Column Editor: Corey Seeman (Director, Kresge Library Services, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan; Cell Phone: 734-717-9734) Twitter @cseeman
If you ever wondered what it might be like to move during a pandemic, I can share with perfect candor and honesty — it was not fun. And while the timing might not be ideal, there are many reasons why you might need to move at just about the worst time possible. You are changing apartments, moving for a new job, or (in our case) downsizing. We had started the planning for this months and months ago, and started off into the murky world of pandemic moving after we already were part-way into the process. We used precautions and bought as much soap and cleaners as we could. At the end of the move, we ended up with a smaller house, with less worries and more squirrels. So it was worth the work involved.
If there was a time when you really began to appreciate the need for your home and the sanctuary that it provides, it is during a pandemic. I assume the vast majority of the Against the Grain readers are working from their domicile or at the very least, spending more time there than we might normally do. From a non-scientific approach, it has been very interesting to notice that many of the things that we need to work at home (desks, monitors, webcams, headsets, etc.) were in short supply when many of our communities first shut down in March 2020 and everyone scrambled to set up a home office or two. Even many of the stores that we might have gone to to fix the problems right away were closed for in-person shopping. But for many people, it simply was a reason to shift how we were shopping and order that office equipment online based on only a picture and measurements.
Which takes me to my morality tale to start this column. As we were moving, all the furniture stores in Southeast Michigan were closed. However, we could order furniture and it would be delivered. So all was well. We purchased a few bookcases and a desk from Ikea in early May and requested delivery. We were given a delivery date in mid-June. I was hoping that if things opened up, we would get it sooner because in the interim, I was working at a foldable card table. Getting it sooner was just a fantasy, as that date grew closer and closer. Then the delivery date finally arrived and, after a few phone messages about the timing, it arrived! It was glorious. It was delivered to our garage. And it was not as heavy as we feared. The reason why was easy to figure — we were missing the desk.
Now before I continue, I do want to acknowledge that receiving an incomplete order of furniture after we moved is the definition of a high-class problem. There IS a pandemic going on and a huge amount of financial and medical suffering all over the world. But there is a reason why I am sharing this story. So please read on.
The driver could only deliver what was in the truck. He could do little to help us. Meanwhile, I received a message from Ikea saying that my order was delivered — transaction over! Not quite. So I went to my account at Ikea and followed the link for customer service. I needed to reach out to customer service and let them know my order was incomplete. If you have ever worked with me, you know that email is my communication of choice. When I found the page where you can send a message to customer service, I was told that emails could only be used to cancel an order. Instead, I need to use the toll free number. So I called. I followed the decision tree. There was not an option for “my delivery is incomplete,” so I chose ones that were close. I finally got to where I figured someone could help me, when the recording came on. It said (to the effect) “we are experiencing very high call volumes at present time, and cannot take your message — thank you.”
I clearly must have been doing something wrong. So I did it again. I ended up in the same spot. OK…so they are busy, but are they just ignoring the problems? That can’t be right. I need to do this one more time. It was right. Ugh… To recap, the order was incomplete; email was only for cancelations; and they were not taking calls. The challenge for any service or hospitality organization is being available to your patrons or customers. It is not only for complaints but also for the many scenarios where things do not go as planned or desired. That was my biggest problem on that deskless day.
I ended up sending an email off to the cancellation line in the hope that I could get someone to respond. We realized late that our local Ikea store (one that had been closed for almost two months through the COVID-19 pandemic) was now reopened. So on a lark, we went out to plead our case to them in person. With plexiglass between me and the staff member, I explained what happened. The staff member was excellent. She found that the desk was available in the store and gave me a store credit for the amount that I paid, so I could get the new desk. She was fantastic and helped me out in ways that no one else could do. I grabbed the new desk and a few hours later, I had a desk in my office. Had the store not recently opened, I have no idea what would have happened.
Two days later, I received an email response from my cancellation request:
Thank you for taking the time to contact us. We apologize that your desk was missing from the order.
Please be advised that you have gone into the IKEA Canton store and received store credit for the ALEX desk on 6/15/20 and purchased it.
If you experience any further issues or have any additional questions, please contact us again through the contact form located on our website or contact us by phone.
Two things here. First, I love that they advise me of the things that I did two days earlier, in case I forgot. That is possible — I was quite wild in high school and the pandemic is driving people to drink. Second, invite me to contact them if I have any other concerns. Yet that loop would be completely useless as they were not taking calls or emails. While all’s well that ends well, it was a far more frustrating process because there was no way to get help. The story here is shared to showcase a frustrating customer service experience that can be made worse because we have nowhere to go and no way to connect.
So with that, it is time for my fourth main column on change management in libraries. I have long thought about this as an important topic that seems to be under-appreciated and under-explored in the professional library literature. Having recently navigated my own operation from a traditional library a few years ago to one that is virtually virtual, the time is definitely now to think about this important topic with the vantage point of what we did well, what we did poorly, and what we might do differently. And as painful as that was to do back in 2014, it seems that it was definitely a good direction to go in now that all of us essentially have digital libraries.
