Work from home sounds great in the same way that a brownie sounds great. The challenge is that, once your diet is solely brownies, the bloom comes off the rose. You can yearn for the familiarity of your former work life. Work from home during the pandemic can be a catalyst, though, to make long-term changes in your productivity. I’ve been watching our corporate activity in the past 10 days and these are some things that we could change.

It has been interesting to watch a whole wave of people adapt to working remotely. I ran a web development team remotely for three years so have already been through this phase. You start to learn what works with remote teams and what doesn’t.

Communication is critical but so is keeping out of your people’s way. You can’t see them, and so you have to realize your normal cues need to adapt. Routines in your communication and a light touch can be really useful for everyone involved.

One thing that has to change immediately: your use of email. To the extent email is used for anything other than communication, it needs to stop. Another is to start thinking about how people can do work without having to do it at the same time as each other, or you.

Asynchronous Work

Your reliance on email will vary. Many of my colleagues outside the library use email to:

  • share changes to documents, so an email chain contains numerous document versions.
  • share accumulated information, so that you need to maintain a long email forward chain to have access to all the information.

A frequent fall back to email in a typical work environment is the phone. But a phone – like the in-person meetings we no longer have – requires both parties to be available at the same time.

Synchronous work is often inefficient even in a normal, physically adjacent work environment. Meetings frequently involve information sharing that could happen asynchronously. When you move to a remote management operation, synchronous work can become more difficult.

Perhaps more importantly, it can become more obvious how unnecessary some synchronous work is. The email conversation creates a quasi-synchronous need, or you may not be responding to the latest event or update.

Instead of replicating an email-centric operation, there may be opportunities to:

  • stop sharing attachments and instead use a shared copy of a document inside SharePoint or Google Docs or OneDrive. That way, instead of the work happening locally and then requiring an email to share, the work happens centrally and cuts out emails.
  • stop sharing email trails with accumulated information and instead create a shared document that everyone can read and, if necessary update. This post about Git Lab – which has a document-first culture – shows how it is possible to make this shift. Put the process and procedure in a place everyone who needs it can access it and get it out of your inbox.

I had this experience at the end of last week. Our reference team was doing some internally-focused research. But a lot of people at the organization were also gathering related information. There was a clearinghouse need and, as the person I was interacting with said:

[W]e are sending emails back and forth and it is creating a ton of extra work with little value.

The proposed solution: put a person in charge of collating the information. That’s a good start – moving off email – but also a missed opportunity, because a person isn’t necessarily the answer.

A Person is a Synchronous Bottleneck

This is wrong thinking in a remote environment for a number of reasons. A person immediately reduces part of your equation to “one”. Reference interactions are one-to-one events. One of the challenges of reference service is that one-to-one events are hard to scale.

One way to alter the equation in a reference context is to extract the reference interaction result (the question and the answer) and create a reference database so that a one-to-many (one answer to many researchers) can occur.

The default information management approach should not be to put a person into the process. That one person has other things going one. Questions will wait until that person is available; changes and updates will queue up as well. Also, unless you hired this person to do it, they are attempting to do another job.

Those of you who have worked in an organization where a librarian had a second hat as the organization’s webmaster will recognize this. The benefit of a content management system is to let people upload their own content. There is no reason for a single person to manage that content creation directly, even if you have someone create editorial policies or a standard look and feel.

If you have multiple sources of information attempting to flow into a single location, create an online resource to capture it. It might be a spreadsheet of links, or a Word document on OneDrive or SharePoint.

By creating a central resource that multiple people can touch and read, you eliminate the bottleneck. The people with the information may or may not be subject matter experts. But the people who have access to the document can be, and they can curate and improve that central resource as a group. They can do that work as it fits into their schedule, rather than waiting in a queue for someone to do it for them.

The Elites Won’t

One reaction I heard was “They won’t do that.” Meaning, the subject matter experts and C-suite will not participate in a collaborative approach. They are accustomed to sending information to a person. They delegate to staff, and so can be unaware of the inefficiencies they create.

That delegated person then does something to the information. They create a resource. They incorporate the subject matter expert’s changes, and updates, and edits, all things the subject matter expert could do. It creates a work loop that could be eliminated if the subject matter expert engaged directly.

It’s a bit like a law librarian being responsible for a brief, rather than just providing the research foundation for it. In a crisis, look for ways to improve; the right choice may not be the easiest.

I’d be curious if all lawyer-centric organizations have this approach. Lawyer-managers may be more accustomed to having staff to do this sort of work for them. It’s wasteful in a physically adjacent environment. But it’s a missed chance in a remote working world.

Be open to change as you adapt and overcome to our current environments. It’s a great time to look at things you’ve done and rethink them. Asynchronous opportunities are a great way to let your remote team thrive and to give them the autonomy we all need to be successful as we work from home.