what should I expect from my staff at this point in the pandemic?

A reader writes:

I am a middle manager at a library. I and all my staff members are required to report to work in person and have been doing so since the beginning of the summer. The public can’t come into our building but we deliver via curbside pickup. When we first got back, I basically told everyone that I understood that this was a really stressful time, and that as long as they were performing curbside deliveries, being safe, and generally treating each other and the public well, that was all I would ask of them. For example, my employees are hourly, but I have told them that I don’t mind if they run late in the morning or leave early once the work for the day is done. Also, I would normally expect people not engaged directly in customer service to occupy themselves with other projects, but right now I am pretty much letting those things get done on a voluntary basis unless it’s something that really needs to be taken care of, and trying not to bat an eye if I see somebody browsing the Internet or calling home to check on their kids instead of picking up a project in their “off desk” time.

All summer was like this and it looks like the next few months are going to be more of the same because we are in a virus hotspot. I am beginning to wonder at what point, if ever, I should start “working back up” to expecting people to perform at their pre-pandemic levels again. On the one hand, I really hate how a lot of employers seem to have sort of just gotten bored with the pandemic and stopped having empathy for their staff, and I know the stress level people are living with probably hasn’t really changed. On the other hand, I worry that I am I setting my team up for problems down the road by letting them develop habits that would be considered performance issues in normal times.

If your main concern is that you might be setting people up for problems by letting them develop habits that are okay for now but won’t be later … I wouldn’t change anything.

It’s reasonable to assume that when it’s safe to resume normal activity, your staff will be able to make that adjustment, just as they made this one. But if they don’t adjust, you’ll address that directly — pointing out that habit X was okay under conditions Y, but going forward you will need Z.

That’s not to say that everyone moves seamlessly from one set of circumstances to the next. There’s transition time and there are sometimes bumps, but mostly people adjust and as the manager you have all sorts of tools to address it if they don’t — starting with clear communication of expectations (and specifically what needs to change, and what the new model will look like), but also including serious conversations if someone isn’t meeting those expectations (all the way to replacing them if that becomes necessary … but most of the time with something like this a serious conversation will do it.)

And of course, you can’t expect people to double their productivity overnight. Make changes gradually, give people time to get used to the changes, and plan to give some extra support along the way.

All that said … it’s true that back in March, we thought/hoped we were hunkering down for a shorter time than it turned out to be. And some of the plans made then (“we can put X on hold for now,” “just focus on Y and don’t worry about the rest,” etc.) didn’t account for these conditions stretching on for a year or more. So realistically, you might need to take another look at what you do and don’t need people to accomplish. A project that could be put on hold for three months might not be able to stay on hold indefinitely. But that doesn’t mean every job can expect people to return to pre-pandemic levels of productivity. Some can! Some can’t. You’ve got to be realistic about the stresses people are under, the distractions they face, and the toll that changes necessitated by the pandemic are taking (whether that’s extra cleaning of their workspace, processes that became more onerous, or the cumulative exhaustion of having to worry about their safety every time they face a coworker or a customer).

If there are things you do need to add back in to people’s workloads, talk to them about it. Ask for their input. Proceed slowly, with the understanding that things are not normal. Check in regularly so you spot it if it’s not working the way you’d hoped.

But if your main concern is people adjusting when this is all over, don’t increase pressure on them now just to ward off something you’ll almost certainly be able to manage just fine if it does happen in the future.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 147 comments… read them below }

  1. Jules the 3rd*

    Maybe ramp up the opportunities, like certifications they can study for remotely, as something to fill their time? But emphasize it’s not going to affect performance reviews – you will be assessing those strictly on deliveries / safety / courtesy.

    1. OrigCassandra*

      Lots of opportunity — many many MANY library and archives conferences have moved online instead of cancelling, with low or no registration fees and lots of attendee capacity.

      Might be possible to lay some groundwork for a post-pandemic strategic initiative or two. Might also offer staff a look at a light at the end of the tunnel.

      OP will want to be cautious about overloading staff or making this into Mandatory Fun, but I trust OP to get that balance right.

      1. yala*

        I second this–I really enjoyed getting to “attend” OLAC this year via the online conferences! It’s not something I would’ve been able to do under normal circumstances (same for the Lightbox animation expo).

        You could also look into getting your library NACO certified? The training for it, iirc, is a series of virtual sessions over the course of a week or two, so having downtime like this is a good time for it. It’s also an excellent WFH project, since you don’t need to bring any material home (so long as you have a home computer with the appropriate programs)

        1. yala*

          Not related to that, but if your library has a maker’s space or even just did crafting projects in the Before Times, you could see about still doing that?

          My buddy runs the maker’s space at our local library, and he’s been coming up with crafting projects that he can assemble little “go kits” for–patrons pick up the kit of materials and then follow along with his video tutorial on the website.

    2. Lea*

      Yes, you might also identify projects that are difficult to tackle under normal circumstances with patrons around (rearranging spaces, deep cleaning/organizing, etc.) It’s important to offer meaningful work, or else people can feel resentful that they have to be there just to waste time. But you can do that in ways that are relatively fun and distracting.

      As a library director, I’ve had to balance creating comfortable work environments for staff with the need to demonstrate value to funders/governing bodies. Libraries are an easy target for budget cuts, and I need to be able to demonstrate that our funds are used effectively, even in these circumstances (and staffing is the largest library expense.) It is frustrating, but I have to do it to ensure that my staff are able to stay securely employed. But that can be done in ways that are compassionate and safe!

      1. Quinalla*

        Yes, this is a good idea and something we are doing at my work, with the expectation that most people still can’t work at pre-pandemic levels of efficiency. For me personally, some of these no timeline, work on processes, etc. kind of work is very energizing for me, so I was one of the people that asked that we gradually ramp it back up to a new normal level as it helps me be excited about work to do that kind of stuff.

        1. Cedarthea*

          I’m not at libraries, but in child care, things are quiet (at less than half capacity) and our staff have pretty well absorbed all the new COVID procedures, so we are implementing some new procedures (like a new child management software) that will be more efficient in the long run so we can get our feet under us while we have fewer children so when our numbers come back up we can be ready and run with high efficiency and provide excellent programs rather than sitting around messing with a 20 year old software that is “quirky” to say the least.

      2. Marple*

        I work for a public library and feel like my main concern right now is justifying my job. When we thought this chaos would last a couple months, it felt ok to be less productive, but long-term, I worry that taxpayers won’t stand for it. I’m not at a director-level, so decisions on budgets aren’t up to me, but I cringe whenever I hear staff talk about going back to curb service (customers are allowed in our buildings now) because I know that it would likely mean layoffs. It’s tricky to find a balance when you have to take safety, compassion, and the reality of budget cuts into consideration.

      3. Momma Bear*

        I like this idea, and also directly tasking people when necessary to help ramp back up.

        Even HS parents are ensuring their kids are logged in. A five minute call with my kid can mean I can focus on work for the next hour. OP might also poll the staff and find out whose kids are in-person and whose are not and how that impacts that employee. Or if someone is having to deal with helping elderly relatives, etc.

        Our company has periodically asked for people to re-request WFH and adjustments were made. Maybe someone doesn’t need all the time at home anymore. Maybe someone needs more. Touching base simply helps the management know what’s going on and adjust accordingly and address concerns person by person. We are aware that WFH is a privilege that is likely to end. I suspect OP’s staff also knows that this down time will end eventually, too.

    3. OTGW*

      Yeah, this is a good idea. I work at public libraries too, and I wish, when we were closed, there was more I could do. Instead I was just listening to semi-relatable webinars and not really accomplishing anything. Like, I would have loved to learn more about ILL/OCLC but no :) because that’s not my job :)

      So like, see if there’s something that maybe your staff normally doesn’t do that they might like to learn. I don’t know if you’re circ or one of the other departments, but let them see if want to expand their skills. Who knows, maybe some of your staff are bored with just browsing the web.

