5 Tips for Cultivating Good Work Relationships

telephone1 Painting: Betsy Boyle

1.  Communicate.  This one would seem like a no brainer; but, I’m always amazed at the lack of communication I find in the places I have worked.  Here is an example: Employee A organizes the adult programming for a library.  She has scheduled movies on a certain night of the week for a few years.  She logs onto the calendar to book the community room several months ahead and finds that Employee B, the person who does children’s programming has booked the same night for several months.  Employee A can move the movie night to another night; but, it will require training a generally elderly population into switching nights.  It will also require a rescheduling of personnel.  All of this is fine in the long run; after all, staff must share the facilities.  The problem exists because Employee B didn’t have the courtesy to just call up Employee A and have a discussion about booking the room and there by at least giving Employee A a heads up.  Now there are feelings of irritation and suspicion instead of one of teamwork.  Employee B missed an opportunity to bond with her colleague and build a relationship based on negotiation and support.  Do you think Employee A will jump at the chance to help out Employee B should she need it?  I doubt it.  Pick up the phone or wander down to your colleague’s desk and talk them.

2.  Set up your coworkers to succeed.  What I mean by that is if you are presented with an opportunity to make a situation smoother or give your coworker the information they need to successfully navigate a problem, DO IT!  A good example is when dealing with a customer complaint that needs to be handed off to the next person.  Take a moment, whether by phone or in person, to bring your coworker up to speed in an objective way.  You don’t have to bias your coworker’s opinion of the customer; but, you can give them all the facts and even suggestions for resolution if you have any.  If you need to forward a customer call to another person, take a moment to introduce them to the problem before allowing the call to transfer.  This is a win/win situation because not only are you building a trusting relationship with your colleague, you are also improving customer service.  There is nothing more annoying than calling a customer service line and getting handed off  a million times and having to tell each new person the whole story.

3.  Avoid office gossip.  This is hard.  There is always one person in any workplace that others like to complain about.  Try to avoid this kind of chit chat.  Although it may feeling like a bit of coworker bonding at the moment, it is actually planting the seeds of distrust in everyone involved.  If your coworkers talk about your other coworker behind their back, who’s to say they don’t talk about you when you’re not there?  And there lies the rub.  By not participating in these conversations, you coworkers quickly learn to curb these types of bitch fests while you are around.  They also begin to realize that you are a person that can be trusted to treat others fairly.  This is an excellent role to have in an organization because it puts you in a position of being able to help create a cohesive team and change a distrustful atmosphere.

4. Give when you can.  There are times in every organization when you are less busy than someone else.  If you see your coworker stressed from overwork and you have time, offer to help.  If you have an answer needed to help a customer, offer it.  In my library I’m seen as one of the techie people around here and reference staff have been known to interrupt my offdesk time to get me to help a customer with a computer question.  When I was younger, this would sometimes irritate me because I felt that the other staff should know these things.  But, now that I’m older and just more experienced I realize that we all have our strengths and roles.  Mine is to help people with computer issues that are beyond basic troubleshoots.  I’ve had coworkers whose strengths were in business resources, government documents and geneology and I was happy to pass the customer to them.  That’s teamwork and when the team is working together, the customer always wins.

5. Show respect to others at all times, even when someone drives you crazy.  This can sometimes be hard; but, it is really not negotiable if you want good working relationships with coworkers.  Deliver criticism gently and receive it maturely.  I’ve seen coworkers snap at each other, treat each other rudely and disrespect each other in a whole gamut of ways I had never thought of before.  I’ve had a boss who yelled and kicked file cabinets and liked to make people cry.  I’ve had a boss who never came out of her office even if the library was crazy and we needed her help.  I’ve seen coworkers treat nonprofessional staff as if they were idiots.  All of this behavior leads to a workplace in chaos which is always bad for the customer.  And it may be a cliche; but, seriously, a little respect goes a long way.

This is a good start.  I’m sure there are many other ways to build good rapport with the folks you work with day in and day out.  Some of us spend as much time with our coworkers as we do with our families.    We should take some care tending to these relationships.

