I had a small shift in my job role recently. Last year, we lost about 15% of our budget and 3 staff roles. So when we had another retirement this year in a management role, I decided to rethink the position. Long story short, I took on direct management of 7 staff in order to hire a dedicated reference librarian. As I’ve been easing into this change, we’ve been using Microsoft Teams for a lot of the routine communication that would happen informally at work. Communication that doesn’t require email. And communication that can interrupt flow.

It’s been a little like taking a new job. While I know some of the staff – some of whom have been at the library since before I started – some are newer. We lack the years of bumping into each other and, since they had an intervening manager, I mostly know about their work through their manager’s eyes. As I’ve been thinking about informal communications and physically apart staff, I’ve been curious to see how tools work.

Team Chat

Our organization has Microsoft Teams under implementation but at the start of the pandemic, there was no communications tool beyond email. The reference team spun up their own Slack channel and have, for the past 15 months, developed a chat-focused approach that helps them get the work done. It was totally unintelligible to me but allowed the reference librarian on the desk to work with other members of the team to get things done.

Like any good manager, I watched and listened. This is both a normal approach for me and also a hard one. It is normal in the sense that I spend a lot of my time listening. But when you have your own subject matter expertise in an area, it can be harder not to chime in or offer help or interpret conversations from that perspective. In a very real sense, I need to re-learn how to do reference both because I haven’t done it myself for awhile but also because I need to understand how my staff are doing it.

It probably bears saying that I don’t encourage watching in the sense of surveillance. Once I get a sense of the reference staff rhythm and how the pieces fit together, I will step back and leave them to their work. The benefit of shared access is transparency and trust, not surveillance.

While we have Teams-the-app, the library doesn’t have a Team yet, as those are being rolled out top-down based on hierarchy. We are only able to use a group chat, which has its limits. I asked the staff if they would give Teams a shake while we wait for the “Team” to be created, which creates the channels and other areas for sharing. Showing an incredible adaptability, one Monday morning, everyone showed up on the Teams group chat and away we went.

Microsoft Teams chat is about the weakest chat option I’ve seen so far. In particular, in the use of inline emoji (emoticons). On Slack or Skype, if someone posts to chat, you can hover over their post and respond with one of dozens of emoji. This can allow for a quick, nuanced response to someone’s post without reverting to an actual typed response. On Teams, you have 6 choices (thumbs up, heart, laugh, surprised, sad, angry). That’s not enough.

One thing I particularly like is the ability to pop the chat window out of Teams (it’s the little double box with an upward-right pointing arrow, at the top right corner of the Teams window). It allows me to keep a fast moving chat open even if I need to look at other elements of Teams (calendar, a channel, etc.).

Emoji use may not feel professional but it can make people feel more connected. And Teams isn’t limiting emoji on professional terms, because you can still put in (swear). Everyone instantly noticed how different the experience was, and it has required adaptation. The upside is that IT has not shut off the animated GIFs, which has provided new options for levity by way of a visual shorthand.

In other ways, it is just about getting used to a new interface. We’re all learning that you can bring someone into a chat by using @name (which can help if they have modified their notifications). And while it’s clunkier, you can still right-click on a person to send them a private message.

I’m hoping to encourage the use of @name in particular, so that someone who isn’t monitoring the reference chat or the technical services chat can be quickly brought into a discussion to which they could add value. No more, “I’ll send Susan an email” and instead shifting those small requests away from email and into real time.

I’ve popped in with a couple of questions as the days have flowed by. There’s a lot of chatter that can be distracting, in the sense that you don’t need to read it all but may find yourself doing so. It’s not distracting for the participants. But I’m getting to the point where, like other social media, I’m more consciously closing Teams when I need to do longer focus work.

Team Channels

As I mentioned, the library does not yet have a Team but I’m part of a management team that does. It’s a very different kind of experience and, when the library has one, it will be interesting to see how it blends with or even perhaps replaces chat for some work. My experience so far is that chat is practically synchronous, as if you were turning to the person sitting next to you (and EVERYONE is sitting next to you) and having a quick discussion.

Our channels have been, on the other hand, much more asynchronous. This has to do with the topics and that there’s a lot of brainstorming or idea sharing rather than conversation. I was glad to see that anyone could start a channel, so I created one that has focused a lot on dealing with staff working away from the workspace.

Also, unlike the chat, the channel is where a lot of the work is happening. The chat is a tool that’s being used in tandem with legal research tools and a shared reference email inbox. It’s a bit discombobulating to watch until you realize that you’re only seeing part of the picture. On the channel, though, it is like having a very slow conversation with colleagues that unrolls over days. It’s an excellent alternative to a meeting.

It’s shallow, though, in the sense that you can only post and get a reply, just as in chat. It may mean that channels should be more narrowly constrained, topically. So, for example, if I want to discuss one virtual work topic and then a second one, it wasn’t clear how to differentiate the topics for people who were not watching the conversation. I ended up starting a channel post with the topic, and then [SHIFT][ENTER] to type my post. Alternatively, I could reply to myself but that seems inefficient.

For example, I wanted to start a discussion prior to a meeting so that we could use the meeting time as effectively as possible:

A screenshot from a compressed Teams Channel message showing a topic and then a blank line before staring the post. This was particularly useful, as my internet had been flaky and while I was present on a group call, I couldn’t hear or participate very well.

Channels seem a perfect replacement for the broadcast and summary email. Instead of sitting around a table sharing status reports or other information downloads, that activity can be moved to a Channel for asynchronous posting and consumption. This drove me crazy at law library conferences where we’d spend precious time with colleagues getting an update on their operations instead of using the time discussing things face to face.

Immersion and Informality

Notifications were the first thing I noticed that were distracting. On Windows 10, you can get them in your alert center, you can have toast pop up in the bottom right corner, etc. Microsoft Teams has its own notification settings and you can also toggle them on and off in Windows 10 Settings. Teams notifications are as bad as any email notification system I’ve experienced. The notification appears in the bottom right corner of your monitor and, even if you don’t look, your eyes will still notice the app icon on the task bar continue to blink.

I’ve disabled a lot of the notifications now so that I mostly only see notifications when I’m specifically mentioned or in response to a specific post I made. Even that seems like it may be too much. I’d like to be present – synchronous – in chat when it makes sense for me to be there. But it’s really where my team works and I’d like them to feel like they can have conversations without management watching. Also, watching the chat stream can be a low value activity for me since I’m not in a position, subject-matter expertise-wise, to contribute effectively.

Notifications on channels also seem a little superfluous since the conversations so far are asynchronous. A notification just blurs that line so that you can attempt a synchronous conversation. It may be that, in the future, there will be projects or opportunities that will require a more synchronous approach. But for now, I can check in on the conversation as my overall workflow allows. I don’t need an app to let me know.

I am enjoying Microsoft Teams so far. It’s obviously not a very well developed app yet but it is coming along. So far, it is serving the purposes that we require. I’ve appreciated that it gives us an informal option to email and that the staff have embraced it so readily.