      1. Nethwen*

        You wanted to learn ILL/OCLC, but weren’t allowed?! This management attitude irritates me for a variety of reasons. I’m indignant on your behalf. I don’t believe it is in the organization’s best interest to keep people from understanding different parts of library work. Then again, I’m the one who wanted to create an exchange-internship program with area libraries so that, for example, a circulation person could spend two hours a week at a partner library learning technical services.

        1. OTGW*

          Yep. My thanks for the sympathies. Yeah, I think library staff need to understand other parts—one of my directors is notorious for like… having no idea how circ works. When we shut down in March, she and admin were “trying to help” by being in the way—didn’t even know how to check out books.

          Anyways… I think that exchange program is a great idea! Not only would you be learning other skills, it’d be from another library, which can also vary in culture, etc. How come it didn’t turn out?

          1. Nethwen*

            The feedback from a director is that libraries are too short-staffed for there to be interest from other management. Then life happened and I didn’t have the mental energy to pursue it. It’s not totally off the table, but I need the mental space to create the program and convince other libraries that it will be good for them. One day…

        2. Blerpborp*

          I showed only the faintest of interest in ILL and became to backup person who does it when the usual person is on vacation so be careful what you wish for! I realized quickly I do not love doing ILL so I guess it was a learning experience and I am very happy to now understand how it works much more in depth than my coworkers.

    4. drago cucina*

      A day late, but I want to echo this. The ABLE and SABLE training from the Idaho Library Commission is excellent. I instituted as part of the onboarding experience for all new employees. Even those who don’t work directly with children or teens can benefit from SABLE. Each “course” has a certificate.

      This is a great time for learning languages. Gallaudet University has free online ASL classes. Duolingo or another free language service is great. Many offer certificates. They also have a direct impact on improving customer service.

  2. OrigCassandra*

    Hi, OP.

    There’s a lot of astoundingly bad management in the library sector. (I’ve been its victim.)

    I’m so glad and grateful you’re so much better. Your staff and your library’s patrons are lucky to have you.

    No real advice (I think Alison’s right), just some of the praise you deserve.

    1. fellow public librarian*

      Agreed! You are doing the right thing for your staff and patrons and I’m glad to see a good example of library management. Kudos!

      1. OP*

        Thank you so much! It can often feel like staff don’t appreciate my efforts (trust in our library’s adminstrators was justifiably low pre-pandemic so they aren’t disposed to look on decisions now with much sympathy, and I know I’m often the face/voice of ‘administration’) so it’s really nice to hear someone say they think I am doing a good job.

        1. MarfisaTheLibrarian*

          I will say, I didn’t have a ton of trust in my library boss pre-pandemic, but I give her a ton of credit for how well she’s handled the pandemic, and it’s done a lot for our relationship, actually!

      2. Boredlibrarian*

        Fellow victim of TERRIBLE library management here.
        I am sending endless good vibes to OP for caring about staff AND good library service.

    2. Shhhh*

      As a librarian, I just wanted to say the same thing. Anyone immersed in Library Twitter has seen the bad even if it’s not bad at their own library, and it’s great to see some good.

    3. Thankful for AAM*

      Add me to the list of those in library-verse who know the pains of poor management and who salute you!

    4. yala*

      As someone who fled from a horrifically managed public library job where our manager (who now oversees the whole public library system yikes) would NEVER have been this understanding, I would also like to give OP some well-deserved kudos.

      1. OP*

        OP here. Thank you so much! I’m really disappointed by lots of the decisions the people above me have made about how to handle things, and lately I feel like all I do is frustrate my staff by delivering bad news. I really appreciated the encouragement.

        1. Alice*

          I believe that you are doing a good job!
          But — and I’m not saying you’re doing this, just that it’s natural to do it without noticing — I hope you are not hoping or expecting that the people you manage will reassure you that bad decisions made by people above you are not that bad.
          If they are blaming you for leadership decisions, that sucks, and it’s not fair. But in my org, I’ve ended up feeling like I have to manage my boss’s emotions and reassure her, “the 401k match suspension and the salary freeze are not that bad.” But they are! It’s not a problem that I can do anything about, and it’s not a problem that she can do anything about, but it is a problem!
          Just like gifts, reassurance should flow down at work.
          Someone as thoughtful as you is probably already thinking about this :) but just in case I’ll mention it.

          1. OP*

            That is a good point! I try very hard not to expect reassurance or emotional support from my staff, but it can be easy to fall into the trap of wanting it since we are a small group and I work side by side with them every day, whereas my own manager doesn’t share the same physical workspace and manages over two dozen people (yeah, it sucks) so I’m not getting any of that flowing downward to me.

            I think we’ve ended up in a bit of a negative cycle of being like ‘wow, this really sucks and we can’t do anything about it,’ which is true but is also not something I should be participating in as a manager. I’m actually looking for another job because I no longer feel capable of ‘selling’ administrative decisions to my team. Sigh.

    5. OP*

      OP here. Thank you so, so much for the kind words. This is my first supervisory job so it was already challenging pre-COVID, and I feel like I’m really not coping well now. As I’m sure you know if you’ve ever supervised people, it can sometimes feel like your staff is aware of every single bad thing you do and bad decision you make while never noticing the good ones. That’s happening now (understandably, given how stressed everyone is) and it’s really demoralizing. It made me feel really good to hear someone who doesn’t know me say it sounds like I am doing a good job.

  3. anon73*

    If there’s work that needs to get done, and you’ve been letting it get pushed to the side all summer, that’s a problem that needs to be addressed. But if there isn’t much to do right now, I don’t see it as a problem. Once things start getting busier, have conversations with your employees and let them know your expectations, but be willing to be flexible. Things are extra stressful for people right now, and even when there’s work to be done, managers need to be flexible and understanding with their staff.

  4. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    It may be that adding some projects to the plate will be a welcome diversion. Don’t be afraid to take this opportunity to get cracking on those postponed-because-customers-are-always-around projects or ask for ideas about ways the library can meet even more needs in other creative ways.

    1. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      We have one very slow month (1/8 of the typical work load) that precedes the busiest month of the year. It sucks every year to come from practical hibernation into 3 times the normal workload. I know I’m not at my best, some of my knowledge is dusty. It’s just like coming back from a month’s vacation. I want to do my best, but I need to acclimate.
      You would be doing people a favor if you gave them projects, or made it clear that X, Y and Z have to be done and you are asking for volunteers, but will assign if necessary.
      This is not to be draconian, it to help people keep in work mode.*
      Also seconding suggesting people use the time to learn a skill, get a certification.
      Maybe your staff has things they can teach each other. Allow them to set up peer training sessions.

      *I’m never on time. I have said no to volunteer projects. I make personal phone calls and I surf the web on occasion. I also like to have something like a routine at work. And it helps to do this if I’m doing work stuff.

    2. Joielle*

      Agreed! As long as people are coming in to the office anyways, I think it’s ok to fill their time a bit more. If they were at home and trying to juggle Zoom meetings, kids at home/online school, etc that would be one thing, but they’re already in the office. Personally, I’d rather have some projects to work on than be bored.

  5. Person from the Resume*

    As a manager I personally would start back with having people not engaged directly in customer service to occupy themselves with other projects.

    1) Because this has been going on for over six months and isn’t going away for the next 6 months at least and I assume those other projects aren’t just busy work and do need to be done.

    2) Because without customers IN the library I assume there’s actually less customer service going on than before; although, I acknowledge I use my library’s curbside pickup and their inefficient (IMO) process requires two phone calls – one before I arrive and one when I arrive so maybe that’s an incorrect assumption.

    3) People have had time to adapt to this new normal.

    But there’s still kids learning from home full time or part time and possibly sick family members to worry about so I would still allow the leeway with start and end times as long as all of the work and customer service needs are getting done.

    1. Weekend Please*

      I agree. I think that having people work on projects that need to be done when they have some down time is a good step. Don’t make it busy work but doing something actually productive instead of browsing the internet is a reasonable expectation right now. Try to keep allowing the flexibility in hours and opportunities to call and check on their kids as well as decreased expectations of productivity in general.

    2. Rachel Morgan*

      Customer service is, I would say (as a library Director myself), right about the same level (or higher) than pandemic.

