind is how directors will enable or inhibit those changes.

I’ll give you an example. I was talking to someone whose company is contemplating a range of new work contexts: onsite, blended, and remote. Every one of them allows the employee to work at least one day away from the physical site. But the remote option still requires a day on-site each week. This person explained that their team was able to work 100% away from the office, and the day on-site wasn’t necessary from a work standpoint. As we are thinking about what it means to remain a remote worker – since many of us have been forced to be off-site for 5 days a week – it pays to think about who needs the on-site presence. You, the manager? or the staff? or the company?

The legal profession has the reputation of needing presence as a proxy for work and effort. Law firms are noted for a “jacket-on-chair” mentality. Face time (not Facetime and not ironically) can be an organizational measurement for productivity, whether or not it’s accurate. I’ve been on calls where managers who cannot see their employees work express distrust that the employees are working. That sounds like a you problem.

We will need to face up to our feelings as managers about communications, technology, transparency, and trust. I think that this contextual change may shine some light on low-trust environments. We may not be thrilled with what we see. As I mentioned to a colleague, it may be the managers (who could benefit from leadership training) who are the obstacle to this change.

This article on remote work – and the effort it takes to be successful – came out after I wrote this post, but it’s a fascinating look at a pretty deep change. As the author write, “you also have to change the very definition of ‘work’ itself, moving it away from surveillance and visible busyness, and toward defined outcomes and trust.”

But I’m not blind to the benefits of having staff in physical proximity. Any law library that has any type of physical collection or service delivery that requires physical space will be in a blended or hybrid context. So I’ve been trying to think about how to make that context as flexible as possible.

Technology and Trust

The one aspect that I think is going to be the most troublesome for a law library director is communication. I’ll quote the challenge as expressed by Gillian Tett in her recent book, Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life. In Chapter Nine, which is all about work from home and mapping the in-person culture to virtual environments, she says:

… in offices, online, or anywhere else: even if we think we are rational, logical, creatures, we make decisions in social groups by absorbing a wide range of signals.

Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life, Gillian Tett, p. 182.

Tett then spends much of the remainder of the chapter on sense-making, looking at how groups in different work contexts create and share these signals. There’s the informal information sharing sparked by conversations that happen around us. There are the clashes that can happen when different teams with different focuses (technical services and reference, perhaps) lack awareness of their counterparts’ perspectives. Sharing and clashes that, in a virtual world, may be harder to manage.

The idea that stuck with me after this chapter was that some organizations seem to say we can’t share information and sense-making virtually. But I wonder if it is that we just haven’t yet found (or recognized that we’ve already found) ways to do this. And if we’re to find (or uncover) these methods, how should we do that?

One way that strikes me is to expand our willingness to trust. We will need to rely on technology to create these virtual opportunities. But we may also operate in an environment where there is low-trust, so that people are only allowed to access the resources they need to access. As managers, we may find need is too restrictive to allow the serendipity of discovery we hope to recreate.

Our success as law library leaders will depend on how willing we are to look, gimlet-eyed, at our traditional work contexts. If you’ve been around as long as I have, you may have read Don Cohen and Laurence Prusak’s In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work. In their chapter on virtual work (from 2001 but it holds up surprisingly well), they say:

We should avoid the mistake of measuring the genuine limitations of virtual communities against the imagined perfections of some ideal traditional one.

In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work, Don Cohen and Laurence Prusak, P. 162 (“The Challenges of Virtuality”)

Here’s an example. Your organization has rolled out Microsoft Teams. The law library’s Team is created and hives you off into your work group, separate from other parts of the organization. While you can create channels for chat within your law library, you are probably excluded from other teams’ Team channels. As library directors, we may blame the technology but it’s our organizational trust that is the issue. We are accustomed to the need-to-know approach to information sharing and resource allocation. We develop Teams based on hierarchy and not on awareness and transparency.

