December 2020 | Volume XXXVIII. Issue 4 »

Away from the Library: How to Motivate Yourself and Your Team to Stay Engaged, Inspired, and Efficient in the Time of Working Remotely

December 1, 2020
Tana Petrov, Fountaindale Public Library and Kim Tipton, McHenry County College

Working from home could never work for people who work in a library—or could it? As stay-at-home orders were announced in communities across the state of Illinois and libraries closed their physical spaces back in March of 2020, library leaders found themselves putting together lists of work-from-home assignments and trying to serve their communities, but also trying to safeguard their jobs and the jobs of their employees from layoffs and furloughs, not to mention everyone’s safety. 

This article offers a synopsis of how several libraries handled the “working from home” phenomenon in a time of social distancing. In order to learn about the field’s most pressing challenges and successes of working remotely, the authors surveyed several public and academic libraries. Based on key findings that emerged from the survey, here are tips and tools for leaders, whether library directors at small or large, academic or public libraries, on how to motivate yourself and your team when home becomes the workplace.

Chances are that your library team has little or no experience working from home. Providing regular, real-time communication should be your number one priority as a leader. Your team might feel isolated, disconnected from their job, and even lonely. When choosing a communication method, choose wisely and based on the message you want to convey. Don’t replace a phone call with an email when checking in with an employee. Don’t schedule another virtual meeting if you can get the job done via email. Consider the following communication goals, and then designate a communication method to achieve them:

  • Communication Goal #1: Provide updates and information 

Strive to keep your team well informed about library happenings. The more informed your employees are, the more engaged they are. A recent change in a library policy? Make sure your team is aware of it. Another department’s accomplishment resulted in great customer service? Let your team know about that. A patron praised the library collection? Share that with your team. Or, to foster a sense of community and leadership, consider weekly updates via email. The surveyed libraries found email to be the most effective communication tool for providing updates and information to their employees. Google Slides and Google Forms were described as effective methods for creating interactive forms with links to videos and questions. Google Meet and Zoom were the most preferred communication tools for virtual meetings.

  • Communication Goal #2: Provide instructions and directions

Face-to-face interactions and body language are a big part of the communication process. With remote work, the inability to check-in with their boss—whose in-person office is a few feet away from their desks—can cause frustration and uncertainty for employees. Remote teams require clear instructions and directions. To avoid miscommunication and constant handholding when it comes to completing projects, consider using a communication platform that everyone is comfortable with. The survey respondents shared that in addition to virtual meetings via Zoom and Google Meet, preferred platforms for providing their teams with instructions and opportunities for remote collaboration were Basecamp, Google Docs, Slack, Microsoft Teams, SharePoint, Webex, Gimlet, and WebJunction.

  • Communication Goal #3: Provide reassurance and support

The survey respondents noted that while some of their employees didn’t miss their daily commute and enjoyed working at their own pace during lockdown, others found working from home stressful, and felt anxious and unproductive at a time when libraries were furloughing workers. To bring pre-COVID-19 engagement levels back, library leaders provided communication support in the form of regular monthly and weekly check-ins with their employees, and also utilized some non-traditional communication methods such as texting, chat messaging through Facebook, FaceTime, phone calls and even anonymous staff surveys in order to get honest feedback from staff on reopening plans.

The Glen Ellyn Public Library set up a department buddy system, where everyone had someone checking on their well-being—another example of providing reassurance and support through frequent team communication. A respondent from Helen Plum Library puts it this way: “We are all working through the same trauma and found that it is most important that we communicate with each other and focus on what we can do as opposed to what we’ve had to let go of.”

Make sure your team knows your expectations. Do you want them to check in with you once a day or once a week? Are they supposed to track their time? Have you laid down their goals, commitments and projects? According to leadership training expert Elizabeth McLeod, the root cause of poor performance is the lack of clear expectations. McLeod states “show me a leader who says, ‘I shouldn’t have to tell them, it should be obvious,’ and we’ll show you a team that isn’t clear” (Petrone, 2018). Some of the surveyed respondents expected daily updates, while others were content with weekly briefings. All, however, said that even when they didn’t have a fully formed set of goals for remote work due to the uncertainty of when libraries will reopen to the public, they still expected their teams to continue with their tasks to a certain degree. Leadership teams made changes in order to accommodate what can be done at home. Virtual programming and continuing education sessions were listed as the most common work-from-home assignments.