      Just doing curbside means contacting the patron at least twice, not to mention quarantine, cleaning etc periods. Communication has changed from mostly in person to in person, on the phone and through the internet. There’s a lot more things to do online nowadays, from (as previously mentioned) webinars, conferences etc, to recording zoom/FB live/youtube videos, to posting content daily.

    3. cat lady*

      “People have had time to adapt to this new normal” is oversimplifying the pandemic. OP said it’s a hotspot, which means that stress has likely ramped up again just as infection rates have. Plus assuming that people have adapted assumes a lot of privilege– financial, neurotypical, even racial privilege given the well-documented disparity in COVID outcomes by race.

      1. another Hero*

        Plus, in a lot of libraries, dramatic changes are ongoing. Our services are constantly adjusting, and changes are being announced to staff and then retracted or delayed, and what we were told to focus on in July doesn’t matter at all in October. I’m sure there are fields where the New NormalTM has been a stable state since March, or even since June, but libraries aren’t really one of them.

        (On top of this, of course, case counts are higher here now than they were when we returned to work, and we’re staring down winter and more time inside, so the new normal isn’t static in our outside-work lives either.)

      2. Le Sigh*

        Yes — just because we’re all more used to it doesn’t mean everyone and everything has adapted (or adapted very well anyway). And the ongoing struggles with child and elder care I think actually demonstrate that. And there are new challenges that constantly arise from this. I’ve got my grocery shopping routine figured out, but now I am having to closely watch the rising numbers in several areas and help my elderly relative restock in case supplies run out. I’ve got to help them deal with upcoming car replacement (yea! let’s buy a car in a pandemic!), which is a new challenge I hadn’t considered. Every month new stuff like this pops up.

        So I think it’s fine to start bringing back some of those delayed projects — some of them probably need to move forward at some point — but with an eye toward flexibility, since the stress and unpredictability is ongoing.

  6. Works with Military*

    I sympathize deeply with pandemic anxiety and agree that productivity going down is probably natural. However, assuming this is a public library, allowing hourly workers to come in late and leave early (not nickel and diming people of course, but actual appreciable amounts of time) while still claiming their normal hours isn’t okay (if this is what LW is doing). This would be time theft and stealing from taxpayers.

    1. Snark no more!*

      We are not supposed to read things into the letters that are not there. I took it as her saying if they were due in at 10 but had a “thing,” she would not get upset if they didn’t clock in until 10:30. Why would you assume the worst right away?

      1. Weekend Please*

        I don’t think that they assumed anything. They were pointing out that there are potential issues with too much flexibility that should be kept in mind but in several places said things like “if this is what LW is doing.” If it doesn’t apply, the LW can very easily ignore it.

        1. Public Sector Manager*

          But it is making up facts not covered in the letter, that’s Snark’s point. There is zero indication the OP is letting her staff leave early and get a full paycheck. Making up scenarios isn’t helpful either.

          1. serenity*

            Exactly. Implicitly suggesting that OP is enabling/facilitating timesheet fraud is serious and something we shouldn’t engage in.

          2. fhqwhgads*

            I think it’s ambiguously written. The way it was phrased did sound to me like she was not only allowing the flexibility, but still counting it as a full day. It seemed that was the point of mentioning they’re hourly. Your reading is also possible. This doesn’t read like “making things up” to me. It’s a lack of clarity in the letter.

    2. Concerned Academic Librarian*

      There’s a world of difference between someone who has a start time of 10AM and having them stroll in at 11 and and when Jane shows up late at 10:15 because she had issues with getting back from the doctor.

      I am fortunate enough that I am allowed to work from home for my library job, but I have coworkers in public facing roles who are dealing with high rates of non-compliance for mask wearing from patrons, patrons purposefully coughing on them, the fun of checking in materials that we hope we’ve quarantined long enough that they don’t have Covid-19 all over them.

      It is a scary world out there right now.

    3. Public Sector Manager*

      But these are hourly employees and even for hourly employees in the public sector, they only get paid for the hours they work. If they work an 8 hour day and leave a half hour early, they are only getting paid for 7.5 hours. There is zero indication the OP is letting her staff engage in time theft.

    4. Librarian X*

      Hi, I’m a librarian. Here is what I think is actually going on. The library’s general working hours are for an example: 9-6, but the library is allowing staff to come in at 8:30-5:30 or otherwise adjusting their normal work hours since the location is closed to the public. Flexible work schedules can really make life run smoothly and employees tend to enjoy them. There is no indication here that fulltime staff aren’t working 40 hours a week.

      1. megaboo*

        Agree with you, Librarian X. We have been a little flexible with the schedule. We haven’t opened to the public since March, so…yeah. I’m sure it will be soon, though.

    5. logicbutton*

      There is so much corruption elsewhere in government that if my tax dollars are only going to a library assistant who fudged their timecard, I’ll be overjoyed.

    6. OP*

      Thanks for pointing this out. It’s normally more like “I came in 20 minutes late because I was helping my kid log onto their elearning platform so I’ll shorten my lunch” or “It’s ten minutes until closing, the phones have already been automatically turned off and everything is ready for tomorrow, so everyone can go home now rather than stand around for ten more minutes.” But I have noticed some ‘creep’ with some staff members and I need to keep more of an eye on that and make sure they understand they can’t be working non-trivially shorter days and still getting their full paychecks (unless they are taking paid leave for the difference, of course).

  7. TechServLib*

    I support the gradual return to previous expectations. Like Alison said, I think many of us expected that we’d hit a certain point where everything is back to “normal,” but it’s clear that this isn’t the case and we need to work within the circumstances we currently have. My library asked that I start returning over the summer under the conditions that I set my own hours for when I am in the building (~10 per week, I work 40 total) and that there are no patrons allowed in the building. I started by working through some backlog projects that had built up during my time 100% wfh, and now I’m starting to chip away at other projects that got totally pushed aside. My boss has made it clear that he does not expect I get everything done at the same rate that I would if I were in the office all the time, but that our work should not stagnate. There are many things (weeding and binding in particular for me) that don’t seem like priorities in the current circumstances but will be much much worse the longer I leave them untouched. I’d start with adding projects that are necessary but not urgent to regular staff duties and make it clear that you expect them to work on the projects, but that they can still have some laxity overall for things like calling kids at home and other real-life stuff that comes up more often now than before.

    1. OneBean TwoBean*

      I really like what you said (“My boss has made it clear that he does not expect I get everything done at the same rate that I would if I were in the office all the time, but that our work should not stagnate.”) and think that really captures what my expectations are for my staff. I’ll be using it myself. Thanks!

  8. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

    Will you be my manager? The way you’ve been treating your employees throughout this is wonderful!

    1. OP*

      OP here. Thank you so much! People higher above me have made a lot of decisions in the last six month that I don’t agree with and which I think are harder on staff than they have to be, and being a conduit for those decisions to my team has really burned me out on managing. Hearing that people elsewhere in the library/working world think I am doing a good job means a lot.

    2. Anonosaurus*

      Seconding this. Adjusting your expectations of them while making it clear you won’t punish people for having things other than work to cope with is awesome management.

  9. EPLawyer*

    I just want to say THANK YOU. My local library just returned to curbside pick up and it has been a LIFESAVER. I’d run out of books to read at home and being able to get new books from the library has saved my sanity. I miss being able to browse the shelves to find new to me authors, but knowing I can continue with currents authors fills me with joy.

    Probably not in your system, but thank your staff for me anyway.

    1. The Rural Juror*

      I don’t mind using an eReader, but I prefer physical books. So I’m right there with you! Thanks, Library Staff!

    2. Guacamole Bob*

      I have elementary age kids, and they burn through books at an astounding rate and ebooks aren’t as good for their age range even when we can find good ones. Contactless pickup has been amazing for our family and kept our kids reading!

    3. BadWolf*

      Our library recently added a “curate” option to curbside. You list interests/media and they put together a stack of items for you — I think it might primary be for kids, but it seemed like a great idea when you’re running low on what to just reserve via the website (a friend said it was amazing for her kindergartener).