I’ve worked at a couple of organizations and been involved in intranet discussions. The issue of staff involvement, unmediated by management or editors, always comes up as a way to make the intranet more meaningful, more sticky. At least twice, the idea of a notice board (or sales board) has come up and been shot down because, well, we can’t know what people might post on it. That’s a trust issue, not a technology issue.

If you use segmentation – a reference team channel, a technical services team channel – then make sure that anyone who wants to participate can. I think a chat feed in Teams can start to mimic the informal discussions that people have around their desks: has anyone fielded this type of question, does anyone know where this book is, is it raining outside? Participation doesn’t require contribution, as we know from lurkers on discussion lists. I learn all sorts of things by just “overhearing” the online chat of our reference team. If external channels exist, find out how you can be included on get a sense of the general chatter in a practice group or among an audience group that your people support. We sometimes exclude people because we don’t think they will contribute but it’s their ability to listen, not contribute, that matters in this context.

Cohen and Prusak spend a lot of their book talking about how companies create opportunities for interaction, often by configuring space. Our goal is to find ways to allow interactions to happen virtually. The information exchange and social interaction that we are losing is what’s happening in our peripheral vision, just out of sight.

A co-worker pointed me to this NY Times piece from last month which looks at whether face-to-face is a bias rather than a necessity. Cohen and Prusak talk about perception of time – is socializing, water cooler time seen as wasted or is it seen as work? How people are allowed to interact, what managers view as “work”, will matter as you adapt to a mix of remote and onsite interactions.

They list 4 problems (p. 163) back in 2001 that I think are relevant today:

  • None of the technology of virtuality can (currently) carry even a fraction of the whole range of communications that people use to relate to one another and that build social capital;
  • Virtual connections (and the attention we give them) tend to be brief and intermittent; durable social connections and social capital building take time;
  • Virtual connections tend to have a clear limited purpose (usually information exchange on a particular subject) and consciously chosen and limited participants; social connections more often grow from chance encounters and broad-ranging conversation and chat;
  • Virtual communication such as e-mail and videoconferencing may actually distract people from what is going on around them so that they are, in effect, “neither here nor there.”

Which is not to say anything’s impossible. Law libraries may benefit from having long-serving staff and some years of pre-pandemic stable social capital development. We may have started our work from home experience with a wide range of access to resources, which inhibited both work and interactions. But our choices will matter. Are we better off encouraging chat (informal, eavesdropping, low tech) or do we need the face-to-face cues – and dedicated time – video conferencing (even though they do not replicate the social cues of an in-person meeting) can provide?

Some of maintenance and development of social capital may require in-person interaction. But my partner has worked from home, on an entirely remote team, for going on a decade. They have the same in-jokes, information sharing, side channels and gossip, that any in-person team has. They use audio and video calls, technology to help show who is present and who is not, and lots and lots of chat. Most importantly, they have embraced transparency. Their company uses Basecamp and you can see what everyone in the company is doing: who is missing deadlines, who is dealing with a problem client, and so on.

Last book recommendation: Tett, Cohen, and Prusak all owe a huge debt to John Seely Brown, who wrote The Social Life of Information with Paul Duguid. This is another 20-year old book that has remained relevant because it is about people as much as it is about things. If you’re looking for things to read to help focus on the social information and social capital aspects of virtual and hybridized work contexts, I’d start with these three books. Paul Duguid went on to write a piece about the Social Life of Legal Information focused on physical law libraries but I don’t think it’s very useful now and, in any event, misses a lot of what’s valuable in the book.

Simple Steps

A big idea from the Cohen / Prusak book centers around information sharing v. communication. It seems to me that organizations that focus on email for interactions will struggle with the virtual work context. Email has delay built in which chat, which can more closely approximate synchronous communication, can avoid. My experience in organizations which have a binary approach to communications (in-person or by email) is that technology is for disseminating rather than communicating. Information is cascaded (email from the managing partner or CEO or through management meetings) but there isn’t any purpose beyond delivery.

