#wfh tools for the unprepared

I know there are millions of humans out there who have worked remotely for a very, very long time, and who have a thousand good tips to share about how that works for their team. I don’t think I’ve reinvented the wheel, or built a better mousetrap. But 2020 was the year when all of American academia went to remote learning, and wasn’t prepared. So here’s what I’ve figured out, so far.

On March 17 my team of 12 transitioned with zero notice to working from home for the duration of the pandemic, per the orders of Governor Cuomo. I have one employee who’s Essential – our campus’s Senior International Officer is on my team – but the rest of us are at home (though she is also now at home most days as the immediate crisis problem solving has resolved).

How did we do that? I don’t have any idea. We just did. Lots of phone calls and emails in the first few days, as people figured out what they needed, and the campus updated directives, and we retrieved laptops and extra monitors and desk chairs from our office suite. So by the next Monday, we were pretty well settled in, physically. My job was to get us settled in, digitally.

After a month, I can confidently say it’s working pretty well. Here are some of the things that I’ve found critical, as the leader of the team, to maintaining some cohesion and a sense of progress.

Staying connected
I had been vaguely aware that our campus was using TechSmith Relay to share instructional videos; a few of the staff in my Center had experimented with it, and I’d seen emails about training. #WFH got me to try it out. In the past, when I’ve had big or complicated or emotionally laden news to share, I’ve done it by recording a quick video and sharing that out by email. But this wasn’t going to be a one-off. I needed an ongoing solution. So I tried out Relay. Let me say: if you have access to Relay, USE IT. It’s so good. Simple, clean, functional. And if you don’t, you can totally find a similar solution (email works, yo!). Every morning when I sit down at my desk, I open Photo Booth and record a 2-5 minute video about my plans for the day and updates on things that happened yesterday. I also generally share the story behind the coffee mug I’m using that day, and a work-from-home tip I’ve gleaned from the web or my own experiences. It helps me feel connected to my people, and the comments on Teams in video thread (more on that below!) make me think it’s doing the same for them.

We are also having weekly staff meetings, which we haven’t done before – we were a “every few weeks” kind of meeting team. In the #wfh world, we’re doing weekly check ins, with meetings at 9 on Wednesday via Zoom. The staff member who’s on the COVID response committee shares updates, the staff member who is point on solving student technology issues (no laptop, no internet) reports out on progress, the staff member running the remote student technology helpdesk reports out, and then we each share what we’re working on. And there’s a lot of laughter, and pets, and general teambuilding. I’m not a fan of meeting-to-meet, and I believe with all my heart that most meetings #couldhavebeenanemail, but these are totally worth it.

I’m also Zooming with the student group I advise (and they set up a Discord chat channel, too), hosting our weekly Sticks and Strings stitch and bitch session, as well as weekly video meetings with subsets of our student employees. One of the main things we lost was connection to our students, and that loss is something I feel very keenly. Connecting everywhere I can matters to me, and to them.

Weekly status reports
Human Resources required us all to do Telecommuting Applications, to satisfy internal controls and State of New York and collective bargaining agreements. I added to that, for my team, a requirement to complete a weekly status report. It has three sections: projects completed, projects worked on, and next week’s goals. It serves three purposes.

  1. It helps me supervise my team remotely. If I know what’s up with people, I can better see the big picture.
  2. It helps me defend my team while they work remotely. If anyone elsewhere in the institution is feeling tetchy about what we’re all up to, I have documentation. I’m a compelling speaker, but it’s nice to have facts behind you! Evidence matters.
  3. It’s a great reflection tool. I’m filling these out, too, and sending them to my boss, so I can affirm that this is a good weekly exercise. It’s easy to feel like nothing is happening, when you move from a bustling campus center with hundreds of students in and out to your attic, staring at the woods. So, what DID I do this week? Oh. A lot more than I’m giving myself credit for. And what did I miss? Add that to next week’s goals…

Threaded group chat
We’re an Office365 campus, so we’re using Outlook, and Calendar, and OneDrive, and Teams. You can replicate all of these with free products – Slack for Teams, calendar and email of your choosing, GoogleDrive for OneDrive. There’s more, particularly once you start looking into project management stuff. But we’ve got Microsoft. And when we really launched with the whole suite, I grumbled at Teams. I could see its potential, but it was annoying. I’m an inveterate Mac user, and Teams just pushed all my “ew, yuck” buttons.

Now that we’re using Teams, though? It doesn’t suck. It supports all the things we need. Quick one on one chats. Team conversations. The ability to @ people. File and image sharing. Threading in conversations. Audio and video calls. I now have a team for my professional staff, and a team for our student staff, and I use them every hour of every work day.

Recognizing the new world order
Everything changed, y’all. I mean, nothing changed: our jobs are still here (we’re lucky, no?), our students are still here, and our work still needs doing. But everything else changed. I needed to change the way I dealt with the work, as a result. I reorganized all my organizing systems.

I now save primarily to OneDrive, so that I can share and access content simply (and it autosaves!). I set up a COVID-19 folder in OneDrive to house things that are truly unique to this circumstance (like status reports and telecommuting contracts), and am using a folder hierarchy under Applied Learning for the rest of the work.

I redefined all the colors in my calendar. I used to have it set to tell me, by color coding, if a block was for task work, or if a meeting was in my office, on campus, or off campus. Now I have it coded as “task work”, “my meeting”, “not my meeting”, and “webinar”, as those are my new categories of activity, and each requires a different level of presence, accountability, and pre-planning. Who starts the Zoom call is now a defining feature of my life.

I reorganized all the bookmarks in my SUNY Potsdam folder. Relay, website updates, Moodle, and marketing resources now have pride of place at the top of the campus list, as they are daily visits. It doesn’t change the importance of, say, the timesheet managing system, but I’m doing a lot of other things a lot more often these days. Making it easier on myself to change my patterns mattered.

So, this isn’t about professionalism or leading a team. But it’s so very real for me. I made myself a Spotify playlist for #wfh April 2020. My attic office is… quiet. Distractingly quiet. There’s no background noise of the photocopier outside my door, students coming to the reception desk and passing by my office windows, staff members introducing themselves to folks who’ve come in for appointments, ringing phones, laughter. It’s just the dog whining at me to go out, the cats pouncing on everything, and my daughter occasionally coming up for a hug when her dad delivers me fresh coffee (he’s the best). And that’s hard. It reinforces the sense of Not Normal. So I made a playlist of music I love, and keep it running whenever I’m not in a meeting. It keeps me feeling grounded, and connected to something more than this laptop.

So that’s how we’ve done it. #howwediditgood is a huge facet of the scholarship of librarianship, and is a space I still default to – sharing best practices is a real boon to our professional communities. I hope something here inspires someone.

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