    4. Totally Minnie*

      Check to see if your library is doing any online programming. Mine puts up new videos every week, and a lot of them are book recommendation sessions. I’ve found a couple of good new authors that way. It’s not quite the same as browsing the shelves, but it’s still good.

    5. OyHiOh*

      My favorite discovery in my library’s online system is the “recommend a book” feature! It’s almost as good as browsing the shelves. It asks for the last three books you read and loved, and asks what you loved about them, and then it recommends books to read next. The one my system is using is shockingly good at coming up with unexpected but excellent suggestions.

    6. yala*

      Our library started a new thing for folks who’ve run out of stuff to read where you fill out a form with specific books you like and genres you’re interested in, and one of the librarians gets back to you with specific titles the library has that you might like. It’s something they can do even when people can’t come inside, and gives the librarians a small side project.

    7. Amelia Shepherd*

      thank you for this. as a librarian, but not one of yours (my library is open to the public), please share your comments with your local library! we get a lot of complaints that things aren’t back to normal (ie: if we’re open, people complain we have no seating available or that they can’t sit on the computers for 5 hours like they could before), so I’m sure your local library would love to hear positive feedback. :)

    8. OP*

      Thank YOU! Your comment made my afternoon! I am so glad you are still using the library. The branch I manage was very busy pre-COVID, but we are relatively slow right now because our population really depended on in-person services like browsing, attending programs, and using the computers. I am so worried that my library and community will lose out on resources in the future because we will start to be seen as a ‘slow’ location that is not in demand. Every person who tolerates the inconvenience of using curbside services helps demonstrate to city leadership, funding agencies, etc. that libraries are still valuable.

  10. Mel_05*

    People are better at work transitions than we often expect them (or ourselves) to be.

    I was laid off for 5 months last year. I’d never had such a long work gap since I graduated college and I was really worried that I’d have a hard time adjusting to office life again when I got my new job. Especially since, aside from the money stress, I really loved not working. But, it barely felt like a transition at all! Soon I was just as happy going into the office as I had been at home.

    Then this year has been a whole mess of transitions! Work from from home, laid off, part time, full time – it’s a lot. But I haven’t found that it was super hard to adjust.

    And I know everyone is different, but I will say, I’m not a huge fan of change. I have my routines, I like them, I get annoyed when they’re disrupted. And yet, these very significant changes haven’t kept me from bouncing back pretty quickly. And your staff most likely will do the same.

  11. Paris Geller*

    I know there’s a lot of librarians who read AAM, so I’m sure you’ll get a lot of great input from readers in our field if you decide to read the comments. First, it sounds like you’re being quite empathetic to your team, so thank you. As for your actual questions, as a librarian who was working in a closed library for months (though now we have reopened a tiny bit, just by reservation, for short time periods), there’s a lot of space between what you’re requiring now and expecting previous level of performance. I don’t think requiring the previous level of output is necessary or ideal when you know you’ll have staff dealing with the daily toil of living during the pandemic, whether that’s anxiety about getting sick themselves or taking care of kids who are in virtual or hybrid school, etc. However, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking for, say, 25% more output than the current status–IF there’s actual work to be done. I know when we closed back in March I was surprise by how much work I could get done in the building despite the lack of patrons–I weeded, organized, planned and worked on virtual programs, went through and updated catalog records that had errors, etc. If you have actual valuable work, it’s worth assigning, particularly if you’re just giving your staff soft deadlines.

    1. Allonge*

      The mindway solutions are what I alos wanted to mention. There is no way out of this, we know now there will not be a quick magic fix. All the way back to 130% is obviously a bad idea, but do pick up projects laid aside, do start brainstorming on what works better now and what to keep from the current services, do start treating this as the new normal.

      I am sure there are people working for you who are completely exhausted and can only do the minimum, but there must be also people who are bored out of their skulls and would welcome a professional task / discussion / challenge. I live alone, my daily work provides as much active entertainment as I am going to get these days. Find the people who are on my end of the spectrum and start working with them on new stuff, things you never had time for. Monitor how that goes. You got this!

  12. Nethwen*

    Throwing this out there to maybe give context as people comment.

    I’m in library management (not the OP) and I agree with Alison’s advice. That said, comments tend to range a bit away from the specific topic of the post, so one factor to keep in mind is that as library management, we have to find a way to give staff all the support and accommodations we can and also keep stakeholders happy so that the staff can keep their jobs. In my locality, if community members or local government knew that staff were leaving early because there wasn’t enough work to keep them busy for a full day, it could directly cause a funding cut in the next cycle which means that someone loses their job or a full-time position becomes a part-time position. It almost certainly would mean that we would not get funding to make a part-time position a full-time one or other increases for personnel expenses.

    As a manager, I don’t mind fielding disgruntled comments from members of the public who believe that staff are getting paid to “do nothing” because the building is closed, but I also have to think very carefully about the optics of what we do so that someone doesn’t lose their job due to a variety of unfortunate social norms around libraries and public employees.

    1. Anon Library Manager*

      As someone who just got out of a library budget meeting where we have to determine which positions to cut, I wholeheartedly agree with this comment. I am giving leeway where I can and being sensitive to the stresses of the pandemic. I, myself, have a school aged kid so I get it. However, I need staff to be showing their relevance to the community or they will end up without jobs. It is an ugly truth and I hate it. But it is the reality.

      I am assuming that the letter writer is just deciding not to nickel and dime and letting people be flexible with schedules, but as a public agency, they should be careful about tracking time or you’ll be on the front page of the newspaper. “Government Employees’ Fraudulent Timekeeping.” I really do assume this isn’t what you are doing, but feel like I should put it out there.

      1. Nethewen*

        I’m sorry, Anon Library Manager. Having to decide which positions to cut… it’s heart-wrenching if people are in those positions. My thoughts are with you all when you have to deliver that news.

      2. Marple*

        The part about letting staff come in late and leave early struck me also. While it seems nice, it is fraud if the employees are hourly. You don’t get that kind of leeway when it’s taxpayer money.

        1. Rachel Morgan*

          Actually, you do if they aren’t being paid for it. If your normal hours are from 9-5, but, say you come in at 930 and work until 5, you get paid for 7.5 hours. Not 8.

          1. Anon Library Manager*

            Yeah, I do think when they mentioned that they are hourly, the LW was noting that they are paid for time worked, which means this is not fraud, and I definitely wasn’t trying to be alarmist. It’s just something I am always thinking about working for the government. People are just waiting for us to slip up and be “crooked” even when we really aren’t.

      3. OP*

        Thanks, this is helpful! I don’t think I was thinking about this enough. It’s been more like “I’m supposed to be here at 9:00 but I got here at 9:20 because I was waiting in line with my kid to get her temperature taken to be allowed to enter school, so I’ll take a 40-minute lunch instead of a 60-minute lunch” or “We all left at 5:55 instead of 6:00 because the work was all done and there wasn’t anything we could do in 5 minutes,” but I don’t think I’ve been clear enough with staff that if it’s non-trivial amounts of time, they need to make it up or take paid leave to get their full paycheck–they can’t report more work time than they actually did.

        I’m also very much with you on needing to demonstrate the library’s value right now, but unfortunately as a first-line supervisor in my system I don’t have much control over that. My number one frustration at work is that my staff could be doing more, but our library system has put a ton of emphasis on uniformity of service, so we are not allowed to do anything that the busiest curbside locations don’t have time to do. Lots of people have suggested encouraging staff to do various projects that would keep them engaged while also benefiting the community, but every time I ask for approval from my own management to launch something I get told no.

        1. Nethwen*

          That sounds very frustrating. Can some of your staff go to other locations specifically to implement some of the services you’ve thought of? That way “we’re too busy” isn’t a concern because you’ve provided the staff? It doesn’t sound like you have the authority to make those decisions, but it sounds like you’re thinking in a way that makes you a good manager and a good community-focused administrator.