In terms of goals and expectations, a respondent from Wilmette Public Library said, “I collected and shared all the URLs and logins for sites we use for collection development and other tasks and made a list of suggested remote work tasks. The first few weeks the expectation was to do what you can do. I trust my team to work as much as they could in a crisis. They all stepped up and kept up with their duties from home, including translating their in-person programs to virtual ones within two weeks from closing the building.” A respondent from Sycamore Public Library adds, “We did weekly check-ins and staff kept timesheets with notations on continuing education and projects. Our expectation was to continue providing some virtual programming while we were at home. Staff were permitted to create their own hours and for the first couple of months, were expected to work half their normal hours. If they normally worked 16 hours in-library, they were expected to work 8 hours from home.”

However, letting staff create their own work hours could lead to managers having to work all the time to accommodate their teams’ needs. Managers might find themselves constantly on call for answering emails and chats to keep the workflow going and to ensure a prompt response. For a healthy balance between work life and home life, consider letting staff know you would be available from nine to five, Monday through Friday, and then if they have an urgent issue, they should call or text you. At the Westmont Public Library, managers sent emails with expectations of work, where full-time staff worked half their hours and part-time staff worked one-third. Each staff member kept a log of daily work and had a document of ideas to draw from. Staff were also asked to check email three days per week for any updates.

Survey results demonstrated that working from home brought several challenges. Technology issues were among the top challenges for staff working from home. Some staff didn’t have the technology necessary to work from home. In those cases, they were allowed to use library laptops usually reserved for teaching patron classes. Leadership often had to work with the IT department to set up staff at home with Wi-Fi hotspots, as well as equipment and software needed to produce virtual library programs. Leadership also found that some staff needed some extra time to learn the technology they needed to use while working from home. One survey respondent described arriving at a creative solution for troubleshooting a technical issue that a staff member was experiencing. When screen-sharing and a phone conversation couldn’t solve the problem, the respondent said, “I visited a librarian’s house and showed her on her laptop outside, at a distance.” Leadership also felt it was important to let staff know they were learning new technology right alongside them. “Some staff were hesitant to create video programming and needed lots of encouragement. I made one early on to show that I was right there with them in terms of learning and experimenting,” said one survey respondent. In cases where staff were simply unable to work because of technology issues, duties were re-assigned and some leaders even took on extra work (like programming) because they were better equipped with technology at home.

Just getting used to working from home was challenging, even finding a dedicated space to work. Some had insufficient home workspace because they were sharing their space with other family members also working from home, or because they couldn’t duplicate their office ergonomic desk setups. Other staff had issues with poor lighting and small spaces, which made it difficult to create good quality videos and virtual programs. One respondent from Glen Ellyn Public Library said, “We made sure to let everyone know that guests were always welcome in Zoom meetings, and we normalized interruptions and asked everyone to be patient and gentle with themselves and with their colleagues.” Managers realized that everyone was experiencing some sort of challenge acclimating to their new work-from-home environment and realized the importance of trusting their staff and offering them some flexibility. One respondent said, “I knew that my staff had plenty to do, and as long as it got done, I was fine with how they went about it.”

Communication was more difficult, as well. For some, Zoom meetings could not replace the easy collaboration and brainstorming sessions that occur naturally when meeting in person. “We learned (and continue to learn) that collaboration takes significantly more time and isn’t as organic as it was,” said one respondent from the Helen Plum Library. In other cases, staff sometimes emailed or texted privately with one another and didn’t always keep the team informed of changes. Managers also experienced frustration with communicating frequent changes to staff as the global situation changed and they worked hard to be transparent as possible with staff, even when they didn’t have any answers, or the answers changed from one day to the next.

