Managing From a Distance

Thanks to Amanda Watson, Director of the O’Quinn Law Library, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law Center and Vice-Chair of CS-SIS, for this post. 

Let’s be honest: distance management is strange. It requires a set of muscles many of us have never had to flex. As managers, we are spending our mental energy trying to support new systems of learning, patron populations with new challenges, and of course we can’t forget to manage our teams. I would like to offer the following ideas to help with this new lift:

  1. Manage to the top. When I was a younger law teacher, an esteemed colleague told me to never teach to the bottom or middle of the class. He said you always have to teach to the top, and trust that you are giving everyone your best, and allowing them the opportunity to rise to their best. Don’t give your team micro-managing tasks. Instead, challenge them to help your library by bringing their own best to the table. What does this look like? Create a shared document (use a google document if you don’t have a system in place), and ask everyone to contribute three ideas for distance work. Invest in those ideas. I can hear some of you saying, well if you had an employee like I have, you’d never say something like that. I promise I’ve had a version of that person. In honesty, they may not contribute. But if you spend all your management time focused on that employee, you’ll miss all the incredible contributions of your team. Manage to the top.
  2. Add a back-up plan. Then give your back-up plan a back-up plan. What are some tasks your team can accomplish when they don’t have a clear idea of what to do? Do they have access to a professional development platform? Is everyone Westlaw/Lexis/Bloomberg/etc. certified? Can you divide the top 100 law schools up in groups and ask your team to review their websites and catalogs for ideas to improve yours? Can you mail your people stacks of postcards, so they can handwrite notes to students encouraging them in this new environment? All of our great ideas don’t have to be creative or tech-savvy.
  3. Stay in touch. Communicate with your team. Tell them what you know. Tell them what you don’t know. Ask how they are. Use Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or Slack (or a combination of them all) to set up team chats, meetings, and file locations. Send them a video, plan a weekly call, or virtual team meeting. Emails are fine, but true collaboration is better.
  4. Be unceasingly loyal to your team. As library managers, we will build some incredible things. We’ll be part of some cool projects. But in the end nothing will matter more than how we treat the people who worked with us. Think about them, their challenges, and lead from that perspective.

Assistant Director, Research and Instruction, at Boley Law Library, Lewis and Clark Law School, in Portland, Oregon.