          1. OP*

            Thanks. I would like that solution very much, but they don’t want people going to other work locations because it increases the number of people everyone interacts with, which is a COVID risk. We went through a big restructure and I was very surprised that my location did not have positions redistributed to busier locations. That’s absolutely what I would have done if the decisions had been up to me. I think they are thinking that longer-term the workload will even out and they want to be ready for that, but in the shorter term it really seems misguided. I don’t know.

      4. Blerpborp*

        I’m a librarian at a college in what was definitely a hot zone over the summer and we opened back up, staffing service desks, in person library instruction, computer lab, the works! in July with expanded hours during this semester. It’s pretty unusual and somewhat of a political choice that I wasn’t necessarily pleased with. BUT would I rather the library be providing services and looking vital even if it is stressful to me to be coming into work and staffing a desk and going in classrooms if the alternative is the budget and jobs being cut and generally the library being less valued in the college? I tend towards it being worth it. I AM more used to the situation, I feel pretty well versed on how to keep me and my staff safe and would say we’re all generally working at a pretty standard level (although there are of course less students coming in person.) I am constantly telling students to put their masks on, sure, but I am also happy to be showing my (and the library’s relevance.)

    2. Anonny*

      I don’t work for a library, but three if our public library’s staff members were just laid off along with eight other city employees.

      1. Anon Library Manager*

        Yeah, it is a really hard time for public libraries (and literally everyone else too of course).

  13. Bookworm*

    LW: No advice, but thanks for thinking this through and for trying hard to balance both the business AND the need of your employees at this time. There are far too many horror stories about people being forced to work and forced to work without any sort of protections (PPE or even considerations from management), so it was actually nice to see this letter.

    I’m sure this is also a struggle for you, trying to manage this AND your own pandemic experience, so thank you for trying to do the right thing (even if it’s unclear exactly what that looks like). You may not have meant it, but this letter gave me a little hope. Thank you for writing and for caring.

    1. OP*

      Thank you so much for saying so! It’s a really rough time, emotionally. I feel like I’m the one who has to stay calm and not show stress at work since I’m the manager, and frankly it sucks. I really appreciate the kind words.

  14. Jimming*

    “You’ve got to be realistic about the stresses people are under, the distractions they face, and the toll that changes necessitated by the pandemic are taking“ – Thanks Alison! I wish all mangers would consider this. My workplace hasn’t been consistent which has made things more stressful. An acknowledgment that we’re still in a pandemic goes a long way.

  15. Emi*

    Since they’re not doing their regular duties, I bet they would be happy provide childcare for other county employees! ;)

  16. Not playing your game anymore*

    Another librarian here. We allow patrons on the first floor of our 3 story building but we’ve moved most of the staff upstairs. The couple who remain are behind plexiglass.

    I’d ask your staff to start doing some of the things that have been on hold where practical and have them work on things that make sense to improve awareness and access to remote resources, etc., But at the same time keep cutting some slack for people dealing with issues at home. School/learning issues for the kids, helping vulnerable friends and relatives, figuring out how to get the cat to the vet or the dog to the groomer all still takes so much more time and energy. We have staff in the building and staff working from home still, and we are encouraging those who are in the building to set aside work that they’ll be able to do from home if we go back into lockdown mode. People are scanning archival materials like crazy when they aren’t at a service point. It’s valuable work, but they are not doing transcription work, as the would in the past. We’re saving that for wfh if the need arises. That kind of thing.

  17. Lilly*

    OP, thank you for being a great manager and great support to your team! I am sadly under a manager who sees the pandemic as just part of life now and thinks staff should be working like normal and that it shouldn’t be interfering at all. Just the stress of trying to meet her expectations while managing day to day life in a covid hotspot city (my city has the highest numbers in our whole country…) is taking a huge toll on me. So thank you for being a great manager, your team is lucky to have you!

  18. another Hero*

    OP, speaking as a library worker, I much prefer to be doing stuff at work but I’m having some trouble filling my days right now–I’ve gotten through projects like weeding, I’m doing a lot less programming and no displays, and there’s only so many hours I can spend on webinars and PD. Are there actually tasks piling up that your staff aren’t doing?

    That said, Alison is right, and if your library is anything like mine, your staff are probably facing frequent, significant changes in what’s expected of them, including what level of risk to their health they’re expected to accept for the sake of library service, so do be sure and let them process those transitions.

    1. another Hero*

      (sorry, I should have gone farther with the first one: do they have things to do, like, if they want to do things, without having to heavy brainstorm first?)

    2. OP*

      Thanks! That’s very much what we are struggling with. I have projects that people can do, but they aren’t exactly urgent, nor are they frankly very interesting or mentally engaging. People want to do interesting, meaningful work, not just another inventory or shifting project. My staff is all public-facing, so they like interacting with people and that’s the job they signed up for and like–dusting the shelves and searching for all the DVDs that have been ‘missing’ for years, not so much.

      1. migrating coconuts*

        I always say, library work is a calling, not a job. As such, however, we are all well aware that there are boring parts to the job. No one likes to shelf read, or check dvd cases, or search for long missing books (although that can be fun for some people) But it’s a necessary task. And sometimes there is never enough time for it. Organizing closets, inventorying supplies, weeding, etc, these can all be seen as tasks that will ultimately make the library a better place when you reopen to the public and that can be a good way to present these jobs to the staff. Maybe people can rotate between these jobs and the jobs that still have public contact, give them a balance. But please be careful of being seen as not having enough work to do. Budget cuts loom around every corner and library services always seem to be one of the first things to be cut.

      2. another Hero*

        I mean, that stuff does still have to get done, of course; I’m there to work with the public, I’ve done plenty of shifting and dusting during covid, and frankly, I’d prefer to dust rather than just spend more time browsing knitting patterns online. But also, what are the other managers in your system doing–I think you suggested elsewhere that there were a decent number of buildings, and some of them must also have more staff than (interesting) work.

  19. Alex*

    I think there’s a wide gulf between understanding the potential stress of your workers’ personal lives, general environment, crap of 2020, and letting them do the absolute bare minimum to keep things going. I think you can ask them to work during work hours without guilt–that is what they are there to do. The understanding part comes in when you hear “I need to check on my kids” or “I need to slightly alter my schedule” and being accommodating and kind–that doesn’t mean you can’t have any expectations at all.

    1. H2*

      Absolutely this–I’m actually really surprised at all of the responses that seem like it’s more normal now for people to not be expected to do work at work. I’m in education, so right now we are basically working double time and the situation is really, truly horrific, but I don’t know anyone who is just hanging out at work with few expectations at this point.

      I think that giving people grace and flexibility is absolutely the right thing to do, but I also think that you should expect people to do their jobs. Local government jobs in my little city are really in peril right now (the entire youth activities team was laid off recently, which is heartbreaking because there is hardly a family in this town who hasn’t been positively impacted by those lovely people), and I have been holding my breath for the library employees. But even more than that, it’s good for people to have structure and goals, and useful activities to occupy their minds, as others have said. As awful as my job is right now, many of the small bright notes of my days come from doing a good job for my students. And it’s something not related to the election or covid or anything else, so it’s a break from other stress.

      1. OP*

        Educators are amazing! I know you are all working SO hard without any extra resources, and under a lot more stress. One of the things I wish our library system was doing more of is trying to support our school district more. For example, it would be really cool if we could get the remote learning software they are using on our computers, so we could act as tech support for families.

        I of course don’t want to be laid off, nor do I want my employees to be laid off. But the reality is that the people in my neighborhood relied a lot on the library for children’s programs, for accessing public computers, and for browsing, and we can’t safely offer any of those services right now. There just isn’t the same level of demand for the services we CAN provide. We can still do work that is valuable, but the marginal value of cleaning out a storage closet is a lot less than providing a storytime, and staff knows it too. Finding work that feels meaningful for people is hard when so many of our most valuable, emotionally-significant tasks are off the table.

  20. Jennifer*

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect people to do their jobs. If work has been piling up all summer there’s nothing wrong with asking them to pitch in. Many people have had to do their normal jobs plus more during this time. I do appreciate your kindness toward your staff. I think you should continue to allow flexible scheduling and personal calls within reason, but you aren’t a big meanie if you need your staff to work.

