A Message From State Library Agency Director Leesa Aiken

Monday, May 4, 2020
Leesa Aiken

As I sit to write this part of our Newsletter, I reflect on the last six weeks and how far we have come without any idea of where we were going or how long we would be gone.  It has not been easy for any of us, and I would venture to say that it has not been easy for you, either. I frequently talk about the staff of the South Carolina State Library being second to none and a true asset to our state, because it is the truth. The work environment and culture of our agency is of utmost importance to me. A positive work culture doesn’t happen by accident; it happens through careful planning, design, and buy-in. Although we have actively worked to maintain our culture during this period of separation, it has been tough because none of us have any direct experience with operating during a pandemic.

While we are not physically working in the State Library building, all of our staff have been working offsite. However, this time away from our library, the schools, the public libraries, and our patrons and colleagues; has been challenging. I am dedicating this space to talk about that part of our existence – the isolation and anxiety that some employees feel, the difficulty establishing a routine, balancing work and home life while also caring for others, worrying about this “new normal” and what that really means, and even concerns about returning to work.

If you are a member of management at your organization or a leader of some kind, either formally or informally, recognize that while you may not be able to fix everything for your employees or peers, you can alleviate some of their concerns. This is part of being a leader. Leaders are responsible for the people who report to them as well as the business operations - one does not happen without the other. Communicate openly and often with your staff.  You may not have all of the answers and that is okay; you can work to get the answers or make the decision. 

As leaders, we have to recognize that our employees may be struggling with a variety of issues. This is a stressful time. People are concerned about loved ones becoming ill, or becoming ill, themselves. The anxiety that comes along with worry does not disappear when an employee shows up, physically or virtually, to work. This period of isolation can feel particularly poignant for some employees and may conversely energize others. Plan opportunities for people to connect. At the State Library, we have planned two virtual lunchtime meetups for staff every week. The meetups provide a space for staff to connect and have lunch together, virtually. People participate at their discretion, and the discussion topics cover a wide range of subjects - lots of cats and dogs make an appearance during these lunchtime meetups. We also have more structured opportunities for staff engagement. Every week, we hold multiple collaborative training opportunities, and every department has weekly staff meetings to discuss current projects, workloads, and future plans. These opportunities have been meaningful and give people a sense of connection. These avenues of connection are easy to coordinate and make a tremendous difference in employee comfort and engagement.

Most employees want to actively engage in their work and have meaningful work that allows them to make a difference. I believe this is especially true in libraries and schools. Employee engagement during normal circumstances is the key to organizational success. Employee engagement during this pandemic is essential to the connectedness and productivity of an organization, both now and when things return to normal. However, many employees - good employees - are struggling with engagement. I have repeatedly heard from people that they are struggling to establish a routine and are experiencing a more pervasive issue of balancing work and home life, often while caring for others.

First and foremost, we must have patience with others and ourselves. None of us have ever done this before. Assume that people are doing the best they can, given the situation and the many things they may be juggling. Taking a moment to breathe and shift our thoughts allows space for the possible and the positive; it makes a difference in our interactions with others and our own, internal, self-dialogue. Be willing to help someone navigate these issues, without judgment. This does not alleviate the expectation of working, but it does help an employee refocus, feel valued, and re-engage. Self-care during this time is crucial to all of our success. Take a walk, and encourage staff to do so as well. Set work times or office hours, and if you are working from home, set your space up away from your main living area when possible. Engage and communicate with staff, and share information quickly and honestly. Communication helps staff know what to expect next; that we are in an unprecedented time and things are not normal.   

I do not believe this is our “new normal.” How can it be? Libraries cannot remain closed forever. People will return to work or begin new jobs, and the economy will recover. I’m not suggesting that we will emerge from this situation unchanged, but I do not believe we will live in an altered state of connection for the remainder of time. Libraries are community hubs. They provide equal access to information and resources for those in their community. Libraries play an integral role in the education system, fixing unemployment, and economic recovery.

We are beginning to have serious discussions about returning to work and what that may look like. We know that public libraries are having similar discussions. Returning to normal must be done thoughtfully, with employees and patrons in mind. Some employees are eager to return to work and open the library to greet their regular patrons, while others naturally feel uneasy about returning to the workplace. There is no correct way to feel in this situation. Feelings of anxiety are normal, even if you are eager to return to work. Acknowledge that you and your employees may feel anxious. Communications should be thoughtful and not done in haste. Each public library system will work with its Board of Trustees and local county officials to determine the best plan of action for their community. We are here to help navigate these unchartered waters, but the decision to reopen is a local one.

This is a first for all of us but fortunately, librarians are used to finding or making a way forward. The libraries will open again, and when they do, people will flock to their public libraries! Use this time to balance, recharge, and practice self-care because before we know it, we will be in the hectic operations of our previous lives. Check on one another. Encourage each other and staff. Believe that people are doing the best they can. Thank people. Show grace to others and yourself. Limit complaining; there is already enough uncertainty and negativity in the environment. Be an agent of encouragement. Don’t be afraid to engage staff honestly, even if you don’t have all of the answers; none of us do, but we can figure it out together.

I am proud of the staff of the South Carolina State Library and their innovation and dedication to public libraries, our Talking Book Services patrons, the children in South Carolina, teachers, state employees and agencies, and our other customers. We are busy working for you. We hope to see you in one of our webinars or meetups. If we can assist you in some way, please reach out to us. We are in this together and we will get through it together.

Stay well and take care.

Warm regards,