Well-Being, Reopening, and the Homing Instinct: A second virtual networking event

Gaz J Johnson

Second virtual networking event tackles mental and physical well-being during lockdown, the uncertainty of reopening plans while looking for developmental benefits within the experience.

The second in the series of virtual networking events was hosted today by the Collaboration, with Claire Browne (Conference Group Chair) and Gaz J Johnson (Mercian Collaboration) jointly chairing the session. They were joined by a fresh assortment of faces from across the Midland-based academic libraries for a wide ranging series of discussions. As previously, today’s session began with each delegate introducing themselves, explaining about their role in the library and then talking about their own experiences of coping with ‘the lockdown library’ service.

For some library staff working from home has been a mixed blessing, with the reduced commute being a big advantage, but the loss of easy, informal and ad hoc contact and interaction with their team members, along with other university colleagues, being a noted loss. Within the participants there was a notable divide between those ready, willing and eager to bid farewell to their ‘home office’ environment and return to the library coalface (‘desperate to return’ in one case), with others who were finding many advantages to their new working environment. It was clear everyone expected that a return to the institution, would unlikely see a return entirely to pre-virus working arrangements, as some clear advantages for staff and their work/life balance had become clear.

As it dominated the discussions last time, the re-opening of libraries was a topic touched on once again. Some participants talked about the steps and thinking already underway at their institutions to cope with at least partial reopening of services and buildings. For others there was still much in doubt, not least of which being clarity as to the planned timescales for reopening.

Many people were looking towards the start of the next academic year, and yet with much of pandemic’s impact and national response remaining uncertain, this introduced new challenges. Given participants recognised how valued their services were by their patrons, this was a matter of some mutual concern. There were some comments about how pivoting to offering an online training schedule, had massively increased the take up and engagement from students, far beyond physically offered sessions. In some cases, it was highlighted how the lockdown had visibility increased the value ascribed to the library, its collections, services and support by students. As a result, the lockdown had delivered some desirable esteem and recognition among senior institutional managers for library services. A small, but valuable, silver lining to the Covid-19 cloud.

However, lockdown had also brought with it the opportunity for staff to develop new skills and new ways of approaching library related tasks. Especially for some, it had introduced a revolution in their facility with communication, shifting to use multiple asynchronous and synchronous platforms: MS Teams, Zoom, Jabber and WhatsApp were all mentioned as playing a role. Student online interaction had been good, although there were some concerns for some types of students for whom online communication was challenging and how they might be slightly disadvantaged under the lockdown arrangements. There were discussions around the most effective ways to handle, and sterilise, physical stock materials, as well as how libraries could make available other resources which were restricted physically or electronically to campus (rare materials, licensed eResources, film materials, learning resources etc). For some participants, addressing ways to which these could be unlocked, were a keen topic they sought to resolve.

One comment which seemed to meet with universal agreement by today’s delegates, was how library staff if anything were even busier than ever working under lockdown conditions [1]. It was noted while staff’s digital capacities and capabilities were praiseworthy, there was a question of underlying personal wellbeing to be addressed. Working from home was in some cases, not ideal (environment, caring responsibilities, equipment, environmental concerns), and the demands of frequent and sometimes lengthy video conferences to engage with others had become a noted cause of mental and physical fatigue. Consequently, where some libraries had, earlier in lockdown, eagerly encouraged social events, some participants now reported how engaging with these had potentially become burdensome. As a result, many were opting out of participation, which introduced additional tensions for team coherence. While the instigation of well-intentioned WhatsApp groups was suggested as an asynchronous and lower impact route than video chat to maintain team morale, for some it was also perceived as undesirably further dissolving barriers between work and life.

Alongside mental concerns, delegates also discussed the physical challenges of homeworking: from the loss of access to specialised seating, desking or interface equipment in their office environment, though to the simple act avoiding extensive periods of sedentary behaviour. Some had been lucky enough to bring equipment home, but for others there had not been time or the opportunity to do so, and as lockdown continued this was becoming more of an issue for their performance. The suggestion of an ironing board as an impromptu variable height desk was noted as an example of useful, if only interim solution to resolve physical challenges. As the lockdown period stretched onward though, more effective solutions would be needed. However, without meetings to travel to or desk duties to switch to, participants reported the different ways they had found to break up their time and regain some semblance of normal motion in their day. These had ranged from strictly scheduled days, ensuring family members were aware of their primary working time, breaking for lunch and tea breaks elsewhere in the house and importantly ensuring they didn’t work beyond their salaried hours [2].

The meeting closed with a final discussion around approaches to induction, which would likely be a very unique shape this year.

The next virtual networking event is planned for the end of July. To make sure you hear about it, and can book a place to attend, make sure to join the Mercian Collaboration mailing list.


A few resource of interest were shared during the meeting by the Collaboration’s Officer:

[1] A point the Officer concurs with, given his own workloads.

[2] Again, something the Officer is well familiar with, as a long-term home worker this past decade in his various academic, library and consultancy capacities.