Unfortunately, a lot of our communications tools retain that fundamental approach. Think back to the last time you were on a conference call; worse, you were on the call but everyone else was there in person. As Cohen and Prusak note, “we are not yet sure how to handle the recent development of multiparty calls, where those not speaking tend to ‘disappear.’” (p. 164)

Out of sight, out of mind. But more importantly, a phone call isn’t always better than an email. A video-based interaction isn’t always better than a phone call. Just because our informal information sharing used our voices in the past doesn’t mean they need to now. Our tools need to match our needs, not the method (this is starting to sound like the “focus on the content, not the format” idea in libraries).

Additionally, almost none of the tools are meant to be many to many, which is what we experience in the workplace. An audio or video call can only transmit the clear audio from one person to the rest of the group and lack of cues can squelch discussion, opposition, things that would change a call from information sharing to something more. Video is supposed to give us those cues but even in 2021, camera and internet quality create challenges. And if a call grows too large then it’s impossible to register all those faces. Faces that you might have observed in your peripheral vision or across the table but can’t because they’re shunted off screen, or aggregated into a single circle with a number on it.

I gathered members of my family together for a test. We all got on a Skype call – audio only – and talked at the same time while I recorded the call. You can only hear me in the video below, but you can see all of the avatars for the other callers light up when Skype realizes they’re talking. It wasn’t awful but it wasn’t ready for many to many.

Here are a couple of things I’m interested in at the moment.

Shared Information on Presence

The first, which I shared with a law library colleague recently, is our law library reference schedule. Like so many law library directors, I now am monitoring a slightly more complex set of inputs for our reference team. Your baseline reference schedule says who is on the desk. In addition, you may have listed who was out of the office (vacation, etc.) so that everyone knows whether there is a backup.

Now we need to know who is in the library and who isn’t. While that requirement is mostly due to contact tracing and social distancing, it will eventually just be a matter of who can do things that require physical space or collection. All of this data is stored in multiple locations, which means an integrated solution may be a complicated one.

We are a Microsoft shop so we have Outlook, Teams, and SharePoint. Outlook and SharePoint seem like good ways to share this information but perhaps too complicated to create a shared calendar in Outlook. Not technically complicated (it is easy to create a shared, editable calendar). But how is it used? As far as I can tell, you can’t merge two calendars into a single view so in Outlook, you’d see two calendars or be notified of changes. Additionally, you miss an opportunity to create some agency in your staff.

I ended up creating a Word document in SharePoint. It’s simple but it meets our needs. It is not based in email, for one thing. If there are any changes or updates, the Word document remains the single source of truth, without having to send new emails. A Word document in SharePoint can be followed and you can get email alerts sent when it has been updated.

Your staff can use that (to know when the new schedule is out) but you can also use it. This is what our schedule looks like:

Screenshot of a Microsoft Word table showing day and dates of the week across the top, morning and afternoon on the side, as well as “in library” and “off”

Not rocket science. The Word document is editable by everyone on the team. That way, while I edit or fill the 4 schedule rows, any staff person can adjust them to, say, swap a reference shift. I pull the vacation information for the bottom row from our attendance management system, which requires my approval in any event. Then I leave the in library row to staff to complete. They know best which days they need to be in the office and which they don’t. I don’t need to be involved in those choices unless they are creating a service or performance issue. When it is updated, I get a notification.

This approach meets the needs for both transparency and trust. It provides the framework for everyone to know where they need to be as well as the informal knowledge of what other people are doing, even if they don’t need to know. And it only requires each of us to contribute part of the information – the manager (or their assistant) doesn’t need to control it all.

Unlike an Outlook calendar, a Word doc on SharePoint can be shared as a simple hyperlink. People can bookmark it in their favorite web browser. They can link it into Teams or, if they like to save emails, keep an email with it. It’s ultra simple but it captures the information needed and is easy to disseminate.

Informal Drop Ins

I have been running office hours. Faculty do this all the time but it’s not something I have done in a non-academic environment. An open door is, for me, a stab at transparency. People can walk by and see that I’m there, working, and available. But the challenge was this: how does someone just drop by my office, to leverage my open door policy?

