There is a lot for the observational leader to watch at the moment. One thing that I’ve been particularly interested in is our willingness to change. On one hand, the pandemic has forced us to change our law library operations. Many of those changes are temporary. But on the other, there are more changes that could be made. They are being avoided, though, because of a fear of setting a precedent.

Temporary changes are pretty obvious. If your law library is closed, then your physical services have stopped. No photocopying, no notary stamps, no lending print format information. But you would probably plan to restart those services as soon as your physical library reopened.

We’re willing – or forced – to make some changes based on circumstances. What makes us reluctant to make other changes?

Faced with the Need to Adapt

Here’s an example based on a conversation I was part of recently. I’ll put it in a library context to make it accessible. This is not based on my library. But it could really work in any business that has a clash between time-specific workflows and the current work-from-home reality.

Let’s say I have a reference team of 4 staff. Our normal coverage is 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. There are lots of ways to split that time, but if you do it evenly, pretty much everyone is going to do roughly five 4-hour shifts on the desk.

Like many law libraries, we don’t offer evening reference for logistical reasons. It is not that there is no demand after 5pm or before 9am. We know there is. But our operations are limited because:

  • it tends to be easier to hire people to work day-time hours
  • our physical location is closed after 5pm because we’re in a courthouse

But now there is a pandemic. Those 4 staff are working from home and are trying to cover the reference desk to the extent it is possible. They are limited to using digital tools both to send and receive information, and to access and perform legal research.

The critical word in the previous paragraph is home. Home isn’t the office. My home has 4 other people in it, all four of whom are actively doing video and audio conference calls from about 9am to 8pm. There’s a dog. My ability to work is impacted but I can normally navigate it.

What about staff who have lost child care support or elder care support or some other assistance that allowed them to go to the library? Now they are having to take on roles that were being done for them. Their ability to deliver 5 four-hour shifts may be beyond challenging.

How do we make this possible?

Can We Only Undo Negative Adaptation?

Some change is forced on us. But are there other changes that we might make to enable our staff to do a better job of balancing their new work-home overlap? Perhaps more to the point, are we making a long-term commitment by making those changes?

Here’s an example. One of those 4 library staff has a small child. That child needs assistance at meal times, with accessing online school activities, what have you. The needs may not fit neatly into a 4-hour shift block. This may be particularly hard to manage because that 4-hour block is no longer as busy as it was when it was at the physical library. To the people at home, it may appear like you’re available when the reality is you’re on call.

You could just rejigger the 4-hour blocks to something different (like 8 on and 8 off or 2 on and 2 off). But all four staff are not necessarily experiencing the same impacts at the same time.

One suggestion I pitched in our conversation was to look at what parameters limited our operations and rethink those. For example, now that we are working from home, a 9am to 5pm schedule really isn’t necessary. We might be able to explore new options.

How does it change your law library’s work-from-home workflow if you extend your hours from 8am to 8pm? And at the same time, reduce your staff count from two people per rotation to one? Now you might suddenly have more options for the staff to move their reference coverage around to better fit their new reality.

Your operation may or may not allow that. The change itself is, I think, pretty easy to identify. Interestingly, the resistance to it was this: if we make a change to longer hours, we can’t sustain it past the pandemic. In other words, if we make a service change, we create the perception that it’s a permanent service change.

That’s fascinating to me on a number of levels. It may play into the whole idea of whether your corporate or law library culture is able to try things and then stop. If there is a reluctance to start things and run them for a set period of time, perhaps that’s where the rethink needs to happen. There needs to be a deeper cultural change.

Otherwise, I would think that in these rather extreme circumstances, you can make pretty much any service change and undo it when the circumstances alter. We’re quick to do that when we are reducing services (closing a library, stopping ILL). So why wouldn’t we do the same when we are expanding services to allow our staff or operation to adapt to the circumstances?

The legal profession is a funny world. Sometimes I think we see that anything we do is a precedent, because we’re surrounded by the tree of precedent every day. But an operations lens allows us to start and stop things based on whether they make sense.

When we have an opportunity to help our teams get through a crisis and the way to do that happens to be expanded service, we shouldn’t avoid that just because we will only be expanding service for a short time. It could, in fact, be a learning opportunity for how the law library can grow in the future.