Challenges with technology, communication, and producing quality work from home take a physical and mental toll on everyone. Managers felt extra pressure to keep staff motivated, address their needs, and ease their anxiety. “My people were looking to me for answers and I didn’t have any because the information was changing by the minute. The two months we were closed were fraught with frustration which, at times, felt like it was directed at me instead of the situation. Eventually I realized staff was looking to me more for comfort and reassurance than answers,” said one respondent. Managers bolstered their staff by encouraging them to put their own health and safety first, take breaks, and set boundaries.

Once everyone settled in, the benefits of working remotely became apparent. First and foremost, everyone felt safer. Beyond that, many survey respondents said they realized they didn’t miss their commute! Everyone also appreciated the added flexibility to their work schedules, which let them tend to issues at home, see more of their family, and take lunch breaks when they wanted and not at set times. The new-found flexibility had other benefits, like improved self-care. One respondent “appreciated the flexibility to take my contractual 15-minute break in watering my flowers and petting my dog.” Others realized that they could participate in virtual professional development opportunities and work on projects without interruption.

As everyone became comfortable with the new technology and communication methods, workflows improved, and staff were “able to complete more work in a shorter period,” according to the Glenwood-Lynwood Public Library District. Another respondent noted, “I was able to get more done at home with fewer errors. It was far easier for me to focus and have some quiet time to work.” A respondent from Brookens Library at the University of Illinois Springfield said, “Meetings flow better; no one wants to stay on Zoom longer than necessary.” Some staff also used this time to learn new technology to make training videos for patrons, as well as identify new services like virtual reference and drive-thru programming. New virtual services also make the library more accessible to patrons who were previously unable to come to the library. The new technology and communication methods also benefit staff. Leadership noticed improved collaboration with other departments and that new internal services like help desk tickets will help the library going forward. “This tremendous shift has forced us to reinvent everything we do, and it has fostered a lot of creativity from my team!”, said one respondent.

How can you, as a leader, ensure that your team stays motivated, productive—and also inspired—while working from home? If you have already established a positive and healthy work culture inside the office, you can have confidence that your team will continue to put the same effort into completing their projects successfully working from home. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly been an event that has challenged leaders to test and evolve their leadership skills. According to Hebert, “Leaders in today’s environment must not only practice effective project management, decipher complex analyses, and delegate tasks, but also demonstrate people skills and understand human behavior. Using technology, being a flexible communicator, and setting clear expectations allow leaders to incorporate people skills, such as active listening, self-compassion, and empathy that creates a productive and positive workplace environment” (Hebert, 2020). Leading a team from home is different than leading from the office, and definitely more challenging. Staff who excel at the office under normal circumstances could find themselves struggling with handling remote work. Struggling staff need more attention and what you do as a leader depends on why they are struggling. Are they overwhelmed with work, technology, or meeting a deadline? Are they worried about the situation in general? A respondent from Glencoe Public Library said, “I talked to staff members every single day when everyone was at home. I checked on them as if they were in the building. We had weekly meetings where they could see each other, and one day a week we had a day where the meeting had no agenda but was just free flowing.”

In terms of helping staff who struggled, a respondent from the Cullom-Davis Library at Bradley University shared, “I kept a virtual ‘open door’ so I could help employees prioritize work, determine when outside help was needed, or when collaboration with another employee would be helpful. I kept in mind that my team are people first, employees second.” Be empathetic and honest. Don’t sugarcoat the situation, because “hiding information, even if its bad news, can cause more anxiety. Be open about the evolving nature of the problem. It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know” (Mysliwy, 2020). In the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, nearly everything about library work has changed. Reassure your team that things don’t have to be perfect. Remind them that while change is scary, it is also an opportunity to improve and
redesign services.

To boost employee morale and team spirit while working from home, some libraries brought humor and fun into their virtual meetings. A staff member from Glen Ellyn Public Library said that as they met weekly as a department, they made sure to have fun theme weeks: Bring your pet, wear a fun hat, show us your snacks. They also talked about what they were reading and viewing, had remote cocktail hours and trivia contests and sent funny GIFs to each other. But the best thing for staff morale is leadership that actually demonstrates that staff safety and well-being is a priority. A respondent from the Wilmette Public Library said, “Our director led the way by giving staff flexibility and trust. When planning our reopening procedures, he took every question or concern seriously and addressed every one of them. My staff know there won’t be consequences for being honest and direct with me about any concerns that they have.” 

