Career Strategies for Librarians
When Time Away Isn’t Time Lost: Managing in Absentia
by Melanie J. Dunn
Bags packed. Itinerary in hand. Sin city - no, make that the ALA conference with its many allurements
beckons. Wait, though… there’s something you’re forgetting. Oh, right, the department you left behind.
How can they possibly get along without you? Pretty well, come to think of it, if you’ve created trust
among your team and provided clear expectations, easily accessible documentation, a checklist of daily
duties to be accomplished, encouragement of job specific skills training, and cross-training of staff.
All managers want to believe that they are indispensable – and they are in their role as the one to inspire
and motivate their employees. But an excellent manager will also have prepared her team to readily
carry on daily operations with minimal oversight from senior leadership when it is necessary to take
extended time away.
In this time of budget shortfalls, every library organization has to deal with the pain of fewer staff
members shouldering more responsibility. But what happens when the inevitable occurs: a manager
takes extended leave to attend a conference or due to vacation, family emergency or other contingency?
How does a supervisor ensure that day to day operations are not disrupted and staff will cope? The
distinction between a good manager and a great one often comes down to the degree of foresight in
providing support to enable them to handle change with ease, either through the necessary resources or
through training and development.
Trust is the sine qua non for any team. It is perhaps the most intangible, yet essential ingredient for any
department to achieve its goals. Creating trust requires building relationships with your staff, such that
they recognize that you will do what you pledge to do, that you are committed to helping them succeed
and that you and the team share principles and values, like integrity, honesty and accountability. Over
time, team members will learn to trust you as you prove your ability to deliver on promises.
A manager going on leave must clearly articulate her expectations for staff regarding goals to be
accomplished during her absence. Expectations for daily tasks, short and long term projects and
behavior, all need to be addressed in clear and detailed terms. Excessive absences and other behavior
issues by staff during a manager’s sojourn away from the library may need to be dealt with immediately
by top administration if it’s affecting morale. A meeting should be called to delegate daily
responsibilities among the staff. Extra projects should be avoided; after all, they’ll be short one body, and
if problems arise with completion, they may be stymied in their efforts to resolve them.
In addition, distribute passwords and other sensitive information to senior library administrators and
department supervisors, when applicable. You will want to assure that the appointed staff members
have multiple ways to contact you in emergencies. Day to day issues can be referred to senior
management for resolution.
All staff within a department should be cross-trained, so performance of any specified duty is not
dependent on any one staff member. Redundancy is imperative when staffing is lean and unexpected
absences are possible. Cross-training provides other benefits as well, not only for the library but for the
employees. Cross trained employees who learn new skills make themselves more valuable to their
library and enhance their marketability. Working outside their sphere of responsibilities helps foster
empathy and understanding for the demanding duties and skills of coworkers, thus combating the
“grass is always greener on the other side” syndrome and improving teamwork. Libraries benefit by
offering better service to patrons through consistency of operations; when an employee is out, another
can fill in without a noticeable disruption in workflow.
Manuals and guides detailing processes and procedures for a department are essential. It is optimal
that this documentation be available online, preferably through a wiki so any staff member can access it
for reference. Department policies and procedures, standard forms, frequently asked questions (by
patron and staff alike), and emergency plans are all examples of useful documentation that should be
easily accessible to all library employees.
A wiki is the perfect platform for department policies and procedures since it can be continually updated
by library staff and those updates can be noted and tracked. Encouraging experts in their area of
expertise to contribute their knowledge will benefit everyone. Having current documentation in place
before leaving gives staff members an option for consultation for questions on daily processes and
procedures, preventing unnecessary messages to the absent manager.
Checklists are a simple tool which can be implemented to assure that all tasks are recognized and dealt
with in a timely manner. In the Checklist Manifesto : How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande, the
author advocates checklists as an instrument to catch simple errors in workflows by forcing the
responsible parties to work together as a team to address oversight. He believes that checklists improve
communication between coworkers and foster a culture of teamwork and discipline while setting a high
bar for standard performance (Gawande 2011, p.39) Although the examples he provides are garnered
primarily from medicine and aviation, his premise is sound for almost any profession where the number
and complexity of tasks continues to grow.
Communication with Off Site Manager
Of course, the reason for the absence will determine how closely a manager stays in touch with their
staff while gone. No Director or Dean expects a manager on funeral or medical leave to direct operations
from a distance. But a non-emergency leave of absence, such as conference attendance, may very well
require on-going communication with the office.
Any library manager who values instant communication with their staff, recognizes that she will need
some type of mobile device that will allow her to stay in contact. With today’s mobile technology, there is
an array of choices. Whether it’s a smart phone, laptop, or tablet, most managers recognize the
importance of these devices to maintain a presence in the department. It’s also important to understand
your employees’ communication styles and the technology they’re comfortable using. Establish a
hierarchy of tools to be used for communicating pressing matters. A phone call vs. phone text vs. instant
messaging vs. email might resolve how urgent matters are relayed.
Library-wide and department blogs are also handy tools which allow managers to supervise from a
distance. Keeping apprised of absences and other daily unforeseen issues such as broken elevators
and leaking roofs helps a manager remain aware that her department may need a little extra support on
a particular day.
It’s always important to encourage staff to take advantage of any training offered through a state’s
professional association or institutional Human Resource department. As an example, the University of
Tennessee system encourages all staff to achieve 32 hours of professional development hours per
year. This provides a wonderful opportunity for staff to attend sessions on a wide variety of topics ranging
from achieving work-life balance to communications skills. The UT system also offers an assortment of
online training modules which include such courses as business etiquette and workplace conflict
resolution. The Staff Development Committee of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Lupton
Library provides several short sessions on an array of topics from wikis to email applications, and
sponsors a day-long workshop on a subject of interest to the library. In years past the workshops have
focused on Dealing with Change, Balancing your Life and Career, and Myers-Briggs Assessment and
Job specific skill training is also highly desirable to motivate employees and enhance library operations.
Find out what organizations and associations offer conferences or training in the desired area. The
Access Services Conference includes many sessions pertinent to staff who cover a circulation desk,
process reserves or interlibrary loan. Cataloging, Interlibrary Loan, Reference, and Archives all have
similar training opportunities available through their special organizations.
Back in the Office
On the first day back at work, it doesn’t hurt to express appreciation through the universal token of
gratitude: food. Providing donuts, bagels, or some other treat relays gratitude for the team’s efforts. Next,
meet with supervisors individually to receive an account of how library operations in the department
proceeded in your absence. Be sure to follow HR protocol if it’s necessary to meet with any of the staff
who may have taken advantage of your absence to bend rules or misbehave. Give yourself a couple of
days to get acclimated to changes which may have been enacted by senior management while you were
This is a prime opportunity to evaluate the department’s strengths and weaknesses. What could I have
done before leaving that might have provided additional support for the team? Beef up the
documentation? Provide additional cross-training for staff? Make notes and add those to the to-do list.
Finally, don’t forget to recognize those members of the team who performed above and beyond their
normal duties; a letter of commendation to senior management acknowledging their accomplishments
can instill loyalty and convey to other members of the team what is expected from them in your absence.
Gawande, Atul. 2011. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. New York: Picador.
About the Author
Melanie J. Dunn is the Coordinator for Resource Sharing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
She received her B.A. from the University of Georgia and her M.L.S. from Vanderbilt University. Having
worked in both public and academic libraries, in reference as well as interlibrary loan, she’s incredibly
grateful for the wisdom her colleagues have shared with her over the years.
Article published Oct 2012
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily
represent the views of the LIScareer editors.