As a structure for these articles (and hopefully something a bit more), I have broken down change management into six key terms: inevitability, rapidity, flexibility, hospitality, accountability, and empathy. These terms are particularly important to use in the context of your institutional culture and identity. Through these six terms, I hope to explore how to best manage your operation in less than optimal conditions (and let’s face it, most libraries are operating in exactly that “place”). For this column, I am going to write about hospitality and what it all means at individual libraries. And because this is 2020, I will be focusing on how we can create a hospitable environment when we are mostly all working in different spaces.
Over the years, I have talked about this intersection of hospitality and libraries. I have gravitated to three different quotes that I have used to introduce the topic:
• Hospitality, n. The virtue which induces us to feed and lodge certain persons who are not in need of food and lodging. ~Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911
• Hospitality is making your guests feel at home, even though you wish they were. ~ Unknown
• Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. ~Romans 12:13
These quotes often break the ice in a session and showcase the good and comical sides of hospitality. While I have used these for a long time, reading them in 2020 present a series of new thoughts racing around my head. All three quotes touch upon the role that hospitality plays in creating your space to welcome your guests as if they were home. As you are inviting students, faculty, staff, the community and guests into your library, you are trying to make them as welcome as you can. The same is true in the hospitality industry, a group suffering right now a great deal. Libraries have been wonderful in creating welcome spaces that draw people in. But many of our spaces are less than ideal and many of us deal with budgets that do not enable us to do everything we might like.
I have viewed hospitality in libraries as the following:
• It is being available and visible
• It allows you to change what your patrons can expect from the library
• It is treating your users like customers (no matter what we call them)
• It is treating your users the way you would want to be treated
• It is treating people well, even before you know who they are
• It is not simply luxury or excess
Librarians and library staff are amazing at providing service for their communities. In many academic settings, the libraries are the element that people are most fond of in reviews and surveys. So in many ways, we are always focused on hospitality. But in thinking through these elements, they really are focused on the physical space. That is something that is really not possible right now. So how can we fold hospitality into the way that we manage libraries and the way that we manage change?
Change with Hospitality
As libraries go through change exercise, and let’s face it, we all have this year, you need to balance always between the needs of the community and the abilities of the libraries. In talking about hospitality, I have often focused on the different elements of our work that might be attributed to our staff size or our budget. There are many aspects of our work at Kresge Library Services that are simply not possible with a smaller library. By having a team of business librarians, we are able to assign one to every team action learning project at the school. That alone is not something that many libraries can do. And while we have a larger library, we cannot do everything our community wants, especially in regards to collections.
So whether you were going through change previously or through the great library flip of 2020, hospitality needs to play a key role in the way that you design your services. In many ways, the services that are provided need to follow the same basic principles, just with a few tweaks. The way that I view hospitality at my library, it means:
• …serving the students, faculty and other staff the best we can
• …listening to their needs without considering what other libraries are doing
• …not being bogged down with what other departments or libraries are doing
• …that we cannot take on everything – right now, that is finding students places to study.
Those elements are key to creating a user-focused library and can be done whether we invite people into our building or we are working to connect them to resources when we are all spread out. Those elements are key when you are dealing with reductions in space, staff and spending. This is a big challenge for managers, especially now. It is natural to feel less hospitable when you feel that your unit is not treated well or fairly. It is natural to feel disappointed when you have to make difficult decisions about collections to maintain during budget reductions. It is natural to have a concerned team when asked to staff a library during a pandemic. The goal of the manager is to seek out solutions that balance between the wellbeing of the staff and the information needs of the library. There are few easy answers out there, but you will likely be better served if you listen to both parties. We are exploring that issue right now and we are being encouraged to have some type of in-person experience in the library. However, our library is designed fundamentally to be a digital first library that could operate from anywhere.
When you are building the hybrid library of the upcoming year, hospitality is a key element to consider to ensure that we have a library that is functional and useful for our community. And while there may be services that you cannot provide (because of safety) and resources you cannot supply (because of budget), you need to ensure that you give your community a way to connect with you. And while chat might not be to everyone’s taste, it provides an opportunity for the community to reach out and engage librarians in real time. There are many things that we will get wrong moving forward into Fall 2020, but I hope that we can be customer focused to ensure that we are nimble enough to change as needed.
Can you be hospitable in a virtual-only setting? Absolutely! Is it a challenge to once again be without print items in our libraries? Absolutely! Is it hard to figure out all the problems that might be headed our way? Absolutely! Even if everyone is working remotely, should you have an easy way for people to contact you? Absolutely! But is there a roadmap to follow for libraries moving forward this Fall? Absolutely not!
Your path is really one that matches your abilities and your community. Creating a hospitable library (physical or electronic) ensures that you can continue to work with the community in a way that enables them to do their work. That way, faculty, students, staff, community members, alumni, etc. can feel that they are making the connection to your library, even if they are still in their pajamas. Just make sure that if you distribute anything, be it a book or anything that you would put a book upon, that you offer your patrons a means to ask questions or voice concerns. That would be nice.
Corey Seeman is the Director, Kresge Library Services at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is also the new editor for this column that intends to provide an eclectic exploration of business and management topics relative to the intersection of publishing, librarianship and the information industry. No business degree required! He may be reached at [email protected] or via Twitter at @cseeman.
My New Favorite Squirrel — Tipsy the Squirrel. My Backyard in Ypsilanti, Michigan on July 1st, 2020.