Tax Season Hell: How to Survive

Photo: Paul Keleher

Photo: Paul Keleher

The dreaded tax season is upon us.  Tax season brings a particular type of hell to libraries and even the most calm and courteous of library staff is stressed and has their patience tested on a daily basis.

There are many reasons for the added stress of providing an area for form and booklet distribution and/or a space for AARP volunteers that provide free tax preparation services.

1.  The tax season brings people to the library who don’t ordinarily use the library.  They may have never been to your particular branch of the library.  They wander around aimlessly or they zero in on you immediately and ask you where something is located.  Frequently the forms or volunteers they seek are under a giant sign and the person just failed to actually look for signs directing them.  They generally require special attention and added energy.

2.  Library staff answer the same questions over and over and over and over again.  We put up a million directional signs and yet we answer the Where is question so many times a day it becomes taxing (Ha!).

3. People ask us for tax advice which we are not qualified to give.  Many of us, myself included, don’t feel qualified enough to fill out the standard form for our own taxes!

4.  Our phone rings off the hook with the same questions: Do you have this particular form?  Where and when do you do taxes?

These factors add up to stress.  I’m not really sure why answering the same question a million times is stressful; but, I’m pretty sure that most people find it stressful, especially if it is not ordinary to one’s job.

This is a dangerous recipe if our library leaders wish us to continue to provide excellent customer service.  Oddly, in the past 15 years I’ve worked at quite a few public libraries and not once has leadership prepared staff for the added stress.  The Saint Paul Public Library’s main branch had a nice setup because they funneled people onto an elevator that took them right up to the fourth floor meeting room.  The folks that planned tried to limit the impact on staff as much as possible and most cases succeeded though I’m sure the occasional person wandered into the administrative offices seeking tax help.

I have been feeling short tempered this week.  Not only am I answering the same questions over and over and over; but, when I’m staffing the reference desk I’m also required to shush the folks waiting to have their taxes done.  Contrary to stereotype, we actually don’t like to ask people to be quiet.  Just this morning,  a patron asked me to get the tax people to be quiet and I’ve had to ask them a half dozen times in 2 hours.  That is not only not fun, it’s stressful.  It’s so stressful in fact, if this was a regular thing, I would switch careers.

I’ve been thinking about ways I could have better prepared myself for this stressful time and came up with two tips that probably would have helped me.

1.  Sleep.  I’ve been staying up too late.  At this time, I actually need more sleep not less.  More sleep would give me a little extra reserve in the patience department.

2.  Exercise.  I needed to ramp up the morning and afternoon dog walks, which Henry would appreciate anyway.

These are two things I should have done leading up to this time; but, ultimately, I should address right now to help the next 6 weeks go smoother.

I wonder what leadership could do to help staff through stressful times.  At times when there are organizational layoffs, the surviving staff is stressed and overworked.  Holidays bring added stress to retail workers, package delivery people, restaurants and numerous other businesses.  I worked at Powell’s Books last year and actually served on a small team that was in charge of Christmas season store atmosphere.  Basically, we were in charge of scheduling a seemingly never ending stream of treats and meals to get everyone through the holidays.  Store managers also were acutely aware of the added stress because they also worked the floor and made it quite clear that if we were overwhelmed or over stressed that we just needed to speak up.

What can libraries be doing to help staff through the stress of tax season?  How are we preparing for the stress of the summer reading programs?  Budget cuts?  Stress brings bad customer service and we can’t afford to have that.

Ultimately we are responsible for our own stress levels and our own committment to good customer service.  We are responsible for our cheerfullness and our grouchiness.  What are you doing to relieve job stress?

Coffee in the Library


photo: hawkinsTheil

I recently had a meeting with my boss about many things, mostly having to do with technology because I’m the emerging technology/web 2.0 librarian.  We talked for quite awhile and as we were wrapping up she asked me if there was anything else I wanted to discuss.  I looked down at my notes where I had scribbled:  Coffee Cop.    I took a deep breath.

Every library I’ve ever worked in has struggled with the idea of food and beverages in the library.  Traditional thought follows the line that such items would be banned to protect the books, carpet, furniture and computers.