One answer would be to create a meeting. But that isn’t what I’m trying to replicate. Also, I’m put off by that management style. I was on a call with some other managers and someone else described that approach. It is a little bit like using email for every written communication. It makes every synchronous interaction a meeting. It ignores the hidden work (need to get information or interact, check someone’s calendar, schedule a meeting, have the meeting invitation received, have the invitation accepted, receive approval for the meeting) that goes into setting up a meeting. It eliminates the spontaneity of interaction while reaffirming the hierarchy.

Librarians are knowledge workers. We have some need to work without interruption (catalogers, coders, detailed reference questions, professional development, etc.). One thing that we’ll need to balance is flow and spontaneity, which can mean constant, broken flow. This is not new, but may manifest itself while we identify solutions that help with transparency and openness.

The kids are still at home and some are doing summer courses so I’m somewhat limited in my availability. But from 1130 to 130, I flip on Microsoft Teams, click a link and open up a video call. I created it using the Meet Now option which creates a perpetual meeting link. Then I sent the link to my staff and let them know that I’d be available from 1130 to 130, and they could just drop in. So far, so easy.

I’ve run the office hours for 10 days and had 3 drop ins. When I have to leave (dog needing scritches, coffee refill), I use OBS studio to share an alternate scene showing that I’ll “Be Right Back.” Again, the idea is to mimic the real life setting where, sometimes, my door will be open but I won’t be there.

An animated gif of my Be Right Back (reversed since that’s what I see on my view) and jelly fish. This is displayed in a Google Meet meeting, not Teams, because Teams includes metadata I do not want to share

The ideal would be to run this all day long but it’s a bit weird having a camera on you for hours at a time. I would never want my staff to do this; I think this is something that is most appropriate for a manager. The benefit of running it all day is that spontaneous thoughts don’t just occur at office hours, so I expect I am missing some opportunities.

On the other hand, I’m growing increasingly confident that it isn’t necessary. As I said above, video is not superior to other methods of informal interactions. My staff are as likely to privately text me on Teams about a question and I can be available in that way without either of us needing video or audio.

A Different Age

I make dad jokes a lot around our kids. I am sorry to make them suffer but I know they’ll be stronger for it. Some of them relate to an incomprehensible and impossible TikTok channel that I’d like to run. The youngest is still not 100% sure I know what TikTok (or Reddit, or memes, or …) is. Times change and we can find that we don’t really know what tools will work in our employment context.

Fundamentally, based on the three books I’ve mentioned in this post, I think the challenges working from home or remote work create are not new. And they’re not technological, they’re social and our ability to overcome them will require us to think about how we imitate or replicate the social environment.

I have used Skype lightly for more than a decade but primarily just for chat with one or two people. I rarely text with a phone and never use texting or chat apps like WhatsApp. My experience isn’t the norm and I realize that. But I’ve been glad to see that pretty much everyone else on staff does all those things, and so using new-to-us tools at work is really just leveraging experiences they’ve had for years outside of work.

This facility with tools can hide the need for observation and reinforcement. I let them know that Teams was coming and I’d like them to compare our current Slack channels with Teams. The next day, the entire team jumped to Teams and you couldn’t tell they hadn’t been on it for months. This confidence and curiosity – and trust – should be rewarded by your vigilance, to ensure that where they need more information, more transparency, more sharing, that you’re enabling it to happen beyond the places they are being successful.

We have benefited from the social capital that existed prior to the pandemic but I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to maintain and grow it as well. It only takes keeping an eye on #General on our Slack chat. People make similar jokes and requests of their colleagues as they would have done sitting side by side. People ask questions that can be overhead by others in the chat. They use an appropriate tool (an in-person visit, an audio or video call) as the needs demand.

I think we’re still at the crossroads between can’t and haven’t yet when it comes to social capital and social sharing. In the 20 years since The Social Life of Information and In Good Company, I feel more confident that we can do it. But it may have to do more with trust and transparency than it does with technology.

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