The inability to work from a physical location designated by our employer is coming to an end. Our law library will probably reopen in October and I’ve spent the last couple of months thinking about what we should keep from the pre-COVID times and what we should toss. I’m not fully there, yet, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about control. As a law library director, am I managing the work? or am I managing the environment?

As so many management challenges do, this one lives on a spectrum. When people talk about flexible work or flex time, they are talking about flexibility in relationship to employer control. Like a papal dispensation, you are being allowed to do something despite the employer wanting you, and perhaps requiring others, to do it in a different way.

This emphasis on control seems to have little to do with the work. I’ve posted recently about this – on communication and the middle manager – and the thing that seems the biggest challenge is the need to control. But the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief that lots of our work in law libraries can be done without a lot of the control (meetings, strict start/stop times, dress codes, etc.) that existed before.

It makes me think about when Pippin drinks the ent-draught in The Lord of the Rings. He experiences growth (literal height) and is changed. When we have that opportunity, why would we want to revert to something … less?

Pippin and Merry talk in the film “The Lord of the Rings” after Pippin drinks an ent-draught.

Anyone who has spent time thinking about management and leadership is probably concerned about that tension. Do we exert control that could undo or unnecessarily constrain our people’s ability to do the work?

Control Freaks

It doesn’t take long to find companies that are more focused on control than the work. Take Google, for example. People who work remotely may be paid less. The corporate perspective appears to be this: staff are benefiting from lower costs and other choices they are making and the company should reap those benefits, not the employees.

It’s a tempting view. I wrote about using tele-presence (like robots) to access a librarian instead of in-person. One benefit of that is that you could hire a qualified librarian no matter where they lived. And my initial take was “savings for the library.” But why is that? If two reference librarians (or any role) are getting the same work done, we wouldn’t pay them differently just because of their home address. That may be because we have always had to live close enough to our physical work place. Since the employees couldn’t live more inexpensively, there was no margin for the employer to claw back.

Or Amazon, who was going to control games that its developers made after hours. What is the work? And what is the control? If you are a developer hired to work for Amazon to develop a game, why wouldn’t they be paying you for that game only?

Is there a good reason for people not to be able to work two full time jobs so long as the work is getting done? Some people had no problem doing this during the pandemic. So full time may be more about how we control people rather than the work. We pay based on time – which we can measure – as opposed to the work, which we haven’t bothered to measure.

It’s only now, as I think about how I am controlled in my own role, that I realize that the physical walls have fallen away and a lot of people haven’t noticed. I’ve been asked to attend an in-person meeting, a meeting that I’ve participated in quarterly for the past 18 months. There isn’t a need for the in-person component. But by requiring it, I will need to:

  • change when I wake up in the morning to adapt to a commute
  • change what I wear
  • reduce the amount of time I spend with my family that day
  • spend money to travel to work that I would not otherwise expend
  • be in a specific location to do the work even though the work can be done anywhere

We do these things to conform to our constraints, to keep our jobs, to meet expectations. We were accustomed to trading our agency for a pay cheque. But does it make sense? Do we think our people want to be constrained without purpose?

As a leader, how do you justify that level of control over someone when it’s not required to get the work done? You might talk about how face-to-face interactions create engagement or stronger cultures. But as I wrote when I touched on social capital, it’s the informal communication that is harder – something not solved with meeting culture – when we’re working dispersed. And it’s a matter of we may not yet have found a solution to that, rather than that face-to-face is the only option.

[W]hich begs the question that if the face-to-face experience was unarguably superior, why do students opt to watch lectures online?Why Returning to the Lecture Only Model is a Bad Idea, Martin Weller, August 11, 2021.

Let it be noted that I do not like meetings. I have a very simple rule for meetings: only do them if I can add value or receive value. Most meetings don’t involve either one. Also, if you ever had a pen pal, you know that deep connections can be had without ever meeting or even talking to a person. Anyone still unconvinced should read this long piece on why we fetishize the university lecture even though lectures don’t always provide value.

Meetings are perhaps the universal example of control. Someone sent me a meeting request in Outlook the other day. Easy peasy. Open Outlook, click on New Items and Meeting. Unfortunately, that’s where most people stop. They assume you work the same hours they do (because control) and so they don’t check to see your actual schedule. This person’s day is one hour shifted from mine, so the hour that worked for him was after I was finished (which is why it didn’t show a conflict). We will need to be more aware about this than we might have been in the past. And if we’re in a hierarchical dynamic, care about whether our people are available rather than primarily what works for us.

Results Oriented

I have seen a lot of job descriptions and job postings. We use the term results oriented a lot. It’s a good thing for a person to be. But as we think about how we work, it’s clearly not the primary focus at some workplaces. We might as well say results and compliance oriented if we’re being frank.

Enter the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE). It’s a concept that is probably a bridge too far for many organizations and I admit to struggling with some aspects of it. As I tweeted, I’m wary about things I may have confirmation bias about. I think a law library could go with a ROWE but I’ve hit a cognitive hurdle on some aspects (like a reference rotation that requires people to be available at a certain time).

You can read more in Why Work Sucks and it’s companion volume Why Managing Sucks, written by the people who developed the ROWE concept for Best Buy. I didn’t care for the writing style so you might find this article more accessible. However, the books have a lot more detail including the 13 Guideposts which are useful management prompts. I would get the Managing volume because it was written later and includes more examples of where ROWE had been implemented.

The ROWE books are interesting because they show you where your struggles will occur as you shift from a control mentality to a results-only mentality. It’s a journey. For example, one of the guideposts is that “all meetings are optional,” which can be a bit jarring. And yet, the point is really (a) give the agency to the employee to decide which meetings to attend and (b) only create meetings that are really necessary to ensure attendance. No more meetings to stand in for work, or for power trips, or for control purposes.

How might a results-only law library look:

  • If you still have a print collection, filing can be done any time of day. There’s a physical aspect that requires being in a location but there’s no reason for a time constraint.
  • Could you have books shipped to a cataloger rather than to a library?
  • Reference can obviously be done from pretty much anywhere. We frequently have no reference librarians onsite (no researchers either) and they are supported by a staff person who can digitize print content to support an answer. When we reopen, that support will probably diminish. Reference has a time constraint to meet customer service demands (wrongly set at 9 to 5 in most law libraries). But even physical face-to-face reference isn’t required even if it’s expected.
  • Web site development, resource development (pathfinders, Libguides, Youtube videos, social media, instructional videos), cataloging, and so many other things are already web-based and neither time nor location dependent. A cataloger is creating access to a variety of formats, some digital, some not, and so solutions for those instances may need to be found to free up the person’s ability to focus on the work rather than the location.
  • One-on-one support and forms navigation in environments like courthouse law libraries can be done with screensharing (just because the librarian isn’t in the law library space doesn’t mean the researcher or self-represented party can’t be, if technology access is an issue) and tele-presence.

And so on. So much of our daily work is about control and not about the work. An example from this morning: we cancelled a newspaper subscription and were sent a paper cheque as a refund. We prepared it to send to the finance folks, but it required me to sign off on the cheque. Why? It wasn’t an expense, it wasn’t an approval. As I said to my staff, it was more “I am acknowledging that we have not embezzled this cheque that you did not know we had until we told you about it.” That’s a control issue, it’s not about the work.

As managers, we were trained in a culture of control. But for the past 18 months, we have lacked that control. And yet most of our organizations are still working, still healthy. The work is getting done. So I think we need to be very careful about reverting quickly to pre-pandemic approaches that emphasize our comfort at the expense of our staff’s agency.