I know that my current library has been very strict about enforcing the no beverages/no food in the library except for one small area of the library we call the cafe area.  The cafe area has easy chairs, the magazines, a fireplace, some small tables and chairs, a counter top with stools and even has a small pod coffee pot that dispenses a cup of coffee for $1.

By not allowing anything other than bottled water in the rest of the library, we have essentially been put in the role of Coffee Cop.  People wander in with their Dunkin Donuts cup and their laptop and we pounce on them and tell them they need to drink their coffee in the cafe area.

The problem with our current set of rules is that it creates an adversarial relationship immediately upon our customer entering the library. “Hey, you can’t have that in here.”    This is a problem.  There are so many folks bringing in coffee that it is a daily occurrence, sometimes several times a day.  Is this how we want to greet our customers?

What are we worried about?  The carpet?  It can be cleaned or a square replaced.  The keyboards?  They are relatively inexpensive.  Books?  We allow books out of the library …in fact, we encourage it and god knows what people do with the books at home.  I myself have eaten meals while reading, read in the bathtub, taken books to the beach and propped a cookbook up on the counter for reference as I cooked.  There just isn’t a compelling enough argument to justify creating an unwelcoming atmosphere.

I stated my case and my boss said she’d think about it and that we should talk about it as a group.

In an atmosphere where we fear decreased funding and we are looking to our customers to be our voice.  I say, welcome them into the library with open arms, coffee and all.

Kindness in Action

Today my coworker was at the reference desk and a woman slowly approached the desk. She asked if we had a certain video. My coworker looked it up, informed her that it was a children’s video and located in the children’s department.

Facts: The customer was slow moving and seemingly having difficulty moving. She was a larger woman; but, did not have a cane or any other implements.

Facts: Standard practice is to direct customers to the children’s department where there is another librarian who could serve her.

Reality: My coworker informed her that the video was in the kid’s department, offered to fetch it for her and when the customer accepted her offer, my coworker went around the reference desk and pulled a chair out from a study table, so the customer could sit down.

This was not just excellent customer service. This was service delivered with kindness and from the heart. How many people would have responded the way this librarian did?

Desperation Brings Decency



There is an article in the New York Times today about the restaurant industry and how horribly it is struggling during these economic hard times.  This is not a new topic of discussion.  I’ve probably read a half dozen other articles about the same topic, whether the journalist is taking the angle of all the bargain meals to be had or they are reporting about the restaurants disappearing one by one.  This article is different because peppered throughout the article is commentary about how now the waitstaff at some of the highest end NYC restaurants are all of a sudden happy to see you.  Gone (apparently) is the snobbish, sometimes rude reception a diner might get on any given night or over the phone when attempting to make a reservation.  One restaurant owner of two failed restaurants advised his colleagues, “You need to hug your customers.”

I’m assuming most of these places that were wildly successful despite their less than pleasant attitudes toward their diners are now scrambling to figure out just what “nice” even means.  Can you retrain your staff to be pleasant and helpful?  What if these establishments had been “hugging” their customers from the very beginning?  At this point, I imagine that customers will continue to go to these restaurants, especially if they are offering deals; but, the customers are not invested, just bargain seeking.

What if you have a store, a restaurant, a department, a library full of pleasant and helpful staff winning the customer’s heart over and over and over again no matter what the economic climate.  Won’t those customers be more invested in the health of your organization?  Not just looking for a fire sale?  In the library world, these questions need to be asked as government leaders turn to us to cut budgets and tighten belts.  Are our customers invested enough to fight for us?

Library Advocacy

credit: Kentigern

There is an organization in my state that is actively working to get library funding reduced by 50%. This is an absurd idea. The state library is rallying support and library directors are training staff on how to be good library advocates.

I have an idea.

Let’s be nicer. Let’s smile at each person. Let’s get up off our chairs and take them to the shelf. Let’s not act like they are stupid if they don’t know how to print a document or crazy if they ask us to do something clearly outside of our scope of services.