  21. Rachel Morgan*

    I would start assigning work. At least in my library (and every other library I’ve worked at), there have been large projects put on the wayside that are (nearly) perfect to complete now.

    Such as: inventory (when was the last time you did a complete inventory of every circulating/reference item in your library? If you’re looking at every book, pull them all off the shelf, Flip through them, look at condition and for money (no joke…while weeding 2 years ago, I pulled out $60 in cash from a psych book…). This will show you repairs to books that have been missed
    Weeding (using CREW if you don’t, you could look at strictly condition and up to date-edness)
    Cleaning storage rooms (never fun, but necessary)
    Organizing & cataloging storage rooms (just how much of a project can you make?)
    Cataloging obscure collections (do you have a file cabinet filled with local history and you just don’t know what’s in there?)
    Recording videos for FB

    At this point, either schedule your people less or bring them in for projects. Especially the hourly people, how much time are they shaving off their schedules by coming in late and leaving early?

    I’d start to think about things they could do that’s not just busy work, but work that’s been put off.

    I know libraries who haven’t done an inventory of their collections in 20 years. When I worked in one (not quite 20 years!), I found an interloan that was on our shelf (not from our library!) that had been missing so long the home library had deleted it.

    1. Cthulhu's Librarian*

      Gonna agree with this comment – if you’re a library that hasn’t at least started a complete inventory or shelf check during this time period, it’d be a good thing to do now.

      Also consider major shelf shifts (ever wanted to experiment with a bookstore model of shelving your fiction? Now is a great time!)

  22. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    My PoV as an individual contributor who is long-term remote.

    All summer was like this and it looks like the next few months are going to be more of the same because we are in a virus hotspot. I am beginning to wonder at what point, if ever, I should start “working back up” to expecting people to perform at their pre-pandemic levels again.

    The sooner the better–immediately if you can. Accommodations are one thing, but at the end of the day, the work needs done. If you can’t find a way to return to pre-Covid productivity, or at least approach it, you risk getting competed out of the market. This may not be an issue in a Library, but you still may run into problems the less similar services you can provide on a similar budget. (I’m thinking of future levies and bonds, specifically).

    On the one hand, I really hate how a lot of employers seem to have sort of just gotten bored with the pandemic and stopped having empathy for their staff, and I know the stress level people are living with probably hasn’t really changed.

    All true, and glad to hear you thinking of that. The empathy and flexibility will help you retain good personnel even once Covid is a bad memory.

    On the other hand, I worry that I am I setting my team up for problems down the road by letting them develop habits that would be considered performance issues in normal times.

    Also true; the habits that would be a problem in another profession or location are an especial disservice to allow to take hold. It’s a fine line to walk, certainly, but coming down on the side of professionalism is going to serve you well more often than not.

    Best of luck!

  23. Malarkey01*

    Want to add that both personally and what I’m seeing from my staff, stress and uncertainty are actually going up not down right now. We went from a concerning hot spot to an emergency hot spot here, with our first cold snap it’s clear that we won’t be going outside after work to blow off steam, and it’s getting to dark so much earlier. On top of that school is remote and wasn’t a concern in the summer, and more people are getting sick (my mother’s neighbor just died this past weekend after a week on a ventilator), and we’re looking at not having family Thanksgiving and Christmas. All said, I’ve been someone handling the pandemic well for 7 months that is just starting to have issues. My staff have personally shared that their anxiety and depression are making appearances.

    Only wanted to add that perspective because while many of us want to get back to normal or assume that we should be adapted by now, it actually might be the opposite and going to be hardest for a few months. Sigh

    1. whew*

      I’m in the same boat. I felt like I handled the beginning of the pandemic well, but just when I’m expected to have it all figured out, things got worse. I’m incredibly burnt out. My two young children don’t need any less care now then they did 6 months ago.

    2. another Hero*

      this outside of work as well as at work–services shifting towards increased risk basically because people are over the pandemic. uncertainty at work has been a constant since we went back, and it’s always moved toward greater risk even as case counts have been going up.

    3. Emi*

      I agree with this — my mental health really started nosediving this past month (and it’s still sunny out here, so I know it’s not just seasonal).

  24. Ophelia Bumblesmoop*

    I greatly appreciate that you have adjusted your expectations for your staff and communicated that with them. I think it’s also important to add opportunities for those who prefer to stay busy. I am one of those – I want to be distracted from my issues. What about finding a middle ground by coming up with some projects that can be done by those who want to take on more? A lot of that would be things that can be done once everything is back to normal.

    I work in a school so I’m in a similar situation with not having people around right now, so I took the time to take care of some long-term projects that I just never had time to do. I remade signs that we use in office and on campus, redesigned some graphics and flyers that needed updating, worked on continuity binders for volunteers and other staff members. I have made A LOT of how-to documents and organized them all into a fun little binder that makes it easier for staff to find the correct resource.

    I imagine that maybe they can put the web browsing to good use… make some “If… Then” flyers based on reviews, reading lists, plan community events for later, etc. There’s probably a totally different set of projects you would do that I don’t know about, like repairs or something, but you know all that. :)

    1. Sunflower*

      This is good point. I’m personally feeling more Groundhog Day that I ever did back in the beginning of this. Back in April, I had hopes for what summer would look like and at least things would be opening up. Now that I’m on the opposite end, knowing how much longer it took to open up than expected, knowing things will be closing back up and the weather turning cooler, it definitely feels more depressing.

  25. LibrarianJ*

    Another library manager commenting here — My system is open to the public for limited hours, although we all work our full shifts (which is helpful to get the building ready for the day). When we were in our first stages of re-opening though, people were not all working full shifts in the building. I found that it helped keep people connected to their work to assign a webinar to everyone and then have a discussion (we use Slack) — and choosing subjects like customer service were good, but we also viewed things about stress management, and other topics. Being able to keep people connected this way was really helpful. The trick I found was to not overload people on library-related stuff —- because stress management is related, but it’s also about taking care of yourself. :)
    And, I agree with the other comments about projects —- we’re doing a videogame inventory this week, but we’ve worked on weeding, shifting, and creating displays online (we use our catalog and website, but you can create great things for your library’s Facebook or other social media).
    Definitely agree with others that you’re on the right track! These are weird, stressful times so I think the empathetic approach is going to go a long way with your staff.

  26. MK*

    I have to say I completely disagree with Alison’s advice. To begin with, OP, I think you handled this badly from the beginning: as far as I can tell, you basically announced to your staff that you would expect the bare minimum from them during the pandemic. It’s one thing to be understanding of lower performance and accommodating to the new normal and the stresses it creates, but it was a bad idea to introduce this “why bother with anything” mentality in the workplace. I am not saying you should have kept their noses to the grindstone, but you should have gone on with your normal projects as best you could, making allowances as necessary, not put everything on hold till further notice. Especially if there are things that could have been done safely and with minimum disruption to the public during lockdown, but you have allowed your staff to spent the time that could have been them doing inventory browsing the internet.

    And I don’t think it’s all that reasonable to assume they will be able to bounce back to their former performance as easily as all that, because frankly this won’t be about them adjusting to a higher workload after a low season; it will be about changing work habits that have become entrenched after a year or more.

    1. Someone On-Line*

      I don’t know about your library, but our local one shut down for a few months to in person business and even now all events are virtual. So frankly, it’s not reasonable to expect all projects to move forward as normal when normal isn’t happening.

      1. MK*

        No, it wouldn’t. Which is why I said “continue with your normal work as best you could” and not “move forward as normal”. The OP specifically says that the only task they expected their employees perform are the curbside deliveries; a more reasonable response would be to make a plan about which projects could continue as normal, which had to be put on hold indefinitely or abandoned, which could be modified and whether there might be new initiatives that could be put in place without overburdening the employees but might be helpful to their patrons and actually keep the staff invested in their work.

      1. MK*

        I don’t mean to be unkind, but I do feel strongly that the OP has failed in their pandemic response, in the opposite direction than the employers who are unreasonably demanding of their staff. And that the employees were told they only needed to do curbside deliveries, that there is work to be done, but the OP has allowed this to be done on a volunteer basis, this is information given in letter, not an interpretation.