While leaders focus primarily on serving others, they need to practice the same self-care they are likely encouraging employees to do. “Making time to tend to your own physical and emotional needs is important because it allows us—no matter where we are on the organizational chart—to refuel and bring our best and most authentic selves to work” (Mysliwy, 2020). It is important to remember that you don’t have to deal with everything directly. Instead, “share the load” and “assemble a team with the right qualities to execute a uniform message” (Mysliwy, 2020). Ensure that, as a leader, you are a part of the collaborative work with your employees to help you remember that you are all in this together, whatever the challenge.

Communicate with your staff but also with other managers. “Find a colleague you can hit up when you’re feeling the need to chat with someone. Alternatively, buddy up with a friend who works elsewhere and is going through the same experience” (Austin, 2020). For example, a respondent from the Glen Ellyn Public Library shared that she reached out to other department heads for support and idea sharing. If you struggle as a manager, reach out to your boss. Check in to make sure you are on the same page. “Being able to openly communicate with my manager and staff members really helped. My manager gave me clear expectations of what she wanted me to do and my goal for the year had been to grow strength as a leader, and this time really helped me become more confident in being a leader,” said a staff member from River Forest Public Library.

In her article “Tips to Stay Healthy While Working from Home” in the Grand Rapids Business Journal, Kris Rich recognizes that being isolated from co-workers and friends, as well as the disruption from regular working routine, can bring anxiety and stress no matter what your position is within the organization. Rich writes about several ways to stay physically and mentally healthy while working from home, such as setting a schedule, taking breaks from computer work, creating a dedicated work area, and staying connected with friends and co-workers. But for managers, perhaps the most important tip that Rich gives is setting work boundaries as “It can be difficult to separate your work life from your personal life when they are under the same roof” (Rich, 2020). This can be difficult as you might find yourself giving support, reassurance, and instructions to your team at all hours of the day. If you find yourself skipping lunch in order to finish a task or to answer one more email, create a reasonable schedule for yourself and make sure you stick to it. Respondents from various libraries shared that some things that have been helpful to them throughout working from home have been playing music, going outside for a walk, gardening, reading inspiring poetry, crafting, prioritizing projects, and focusing on the positives.

To stay inspired even when times are hard, a respondent from Helen Plum Library puts it this way: “I love my job and choose to work at my local library. I am privileged to serve my neighbors, my friends, and my children’s classmates. I work with fantastic people who bring a range of skills and talents to our team. I remind myself of why I do this, who I’m doing it for and choose to focus on what I can do each day even if it’s small. We are universally less connected right now; it’s critical that we accept that we are all struggling, support our own mental health and connect to each other in whatever way is possible.”

Remote work is likely to be the norm for a while. Clear and effective communication keeps staff informed and delivers direction. Staff feel less isolated and more confident in their roles, and you’re kept informed about ongoing projects. Reach out to your own manager and communicate openly about your own needs. Finally, practice the same advice you offer staff—be patient with yourself, set boundaries, take breaks and try to stay healthy!


Austin, P. L. (2020). 5 Tips for Staying Productive and Mentally Healthy While You’re Working from Home.

Hebert, M. (2020). Leading Remotely—How Different Is It?Armed Forces Comptroller, 65(2), 18.

Mysliwy, C. (2020). Exceptional Leadership: Pandemic Reveals the Need for Forward-Thinking Leaders. Credit Union Magazine, 86(2), 22.

Petrone, P. (2018). The “Most Frustrating” Thing a Boss Can Do Is…Retrieved August 3, 2020, LinkedIn Learning Blog.

Rich, K. (2020). Tips to stay healthy while working from home. Grand Rapids Business Journal, 38(18), 12.

The authors would like to thank staff members from the following libraries for taking the time to share their experience and knowledge: Brookens Library at the University of Illinois Springfield, Cullom-Davis Library at Bradley University, Glen Ellyn Public Library, Glencoe Public Library, Glenwood-Lynwood Public Library District, Helen Plum Library, River Forest Public Library, Sycamore Public Library, Westmont Public Library, Wilmette Public Library.

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