I witnessed something in my library recently. The library was closed, the computers shut down and a woman, somehow missed by our sweeps came wandering into circulation wanting to check out a book. The staff person did an okay job of telling her that we were closed; but, that we would check out her items by bringing the system back up. The woman threw her items down on the table and started storming out while yelling over her shoulder, ” You people are always so pleasant to work with.” We all stood there slightly dumbfounded. Our coworker had been decent in dealing with her. She had used a pleasant tone and did not even have a slight attitude in her delivery. We chalked it up to a grouchy customer and all headed out.

In the car ride home, I began to reassess what had happened. I felt bad that the customer had left without her items and so clearly upset. How could we have handled this differently? Two things came to mind…well actually three. First, my coworker didn’t need to tell her that we were closing, there were several staff standing there with their coats on waiting for the library to be clear of customers. Secondly, we didn’t need to have 7 staff standing around out there making this woman feel guilty about holding us all up. And thirdly, I think I could have chased her down, expressed that I really wanted her to be leaving with the items she had come for and offer to take her card, check them out and bring them back out to her car. I wouldn’t do a typical manager response by blaming the staff. It wasn’t her fault either. It was a perfect storm of a long, crazy day at the library and a frustrated patron running out of time to get the things she wanted/needed.

We can do better. We must do better.

Manners 2.0: Cultivating Common Courtesy in a Digital World

What is it about the embracing of emerging technologies that has allowed people to abandon common courtesies? Last year, I worked in retail and I was astonished at the sheer number of people who thought it was perfectly fine to conduct a retail transaction while talking on the phone. Before you jump to the conclusion that this is a younger generation phenomenon, I can tell you that I was equally surprised by the diversity in age of the offending customers. Let me tell you a story of one clueless customer. We had one public restroom. You know where I’m going with this right?

A customer approached me to say that someone had been in the bathroom an unusual amount of time and could I check on her. I had actually walked past the bathroom several minutes prior to this and noticed that someone was in there talking on their phone. I remember thinking: who talks on their phone while they’re in a gross public bathroom?

So, of course, she is still in there talking loud enough for the 5 people waiting for the bathroom to hear her, word for word. If she thought talking in the restroom provided some sort of privacy she was wrong. I knocked loudly on the door. There was a moment of silence and then, “Uh oh, I think people want to get in here.” We all stood there and listened to some mysterious noises and finally the door opened. A woman in her 60s emerged and said, “Sorry,” put the phone to her ear and continued her conversation. The customers started clapping and the incident was over.

Clearly, cell phones, social networking and other web 2.0 tools have changed the way we interact with one another; but, can’t we also carry with us some traditional concepts of courtesy? I think so. I’ve created a very basic list of rules to follow when navigating in the digital world.

Rules of Respect 2.0

1. Set your phone to vibrate when in a public place where there is an expectation of quiet: hospitals, libraries, coffee shops where people are working on laptops are just a few examples. You might also lower the ringer when in any indoor public place. There is a general annoyance when you hear someone’s obnoxiously loud ringtone no matter where you are.

2. Turn your phone off when you are on a date, eating dinner with your family, hanging out with friends, basically when you are engaged with other humans in a business or social arena. If you are waiting for an important call/txt or email or need to be on call, let your companions know that you may need to excuse yourself.

3. If you receive a formal invitation to something like a wedding, rsvp via snail mail. Don’t send a text, email or IM, unless the hosts have indicated that sort of response is acceptable.

4. If you need to speak or listen to another person, remove your headphones/earbuds. Keep the volume of your portable devices low enough that others around you can’t hear them.

5. Txting and surfing during class is rude and although you may be confidant in your multitasking abilities, you are probably not digesting all that the professor says.

This is just a beginning list. I’ll probably add more as this blog goes on.

My friend told me  a digital date from hell story.  She recently went on a first date with a woman and her date checked her Blackberry several times throughout their meal and actually responded to a txt message as they were walking down the sidewalk.  The thing that most struck me about this was that this person is not being fully present in her life. And I surely don’t want to date someone who isn’t even fully present on the first date. You can use this same scale when dealing with the store clerk, the gas station attendant and others you come in contact with. Turn off your devices, acknowledge this other human that is in your life. You can check your texts, talk to your friend, surf the internet in just a moment.