One of the aspects of our pandemic work experience coming to an end that is most interesting to me is one’s ability to transition. You might say “transition back” but I’m not sure that’s a safe assumption. Law library leaders have had 18 months to rethink our work and how it’s done. It has been interesting to look at workplaces that operate differently and thinking about what might work in our space.

The Wrong Foot

Law librarians have already battled with this mindset. My career doesn’t stretch quite stretch back to pre-computer research but the print format v. electronic format remains a bone of contention in law libraries. I still hear library staff emphasize that lawyers prefer print and I read about law library governance boards determine that everything is on the internet. When we collect, we focus on the information and the format is merely one of the – not the driving – factors which inform choice.

The discussion around the role of the office in our work strikes me as similar. The office is merely a format. It may or may not be the right format for a given staff person in a law library. So we should focus on the work like we do the content and the format (office, library, home) should just be one of many considerations.

But people are struggling with that. I rolled my eyes when I saw reporting about the UK’s right wing party gathering and the know nothings who conflate “get back to work” with “sit in an office”:

“People really want the government to lead by example – they want civil servants to get back to work as well. We’ve got to start leading by example on that.” He said there are currently “more desks occupied” at Conservative Party headquarters than in his former department.

Sky News quoting Oliver Dowden, Conservative Party Chairman, 10/5/2021

I was in a virtual meeting the other day and listened as someone described their struggle with this. Their staff, like mine, work remotely and do it effectively. But they wanted to have an in-person meeting. Unfortunately, the only reason to have the meeting in-person was because the decision-maker wanted it; it wasn’t necessary to the meeting’s agenda. The staff declined to attend and the meeting was cancelled.

This manager has some problems. First, they have not fully plumbed the transition that their organization is going through. They’re trying to go back but the staff is moving forward. Second, they have adopted a directive management style in a context that doesn’t require it. I don’t know if this was their pre-pandemic approach as well but it is no surprise it doesn’t fly now. Last, by forcing the in-person “because I say so” meeting, they have almost certainly breached trust with their staff.

What Works

I don’t know what works because this is the first profound workplace change I’ve experienced as a law library leader. But I’m comfortable with the ambiguity and open to saying that I don’t know. There is a lot to learn and to try, and to determine what will work from the past and what new things we have to do. Like rethinking management styles or staffing or oversight or control.

One thing seems clear to me: the work is most important. The landscape is different now and so our choices may be different too. We don’t need to stick with a format (like the office) just because it was our only format in the past.

Someone pitched me with a fireside chat with an HR expert who could explain the transition to me but I declined. They won’t have experienced it either and, despite being an HR and management expert, they have no experience with libraries or education. The thing I don’t need now is generalized guidance; I need specifics.

As an example, one thing I intend to maintain as a management style is developing autonomy in my staff. If there was ever a time that everyone needed to be able to do their work without oversight, it’s now. This means rethinking work schedules and other dependencies that may be a hindrance now.

Law library leaders should be especially cognizant about disparities between management and staff. Recent Gartner research is a reminder that CEOs often have a very different perspective – and access to resources – than staff in the same organization. A leader with a directive approach may not be aware or care that they are making demands that may not be achievable.

Charts showing data gathered in the Gartner Workplace Reopening Amid Vaccine Rollout survey that indicates (yellow bar) CEO responses on ability to work effectively away from an office contrasted with employee (blue) responses.

It also means looking at other organizations who are doing what I want our law library to do and seeing what works for them. We aren’t a technology startup but startups have done fully remote teams for decades. What can we learn from them and others like them?

During the pandemic, if you spent an hour reading and thinking about work, it was work. That changes when you return to work (office). If you do the same thing but on a commuter train, it’s personal time. Work shouldn’t be dependent on the space in which it is accomplished.

Two articles popped up recently that made a lot of sense to me. One is an increased acceptance of asynchronous activity. The second is on documentation. I think these are two universals that a law library (law school, law firm, government) will need to commit to doing to make any kind of positive change in how we work.

The first looked at Automattic – the company behind WordPress – and it’s approach that blends asynchronous tools and a focus on documentation for shared understanding. The second is a summary of Gartner research that involved talking to executives and a larger survey. We don’t need to always be face-to-face to be successful.