        I am sure the OP had good intentions, I am sorry if my comment implied otherwise. But, frankly, this sounds like a nightmare to me: being told that my work doesn’t need to be done even at a limited capacity, because pandemic, would have added to my sense of doom and caused more stress to me. Being able to occupy my mind with the part of my work that can still be done, to be useful and productive, being able to feel that life hasn’t been put on hold during the pandemic and that things will return to some kind of normalcy, that this is a chance to get some things done that are always left undone in busier times and to be in an as good as possible position at the eventual reopening, all these things helped save my sanity the past 8 months.

        1. Alice*

          It’s not clear from the letter if some staff have been browsing the internet and calling their kids full time since March, or if the lowered expectations are more like “normally it would be unacceptable to call your kids or browse the internet while you’re sitting at a workstation, but right now I don’t care if they do that occasionally instead of ‘occupying themselves with other projects.'” I’m not sure why you are assuming the former.
          Also, maybe you posted before OP added in a comment that she’s been asked not to provide any more services than the busiest branch can provide. So, it’s not even clear to me if the projects which she’s letting staff volunteer (or not volunteer) to do are “useful and productive” ones that can help “save [your] sanity” or not. In my experience, when meaningful work is on offer, people don’t have to be dragooned into doing it.
          My advice to OP would be to try and ensure that the projects her team are working on outside of curbside pickup are, to the extent possible, meaningful and productive ones. That could mean different projects, or it could mean explaining to the team how a seemingly useful inventory project is actually important to the library’s mission and the patrons they serve.

    2. Jennifer*

      I must say…I kind of agree. I probably wouldn’t have put it the way you did because I think the OP is a kind person that wanted to do right by her staff. I just think a better approach would have been allowing more flexible scheduling and personal calls on work time to check on family, as opposed to letting most of the work fall to the wayside.

  27. TootsNYC*

    I would personally start instituting a few in-the-building projects to make sure people are accomplishing something at work. Because I think that indolence is very bad for people’s state of mind.

    I’d get people thinking about what kinds of organizing, decluttering, planning, decorating, acquiring, building, etc., things we could tackle that don’t involve patrons. That maybe have always been on a list of “when we have time” or “it’s not that important.”

    And I’d institute goals and accountability.

    Not because I’m worried about them ramping up later, but because I think we’d all feel better for having set and achieved goals. It’ll be motivating to be able to say, “Oh, yes, look at that rearrangement of shelves; that’s handy, and we did it during the pandemic.”

    I’d not be insisting that people be there bang on time if there’s not a real payoff in terms of customers, but I would want them to be in pretty close to on-time, and I’d want them to be active in some way (it would be my job to help them find that way).

    1. OP*

      Thank you. We have lots of those ‘it’s not that important’ projects, and people who like to be busy can and do work on them. But everyone knows they are those ‘it’s not that important’ projects. The people who like to stay busy at work are finding that those are better than nothing, but they miss doing work that feels important, and I think they are disengaging from work as a whole because that feels easier than constantly being frustrated that they can’t do their pre-COVID jobs anymore.

  28. Anon-mama*

    Wow. You’re really thoughtful, OP. I’m a non-degree holding circ library worker. We were work from home for six weeks during the first surge, and everyone got really burnt out om webinars. So when we were brought back in but closed to the public for another six weeks, the backlog of projects was welcome. What was nice was not having management nitpick if we took a brain break for a few minutes or streamed audiobooks or sosomething while doing more rote tasks. We then fully opened to the public (in New England, so it’s not terrible), partially to save everyone’s full-time status. So if it’s a legitimate concern to fill the time, offer options of an hour or two on Project X Y or Z each day, but lax about how it gets done (chatter, music on, etc.).

    One thing outside of workload to be extra mindful of is that if you have everyone back in, while the risk to and from the public is mitigated, you should ensure the risk from each other is mitigated as well: ventilation (our windows will be open in the dead of winter), limit on number of people in certain workspaces, plexiglass in between desks, uv filters are on their way, and clear communication on how you will handle cases (ideally the employee contacts you, and you have appropriate–very expansive definitions of close contacts, and affected coworkers can quarantine asap, rather than wait for contact tracers). We don’t have that information, nor fans in the majority of employee bathrooms, so I don’t feel terribly protected, and that’s what I’d want a lot more than a super light workload.

  29. EventPlannerGal*

    If you’re feeling guilty about starting to restart projects and so on, it might help to remember that for a lot of people throwing themselves into work is an excellent distraction from whatever else is going on in their lives. Of course that’s not the case for everyone, but I think a good number of your staff may very well appreciate having more things to do to occupy their minds; otherwise it’s very possible they’re just sitting there refreshing the news and winding themselves up more and more all day. I think you might have a lot more buy-in from your staff than you expect.

  30. Elliott*

    I’ve never been a fan of trying to keep people busy just for the sake of seeming busy (it gives me flashbacks to the horrible retail job I had as a teen where I had to pretend to straighten things up when there was literally nothing to do). If there’s actually work that could be done or it’s possible to engage with the community more, then I think it’s fine (and perhaps even preferable) to start exploring that–and some people might appreciate having a project to work on or opportunities for career development. But if the main thing right now is to keep people employed so that they’re there when there’s work to do or things pick up again, and everyone is staying on top of things, I would be lenient.

    I also suspect that this pandemic might require some long-term adjustments to how some workplaces approach certain issues, such as employees having to check in with their kids during the day. For one thing, things probably aren’t going to return to “normal” in a linear fashion. For another, if some adjustments are working okay now, it may be worth considering if the original way of doing things as completely necessary or not. Things will probably be very different when libraries are able to fully open again, but some strategies developed during the pandemic may be useful long-term.

  31. SassyAccountant*

    I’m a little concern or maybe confused with this statement: “and trying not to bat an eye if I see somebody browsing the Internet or calling home to check on their kids instead of picking up a project in their “off desk” time.” I don’t know if this is because of the world of libraries or what but other than obsessively browsing the internet instead of doing work I don’t see how calling home to check on your children is something you’d ever have to bat an eye at. Why couldn’t someone walk away from their desk for a few minutes and check on the children even during “normal” times? Are we nickeling and diming hourly employees that much? Is that a library thing? Are these people calling home and then spending a half hour on the phone with their families? Is this at all any different between having a good old fashion water cooler chat with one’s co-workers? This isn’t to bash the OP’s overarching question about how to best help her employees acclimate to the hopefully one day world of work “normalcy” but to just shed light on where to really focus ones energy on if one has concerns about their employees work/work ethic.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      I think this is probably a reference to how much they’re doing it. My job doesn’t care if you check in to make sure your kids got home from school OK, etc., but my coworker got a talking-to for spending a frankly excessive amount of time “checking in” with most of her extended family. These were conversations that could have waited until she got home in the evening.

    2. Alice*

      Depending on the setting and role, it might be frowned upon to conduct any personal business at a public service point (reference desk, circulation desk).

    3. library minion*

      Public libraries often have odd work rules. For example , I started at the public library before cell phones were common. To use the library phone to make a personal call, I had to log the call in the handwritten paper phone log and pay the desk clerk a quarter. I did this. I got called into the office by my supervisor and informed that the branch telephone was not for excessive personal calls.
      Everyday around 4:00 I would call my husband to see if he was planning to be home for dinner and if he could estimate the time. Less than two minute call.
      I didn’t think that was excessive.

  32. Sciencer*

    I think it’s worth looking ahead 6-12 months to ask yourself: what is ignorable for now but may create crises to deal with down the road? If there’s a major deadline a year from now, it might feel best to let that slide while we’re still in pandemic mode. But… what if we’re still in pandemic mode, or close to it, a year from now? If there are ways to get people who *can* take on more work right now to start doing that, even in small doses, it seems wise to chip away at projects rather than let them sit completely idle.

  33. Dust Bunny*

    Academic library employee here: Is this other work interior or outreach-y?

