‘Finding Yes During COVID-19’
In late 2019, Suzanne Macaulay, a Knovvmad from New York that we admired, had been preparing a series of workshops aiming to encourage librarians to pursue optimism in the workplace. Her approach was centered upon the library as a hub for community engagement where librarians and patrons alike fostered a strong support system, valued active listening, and we geared towards finding solutions. With conferences booked throughout the upcoming year, she worked tirelessly to polish the content and to provide resources and best practices with library communities along the way. Then came 2020. It’s hard to look back and not be overcome with a mixed feelings of disbelief and relief. As we continuously grasp the beauty and curse of the information age, Suzanne has chartered a path to success; libraries must emboldened us to serve their communities. 2021 presents us with a platform to be resourceful and resolute, and as Knovvmads we must, above all things, remain optimistic. Welcome again, Suzanne! Thank you for your inspiration.
Finding Yes During COVID-19 by Suzanne Macaulay
In November 2019 I presented a session at the NYLA Annual Conference titled Creating a Culture of Yes. It was a topic on which I would passionately soapbox to anyone who would politely stand and listen. One day, one of those polite standards and listeners suggested, “Why don’t you submit this as a conference proposal?” and ten(ish) months later I was in Saratoga Springs, New York with a slide deck full of memes.
A culture of yes was what I was working toward implementing as a Library Director, and the underlying premise was “Let’s stop making it hard for people to use the library.” I felt that it was important that we develop a culture, a shared passion, in our library; a workplace culture was not just for for-profits and slick startups. (Cardigans and cats are library clichés, not library culture.)
A culture would ensure that our actions—our policies and procedures—aligned with our Mission Statement and organizational values.
My idea of this yes culture was a mishmash of things I had read and seen and mentally tucked away over the years, and then slowly started to curate and implement. This meant a good amount of my presentation was based on opinion, and the only supporting data I had was “This worked for me so you should try it too!” However, there were three things that had helped to shape my thesis: a fishmonger, a coffee mogul, and a public servant.
In the middle of my library career, following a relocation, I worked several years in retail. The General Manager had the supervisors read Fish! A Proven Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results by Stephen C. Lundin PhD, John Christensen, and Harry Paul. This concise book offered an introductory lesson on workplace culture before workplace culture was a trendy buzz phrase.
Short story short: Fish! is the allegorical tale of a new manager who is tasked with turning around a department described as a “toxic waste dump.” Feeling defeated, the manager stumbles upon the Pike Place Fish Market, a real life hot spot in Seattle known for the employees’ witty banter and Globetrotter-esque fish handling skills. The manager befriends one of the fishmongers who shares the secrets of Pike’s success over a couple of lunch meetups. The manager excitedly applies these four Fish! Principles to her department and soon the “toxic waste dump” becomes among the highest producing in the company. Morale is soaring, job satisfaction has increased tenfold, and it’s a very happy ending.
Of the four Fish! Principles presented in this manual, we zeroed in #2: “Make their Day!” It was such a simple yet impactful way to succeed in brick and mortar retail in an increasingly digital world. We found the easiest way to make someone’s day was to say “Yes.” However, in order to say yes to our customers, management had to say yes to the staff and the staff had to say yes to each other. Saying yes was listening to, supporting, and finding solutions for the team. As we continued to say yes, we began to go above and beyond for each other. That goodwill extended to the customers who then wanted to shop with us again and again. Yes created a feel good environment, a place where people wanted to be.
As I returned to the library world, I wanted to carry that “Yes” with me. Just like my retail customers, I wanted us to approach each patron interaction ready to say yes—even before we heard the question. Instead of using “Our policy doesn’t allow” or “That isn’t possible” as shields, let’s find the yes and make their day.
Let’s create patrons that want to use our library again and again and make our library a place where people wanted to be.
Although I am fiercely loyal to Dunkin, I do appreciate an occasional Starbucks latte. (Tip: the Almondmilk Honey Flat White smells just like the shops on Main Street, USA at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.) I also appreciate this quote from Harold Shultz, former Chairman and CEO of the prolific java chain: “We are not in the coffee business serving people, but in the people business serving coffee.” As it applies to libraries, I love to swap out coffee with books. We are not in the book business. We are in the people business, and we serve them books… and information, ideas, knowledge, and entertainment.
To be successful, businesses and organizations (including libraries) need to connect with people. We need to find out what our customers or patrons need and want and make it easy for them to attain those needs and wants. We do that by removing unnecessary rules or barriers. There are 80,000 drink combinations at Starbucks—something for everyone—because the baristas will mix and match flavors and foams to suit every customer’s palate. They don’t say “No.” They don’t make their customers operate inside tight parameters. Let’s be like that in libraries. Just like there is more than one way to order a coffee, there is more than one way to use a library. How many combinations can we make?
Last but not least, there is Leslie Knope, the can-do protagonist of Parks and Recreation. With an overabundance of gumption, Leslie never accepts “No” for an answer and will do whatever it takes to serve the community of Pawnee, Indiana. Whether it is saving the Harvest Festival or filibustering on roller skates, Leslie works tirelessly to deliver a yes—even if that means presenting to the Pawnee Chamber of Commerce with the flu (an episode that maybe has not aged well in a post-COVID world). Leslie is the ultimate team player, rallying those around her with boundless energy and a true zest for her work.
Although Leslie is a fictional character, I know there is a little bit of Leslie in all of us—or there can be. Next time you are presented with a seemingly impossible request from a patron, replace that knee jerk “No” with a “Yes.” Find a solution, find the work around, find what is possible. Saying “No” is easy. It requires less time, less energy, less work especially when we are tired, overworked, and (sometimes) underpaid. But saying “No” doesn’t make anyone’s day. As Leslie wisely said, “Positive is always better than negative.”
