In anticipation of a new building and entrance to the UBC Okanagan Library our Chief Librarian, Heather Berringer, set forth a challenge. We needed to develop plans for a first-floor renovation that accommodated the new entrance, that would continue to deliver library services from a single service point, and that was flexible enough to accommodate an undetermined budget, timeline and scope. Our collective brain power and creativity was clearly required!
This article will share the collaborative process developed to ensure representation of the varied and unique perspectives, experiences, and ideas of all library employees. As many libraries aim to manage projects and address solutions through cross-functional teams, this article will provide practical insight into best practices for collaboration. In a short time frame our committee was able to deliver a series of redesign options allowing for a wide range of budget possibilities. Each of these redesign options adhered to a set of guiding principles that we established early on. Full-scale consultation with all library employees ensured that the work of the committee drew upon a broader set of insights and reflected the meaningful consideration of concerns. This collaborative process resulted in a plan that was detailed enough to be implemented and contributed to the successful launch of a new service model.
Understanding the culture of a workplace is vital in determining if a cross-functional team will flourish. At UBC Okanagan, growth and change have characterized library activities since the campus was established in 2005. In 2012, a major renovation to the library saw the creation of a single service point, merging separate circulation and reference desks. Through this process, job descriptions and expectations were changed and a rigorous bi-weekly staff training program was implemented. As with most large-scale change, there was a period of adjustment, with tensions and divisions among some employees. A committee did guide the process but many people in the organization felt that the work was not transparent and that opportunities for broad consultation were minimal. With new library leadership in 2013, efforts to consciously address divisive issues were implemented including the creation of a series of outcome-driven projects run by cross-functional teams. A culture of trust and collaboration was fostered by this process.
In 2017, UBC Okanagan Library Administration conducted a survey for library services assistants and administrative support staff to assess job satisfaction and to determine categories of work that would be of interest for growth and development. This consultation developed out of the results of a UBC-wide Workplace Experience survey. The results of the internal library survey showed that while many employees were happy with their duties, others were interested in learning new skills and areas of professional expertise. It was also clear that the work of the cross-functional project teams described above was valued throughout the library, and was not viewed as merely an administrative exercise.
In summary, the work of the library first-floor redesign committee occurred in the context of a high performing library-wide team of co-workers, accustomed to respectfully engaging with one another, to being meaningfully consulted, and to being heard. These are the precise conditions that Voyles and Huff-Eibl (2013) describe as critical to success in cross-functional teams.
This background context is crucial in understanding the success of the collaborative team processes described below. Libraries are bureaucratic organizations by definition, and have a history of strict hierarchy within and between different employee groups. Perrin and Daniel (2017) highlight five conditions required for cross-functional teams to work in libraries:
Perrin and Daniel’s first three conditions were met by our committee from the outset. The team consisted of a broad range of employees with relevant perspectives and expertise. Despite a host of unknown variables, such as timeline, budget, and the scope of the renovation, the team felt that it had a clear mandate to imagine what was possible and make concrete recommendations. Imagining what was possible and then figuring out how to implement that vision allowed the committee to exercise both autonomy and authority over the process, despite having an uncertain set of conditions governing the outcome. There was absolute certainty that this work would meaningfully contribute to the renovation, even if the renovation itself was a nebulous concept. Based on the 2012 renovation and service redesign, the committee recognized our responsibility to the broader library, which positioned us to avoid the pitfalls of siloed committee work or antagonistic team dynamics described by Perrin and Daniel (2017) in their final two conditions.
Conditions for Success
The Undergraduate Services Librarian was tasked with assembling a committee with the goal of recommending design and service model solutions for the library first floor. In addition to the Undergraduate Services Librarian, who adopted the role of committee chair due to job duties including oversight of the service model, five committee members were selected from an employee group of about thirty people. Committee members were purposely selected for a combination of reasons. The actual job descriptions and roles that individuals held within the organization were considered, as each employee stakeholder group who worked as part of the service model needed to be included. In total, three librarians, two library services assistants and one library services coordinator formed the committee. This balance in numbers between professional librarians and library assistants was critical in establishing library-wide trust in the process, in that all voices would have a chance to be fairly represented. Given the institutional history of a service model redesign that lacked buy-in, three long-serving employees were selected, as we wanted to ensure the same mistakes were not repeated. Two relatively new hires were also included to purposefully bring fresh perspectives to existing practices and draw upon external knowledge of other libraries. Personalities were also a factor in selecting membership. The committee included people with a love of pondering big topics, as well as those devoted to the details.
From the outset, the work of the committee was collaborative and required active participation from all members. Individuals were sent email invitations outlining the scope of the committee work and requesting their acceptance to participate. The invitation included preparatory work to be completed before the first meeting, setting the tone for commitment, respect for all opinions, and interaction in each meeting. No declines were received.
