My COVID-19 leadership challenge started formally on Sunday 15th March, this is when my university announced that it would be suspending on campus teaching and moving to online delivery from the week commencing 25th March. In reality it had started before this date, it was clear the crisis had been affecting the team in a number of ways already; there was increasing anxiety and worry around possible lockdown and how this would affect our services, our buildings and us.
My view was that we needed to make a decision about the library buildings sooner rather than later, it may not be the right one but we needed to make one with the information we had to hand. This was my position in terms of our service, and I shared my concerns with the University Registrar on the Monday morning. Throughout this period, my two main worries were for the safety of my library colleagues and our students. I was clear when I spoke with the University Registrar that I was not comfortable with the majority of library staff moving to remote working whilst leaving our lower paid and predominately-female Customer Services team to continue to deliver front line services alone. It was at this point that there was some hope that campuses would remain open, at least in some capacity.
It was a restless night on Monday 16th March that defined my decision-making, at 3 am I concluded we should close all our buildings and move as a team to complete virtual service delivery. I then wrote a short paper for the University Registrar outlining my thoughts and rationale. He then took that to the VC that same morning, and we had sign off later that afternoon. I had spoken to all staff that day sharing this decision with them and my reasons behind it. Colleagues then worked to ensure all staff had the necessary IT equipment to work remotely, and we closed all our buildings at 5 pm on Tuesday 17th March. Our university communications team managed the communications to our students.
From Wed. 18th March the whole team has been working remotely to support our staff, student and research community. The culture change was perhaps not as drastic as it could have been; we are a multi-site university spread over a large geographical area so in reality we are merely pushing the boundaries of provision that was already partly in place. We have been a service that has used Microsoft Teams for a number of years so the digital skills required for the team too effectively work remotely were already in place. The more significant shift has been around how we now communicate and engage with one another and the wider university community.
We have developed a new meeting structure emphasising shorter, but more frequent catch-ups. Some elements have become far more social in order to maintain team cohesiveness as well as individual well-being. I initially sent out a daily bulletin to all staff, updating them on internal and external matters, this has now shifted to weekly as we settle into our new working patterns. We still have our all team morning coffee break, which colleagues can drop into should they wish, and I have a daily late afternoon tea break with my leadership team colleagues. We have an all staff forum every couple of weeks. Many of these changes would not have been possible if we were still in our buildings due to the distances between campuses. We had resisted moving to predominately-virtual meetings and had continued meeting face to face for the most part, but now I suspect we will never go back to that culture. We aim to keep a virtual meeting structure as the dominant approach, to ensure staff well-being, as well as reduce travelling and its environmental impact.
In terms of my leadership practice then this was an experience where I initially had to make decisions quickly and without wider consultation, this went against my usual leadership style but it is what was required at the time, and what my team needed. I do feel that senior colleagues appreciated this decisiveness, and since this period, the LLR has been included in all significant decision making bodies of the organisation, and continues to be as we start to plan for re-opening our campuses for the new term. I have now reverted to my more comfortable leadership style, which is primarily a coaching and collaborative approach. I can see a future where I may need to implement a ‘command and control’ style again, not necessarily with my own team but rather with those external to the service. This is an interesting and recent reflection and I am not sure how sustainable that would be for my own wellbeing and mental health.
I am hugely grateful to for the support of the university’s senior leadership team during this period, particularly at the time when I was clear we needed to close the library buildings for the safety of staff and students. I am well aware that this was perhaps not the case elsewhere in the sector. The network of library colleagues across Wales and beyond has also been a considerable support, our willingness to share, learn and lean on one another is unique in the sector. I also hope we have finally shifted the perception within our own organisation that the library is not solely defined by its buildings, even if they are beautiful. We have proved we can deliver an effective service virtually, and we continue to push to boundaries of what this means now and can mean as we move forward.
I have led a number of significant projects during my time as head of service, from building a new library, completely refurbishing another and implementing a new library management system. I have also restructured the whole of the service as part of a complete staff review, but it is this period that has taught me most in terms of my leadership journey. It is also clear that the closing of library buildings was the easy part; the more challenging road lies ahead for my team, the university and the sector more broadly.
The way in which my team have continued in their service delivery as well as supporting one another over the last few months has made me hugely proud to be one of them. This period has actually allowed me to develop a more compassionate side to my leadership, which as an introvert is not something that has come naturally previously. I believe we all need to give a little more of ourselves, especially at the moment. This enforced pause in time has given us all the opportunity to reflect on what makes us human and given us a view on how we could live our lives more productively in the future. In terms of myself and my team and how we move forward I am determined that we take all the learning we can from this time, to inform how we approach our own work moving forward as well as our service.