To my surprise and delight, the presentation was well received. Despite or because of (still unsure) my references to The Mighty Ducks, Below Deck, and Dunder Mifflin, the core message of Creating a Culture of Yes resonated with the audience. Library administration should say yes to their staff and library staff should say yes to each other and all library workers, top down, should say yes to their communities.
Following the conference, I received invitations to repeat this presentation at several libraries and library systems across the state. It was exciting to think that people weren’t just enthusiastic about my presentation because they were full of free hotel coffee and vendor swag (although one vendor was handing out socks with donuts and tacos on them and it was very thrilling). I was ready to pack my overnight bag and visit my library peers in different parts of New York State. The summer of 2020 was going to be (as the youths say) fire!
But then… global pandemic.
New York bore the early brunt of coronavirus in the United States. With so many unknowns—How was it spread? What are the symptoms? Who is susceptible? —and skyrocketing infection rates, the safest route was strict, state-mandated work from home orders which included the closing of libraries’ physical spaces. By mid-March, library buildings from Long Island up to Lake Champlain and stretching west towards Niagara Falls were shuttered.
As New Yorkers worked fervently to flatten the curve, my scheduled presentations were cancelled. I was relieved. Even if travel was safe by the summer (it was not), I no longer believed my message was relevant. How could I convincingly speak about saying yes when in order to save lives we had to say no? Nothing was the same as it was four months ago, including libraries, and the longer the pandemic endured, we didn’t know when or if they would ever be the same.
Even as restrictions eased as the state progressed through Governor Cuomo’s reopening plan, NYFoward, libraries were still unable to reinstate services at full capacity. It wasn’t simply a flinging open of the doors; it was cracking open the doors for specific, limited times and by appointment only. Depending on factors such as availability of Personal Protective Equipment, library location, staff size, and building square footage, libraries still had to say no or versions of no to keep their staff and their communities safe.
You cannot come in here.
You cannot come in without a mask.
You cannot browse the stacks.
You cannot stay longer than 30 minutes.
You cannot put books from other libraries on hold.
You cannot sit on our chairs.
You cannot use our public computers.
You cannot read the newspaper.
You cannot play with the toys in the Children’s Room.
You cannot use our copier.
No became routine library messaging because yes was a public health hazard.
Only one presentation stayed on my schedule, the keynote for a neighboring library system’s Annual Meeting in the fall, but I was sure it would be cancelled. Even though we had all gotten the hang of virtual meetings by this time, pivoting to an online platform wouldn’t make my presentation any more applicable in a post-COVID world. Wouldn’t it be better to have something more topical? Maybe someone from the Department of Health? An infectious disease expert? OSHA?
My mood around the upcoming (impending) presentation oscillated between dread and panic with an occasional stop at embarrassment. As the date drew closer, I truly wondered how my presentation could bring value to the audience in a time marked by restrictions, mandates, and Executive Orders. But then, listening to an old episode of Adriane Herrick Juarez’s Library Leadership podcast, guest Kim Cadle repeated one of her favorite quotes: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” This line, attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn, was a true lightbulb moment for me. Wasn’t a culture of yes all about adaptability? And resilience? And looking for the possible? I couldn’t stop or change coronavirus, but I could adjust me.
I thought about the 42 libraries in my system. I thought about their resiliency and how quickly they adapted to the clichéd “new normal” to continue serving their communities. Every telephone reference interview, online storytime, and virtual book discussion group was a yes. Keeping the Wi-Fi on at all times so patrons could access it from the parking lot was a yes. Extending due dates for six months was a yes. Waiving all late fines and fees was a yes. Curbside and contactless check out was a yes. Budget revisions to move extra funds into eBook and hotspot purchasing was a yes. I thought about all the solutions our libraries had found, all the workarounds, all the possibilities. I thought about Leslie Knope.
Yes was possible during COVID-19.
Even the most optimistic among us can feel worn down by COVID. It is hard to keep a positive outlook when what we once thought would be a two-week thing drags on for months and the one-year anniversary now looms. It is ok to have our weak moments, our low moments, our doubts and fears, but I could not let COVID crush my belief in yes.
So this past October, I once again delivered Creating a Culture of Yes. It was a revised version, of course, as the original slides were created before mask mandates and health screening forms. Although yes looks and feels different now, it still exists. We can still find the possible; we can still make someone’s day. For me, for libraries, for all of us, during and after COVID, there is and will be a path to yes. We just need to make it.
“Opportunity is everywhere. The key is to develop the vision to see it.”Robin Sharm
The very Cliffs Notes version of how you can lead your organization to a Culture of Yes:
- Be willing to challenge your initial reaction
- Be curious, ask questions, want to learn more
- Be available
- Try new things (remove “We’ve always done it this way!” from the vernacular)
- Respect the work-life balance
- Be a problem solver
- Have your team’s back
- Empower your team (and don’t micromanage!)
- Acknowledge a job well done
- Celebrate the big things, the small things, all the things!
Suzanne Macaulay is the Deputy Director of the Pioneer Library System which supports the 42 public libraries in Ontario, Wayne, Wyoming, and Livingston Counties, New York. Suzanne started as a Children’s Librarian and has held various positions in public libraries in New York and Pennsylvania, most recently serving as the Director of the Clifton Springs Library. She received her BA in English from Molloy College and her MLIS from LIU Post. Suzanne lives in Rochester, New York with her husband, three kids, and three dogs and is an avid runner.