Asynchronous Activity

This is pretty straightforward: you do not always need to do things live, in real-time. Lots of communication can happen asynchronously; we’ve been using email and voice mail for decades. Lots of workflow can happen – is designed to happen – asynchronously: A does X, then B adds Y, then C signs off and gives to D to fulfill.

Lots of our law library staff already have jobs that can be done asynchronously. Our entire acquisition process – selection, acquisition, processing, cataloging, shelving – is one where each contributor can do their part as the item reaches them. They don’t all need to be available at the same moment. Shelving, filing, and pretty much any writing or planning or analytics or marketing can be created asynchronously.

Reference is trickier but it requires breaking things down. Some reference interviews are performed face-to-face. But we can hive off the others – email, for example – and place them in the asynchronous category. Even face-to-face only means “at the same time” not “in the same place.”

Other activities – like brainstorming – may work better asynchronously. As a law library leader, you have to avoid the HIPPO impact. Using a Microsoft Teams channel or some other bulletin board-type tool can force you to wait and let others contribute before you change the tone of the conversation with your participation.

[T]he research showed is that you need time apart. You need time to refocus, recharge, to be by yourself in order to have those innovative momentsAlexia Cambon, Director, Research, Gartner HR practice

One challenge I think we’re facing is that people haven’t done asynchronous work before. So not only is not not what we have done in the past, it is unfamiliar and creates risk. But merely repeating our synchronous work environments misses new opportunities to work better and more productively.

Documentation

No need to tell law librarians about the benefits of the written word. We store and access massive amounts of text because there’s no way to hear every judgment delivered by every court. The information is at rest until it is needed, which may not be when it is issued.

The Automattic/WordPress piece is really good at pointing out the challenge. Many of our organizations focus on meetings as a measure of busyness. An empty calendar means you’re not working. Or don’t have prestige. Whatever. But Automattic’s approach is to communicate in writing. This allows for a record to be created and used, accessed, when needed. People can interact and respond on their own schedule.

It’s the thing I think is really broken with normal office work. Your meeting calendar was a badge of honor and having so many meetings meant you were so important. That’s not a paradigm here.

Monica O’Hara, CMO, WordPress

They are also using a WordPress-based communications platform to support this: P2. But I think what they’re doing can be done in any environment. Many law libraries have SharePoint and Teams. We can utilize these applications to store content for asynchronous access, and to communicate in channels rather than in meetings or phone calls. The latter approaches are not bad – they just make assumptions about availability and control.

The other benefit about an emphasis on documentation – recording, if you will, and then placing the information in a shared space for future access and reference – is transparency. A law library leader can create an expectation that people will record and share information.

For example, law library licenses are not secret in our library. Once negotiated and executed, they live in a shared folder for any staff person to access. One thing I expect to use Teams Channels for is to create a more permanent record of things that currently happen in email (like discussions about cancellations or other service modifications.

It seems so obvious that we can rethink how we do this. But we’re fighting against muscle memory and habits. This was clear to me when I got an email about some workplace training.

The training was for a key tool – our phone system, on which we take incoming reference questions – that was being upgraded. In the past, a trainer from the vendor would have come in and given training. The attendees, limited by room size, would then be tasked with passing on the information to their teams.

But after 18 months of pandemic virtual work, we can do it differently. Yet the training email limited attendance to 2 staff – even though the training would be virtual. The training would not be in-depth, so these 2 staff would be burdened with being both the staff support for their team (2 people supporting our 8-person reference team) and yet would not have expertise themselves.

So how might we do it differently? First, if it’s a virtual training session, do not limit the attendance arbitrarily. If you can support 100 attendees and make it workable, do it. If you can’t, do what law libraries do when they offer training: repeat it until everyone who wants access gets it. If it’s too costly or staff-time intensive, record the initial training and let people watch it (asynchronously!). As a rule, I would think we’d want to record any training because even attendees won’t necessarily recall everything they saw and heard.

There are moments in our work where messages need to be delivered live, face-to-face, verbally. Major changes, major projects, things that we want to give some import to. Performance reviews are a great example of using synchronous communication to make a connection and ensure that we are communicating what we intend to communicate.

But I think it shouldn’t be the default. Or at the very least, we should be thinking about how using documentation and an asynchronous approach – by being less directive, by focusing less on where the work is done, by releasing control – can allow us to give our staff more leeway. We may find that we are no less productive while giving our staff broader choice in the manner in which they will do their best work.