    We’ve limited visitors/researchers and anyone else coming in from outside, but work that’s internal/does not require human contact proceeds as usual. Our productivity has actually gone up, maybe because instead of commuting, people are stuck at home doing research rather than whatever they used to do. I’m working from home two days a week but on the days that I’m in the office, I do pretty much the same as I did pre-pandemic because there is no reason for me not to–the work that doesn’t involve researchers has not changed.

  34. WFH with Cat*

    OP, kudos on your thoughtful, compassionate concern for your employees. As others have noted, now would be a very good time to make sure that they are seen as valuable contributors to the community (and not, sadly, jobs to be eliminated).

    To that end … I recommend having your social media team crank it up with as much variety as possible. The more active and responsive to public needs the Library is seen to be, the better. (If you don’t have a dedicated social media team, now would be a good time to suss out who would be interested and most likely to be good at it!)

    Some post ideas:
    – Recommendations for books, videos, etc. for curbside pick-up.
    – Info/what-we-do posts about the many internal/”unseen” tasks that are going on to keep the Library running efficiently, including all the weeding/catalog clean-up, etc. that people often don’t know is needed. (I didn’t, and have learned about it here!)
    – Recorded video/zoom interviews with writers (and others who might normally be involved in on-site library events).
    – Are you partnering with local schools in any way that supports distance education/home schooling? If so, that could be something to highlight as well.

    Hope this is helpful!

  35. sad librarian*

    Take it from someone whose public library is experiencing devastating cuts in budget right now – find something for them to do to justify their jobs, or you’ll find yourself having to cut positions. Preferably, something the public will notice and like. I’m in the Midwest and this is happening throughout our region at both the bity city library and suburban systems. Can you start a blog on your website or a new email for a book recommendation service or a weekly Facebook storytime? Then make sure you hype those service up in your trustee meetings and public newsletters. I hate it when people say that public servants need to justify their jobs, but this is a time where it better to be prepared to do so. Being honest with your staff about that is a kindness, and you’ll help protect them more by making the case now.

    1. OP*

      God, I wish. I am part of a big urban system, and all those kinds of initiatives are happening above my head, without the involvement or input of my staff or of me. My biggest frustration is how little my staff is ALLOWED to do by our central admin.

      Mostly what I am learning from reading these comments is that I probably just need to look for a different job–all the suggestions about what to do are things I’ve asked my own superiors for permission to do and been told no. I can’t keep staff engaged and active if I don’t have the tools to do so. Sigh.

      1. library minion*

        Having worked in an urban system with over 30 branches, I get the “directive”. I get it and don’t agree with it.i don’t mean this as snarky but perhaps advocacy training. I am annoyed by the comments “just curbside service” this is community centered, back breaking, fatiguing work. You are doing a good job and THERE IS A PANDEMIC. Staff that “don’t have enough work” on site should be putting together portfolios of past work, of programs, compiling statistics, looking at comparable library systems. Time to rally what is in their best interest. The handwriting is on the wall. There will be cuts, but we hope not. Assign your staff time to revise their resumes. Clerical staff probably don’t even have one. Workshop talking points about why the public library is a community resource. This is internal stuff that you do not need admin. permission to implement. When asked, you are doing staff development. Also that tedious work, shelf checking, inventories etc. Let them listen to podcasts and music. Productivity is proven with stats. Make some.

  36. migrating coconuts*

    Sorry, I’m gonna have to disagree with some people about how this is all great and let the employees be etc etc. It’s one thing to be flexible with start/end times based on people’s need, and to allow phone calls to kids etc. But letting them surf the net? Work on projects when they feel like it? People need normalcy to feel normal. They can and should be doing projects, especially since you are closed to the public. I work in a library. We closed for 3 months, and almost all the staff was laid off. If the public finds out staff doesn’t have enough to do, or isn’t doing work, you will find yourself with permanent staff and budget cuts. Libraries are usually the first to suffer when there are budget shortfalls. You should all be taking advantage of the closed to public aspect and doing all the things staff never have the time to do. Weeding, inventory, cleaning out closets and rooms, etc. Also, doing things to benefit the public, like virtual programs, updating website offerings, recording short videos showing patrons how to use your online resources, etc.I’ll just reiterate, people need normalcy to feel normal. Keeping busy is always a good thing.

    1. OP*

      Thanks. I think what I’m realizing reading all the comments is that I just need to get out of my current library system, because it’s not being run in such a way that allows a solution to this problem. All of the projects people are suggesting that benefit the public are things I’ve asked and been told by my own higher-ups that we are not allowed to do, or I’ve been told that it’s not the role of the branch staff (leave it to the marketing team, leave it to the programs team, etc.). We have been doing inventory, weeding, decluttering, etc. but those projects don’t feel like meaningful work in the way that the other things would. I want to keep staff engaged at work but I’m starting to realize I haven’t been given the tools to do that in this position.

      1. Nethwen*

        Yeah, if you aren’t being given the tools to do what you believe is right or aren’t being allowed to use your intelligence, it may be time to find another position. That’s unfortunate, but even as library management, I encourage people to move on, even leave the profession, if working conditions warrant it. Like, don’t accept a ridiculously low salary just because of “passion” or whatever. Warm fuzzies don’t pay the mortgage.

      2. migrating coconuts*

        Oh, thats a shame! I work in a smaller community library. (Not that smaller systems don’t have their problems too) We are connected to the county system, but we don’t ‘report’ to them, so our director has most of the control (she does report to the township manager, but they don’t interfere usually). It’s a good set-up, we can do all kinds of things (as long as we have a great director, which right now we do). And, I know those kinds of tasks are boring, but they are necessary. When our staff got laid off during shut down they would have been more than happy to keep their jobs and do the boring tasks. Its just a scary weird time overall. Hang in there OP.

  37. OP*

    This is OP. Thank you so much, Alison, for addressing my question, and thanks to everyone who commented. I appreciated the compliments about my thoughtfulness, I’m going to revisit how lax I’ve been with time (as someone put it in the comments, all I intended to do was not ‘nickel and dime’ staff, but I am running the risk of allowing people to report more time than they actually worked and not catching it, which as several commenters pointed out is *really* not okay specifically for a public, tax-funded enterprise like mine). What this has really made me realize is how little control I have over being able to give people meaningful work right now–my staff is doing a job that is very different from what they signed up for, and lots of the solutions people suggested to keep my staff engaged through new projects are things I proposed to my own management and was told I am not allowed to do. I definitely need to think about whether I want to have a job managing people who are now doing much more circumscribed work that they might just not be happy with or care about (and that’s not something that’s in my power to change), or whether I need to seek employment elsewhere.

  38. JSPA*

    Ask your staff to make two lists:

    1. Tasks they see that in an ideal world would get done, that are not now being done.

    2. Tasks they think “they or someone like them” could safely do.

    Explain that, at some point in the future, when there’s better treatment, and/or vaccines, there will likely be some level of opening–and the Covid risk won’t be zero.

    At that point, people will need to put all their attention into safety, not on catching up with the tasks that have fallen by the wayside. So now, while they have some procedural protection, and they’ve gotten their safety routine worked out, you’re looking to incrementally add some of those other tasks, so long as it can be done safely, and with their buy-in.

    In SCUBA diving as well a some extreme sports, there’s a rule about only ever adding one new piece of equipment (or one major change in procedure) on any dive. You get fully comfortable on the “one new thing,” until it’s no longer new, before adding another. And you do all of that in less challenging conditions, before trying it in more challenging conditions.

    If you present a slow ramping up of tasks in that light, I think you’ll get a lot of buy-in.

  39. Texas Librarian*

    I work at a public library in Texas. We’ve been open since June. Prior to opening we did curbside only for a month and before that we were on odd schedules. We did a slow ramp up to a more normal schedule (think one week was 50% regular hours, etc.) When we did curbside we did fewer duties and less delivery as it wasn’t as necessary. When we reopened it was not full hours (we are now back to regular hours but still have restrictions).

    Based on this, I’d suggest a phased in approach. Let people know that over the next X period of time you’re going to work to normalizing work, so people should expect A, B & C.

    Good luck!

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