Conditions were created that facilitated engagement from all employees, including those not familiar with an active committee role within the library. A division of labour regarding front-line services was already established through our merged service model. As such, the employees representing different employee groups on the committee were all able to use our existing service desk and model as a jumping off point for discussions. Library service assistants could advise on functional requirements of a new service model while librarians could bring insights from a referral model that was working, but had recognized room for improvement. Beyond these perspectives, all committee members were encouraged by the chair to speak during meetings, providing their experiences, personal opinions, and facts and ideas gathered from the professional literature and library websites surveyed.
In the first few committee meetings we created shared expectations in which each committee member had responsibilities based on personal interest or expertise and to advance the work that we collectively agreed needed to be done. Committee members conducted literature searches, scanned library websites, and then wrote and presented short briefs to the committee. This work was shared equally amongst employee groups. Some topics led to the acceptance of new ideas or facts that we need to consider, while others fostered unresolved philosophical discussion.
In many libraries conflict is viewed as an activity to be avoided at all costs. This committee openly discussed such challenges, noting that we had to address some of the sticky issues in the profession in order to make service model recommendations. Such topics included when to refer reference questions, what purpose the desk really served, how to create a welcoming environment, how to prioritize employee and patron needs and wants, what good service meant, and more. At the start of each meeting, all members were encouraged to contribute tangential ideas or concerns that had arisen while completing their pre-meeting work. This practice led to the committee harnessing the value of competing viewpoints, which is one of the key organizational reasons to establish cross-functional teams (Voyles & Huff-Eibl, 2013, pp. 109-11). By openly recognizing that we were likely to disagree we created a meeting culture in which critique was welcome.
Committee Work & Outputs
The committee met bi-weekly from October to December 2016, at which point five viable scenarios were presented to our library administration. The committee met less frequently through 2017 as renovation plans were solidified. Numerous committee members expressed a need for extra meetings as ideas solidified or additional sources of literature were discovered. This level of engagement by a cross-functional team had a ripple effect within our library. Similar to the synergies described by Wilkes and Ward (2016) with the two cross-functional team projects that they report on, we were able to harness this energy and enthusiasm to pilot multiple sub-projects in advance of our full-scale renovation.
The committee began with an understanding that construction of a new building, The Commons, would necessitate a second library entrance and create increased flow of people through the library from two different directions. The Commons, which was provisionally named the Teaching and Learning Centre, was publicly announced in December 2016 (Thorburn, 2016). As the library renovation budget was as yet undetermined, the committee had been instructed to think big and long-term. The committee was also aware that the budget would determine the eventual scope of the project, and that recommendations needed to account for a range of possibilities. While perhaps a daunting task, the committee was engaged immediately and threw their collective energy into determining solutions with the potential to work on our campus.
The committee decided to start our work by thinking in terms of what would be ideal, rather than focusing on details. Important values emerged early on, which included maintaining exceptional customer service, reference, and circulation services, while thinking forward to the future library and learning environment. Underpinning these ideals was a desire to improve accessibility and ergonomics, actively encourage student questions, and enhance staff collaboration between co-workers at the desk and through referral processes to librarians.
While the committee membership was inclusive of a range of roles and experiences, we knew that our recommendations had potential to significantly change the physical and working environment for most library employees. As such, we needed to communicate our process and ideas with all employees. Utilizing a few online tools allowed us to create excitement with engagement and gather a broad scope of input. The committee chair circulated questions to all library employees, feedback to which was collected in the form of comments and images posted to a Padlet board (https://padlet.com/), which was prepopulated with some ideas from the committee. Pinterest was used to gather ideas for furnishings and design. Questions posed to the whole library included: What would you change about the way we currently deliver service on the first floor? And, Where should we look for customer service inspiration? An additional Padlet board also served as a ‘parking lot’ of ideas that were too detailed to include in our design scenarios, but that we didn’t want to lose sight of when it came time to finalize and implement changes.
Discussion of priorities began with broad consultation across all library staff about what was and was not working about the existing service model. Many ideas for improving workflow surfaced through committee discussions. These discussions benefited from the perspectives of those who regularly worked at the service desk as well as those that with fewer desk responsibilities but an active interest in contributing to the overall service model. Six priorities were agreed upon and all renovation design options were evaluated in terms of their adherence to the priorities.
As the formal output of our committee work, we delivered a summary report to our library administrative team which included four scenarios and a series of service innovations. The scenarios were written by different committee members, they included a schematic, and they were detailed enough to assess feasibility and budget implications. The service innovations identified could be implemented regardless of the scenario selected, and were described as a parallel set of recommendations to accompany whichever design scenario was chosen. Throughout this process, we sent regular emails to staff to communicate our progress and to solicit feedback on preliminary designs. We presented our full set of scenarios at a staff meeting. Following on all of this work, a fifth scenario emerged through the discovery of a couple of inspiring articles. The chair reconvened the group, who were excited by the idea of further refining our design recommendations in support of the guiding principles. In the end, this fifth scenario was fully implemented through a well-funded renovation in the summer of 2018.
Reflections and Recommendations
One way to look at the outcome of this process is by examining the full-scale renovation completed in the summer of 2018. The revised service model features a service zone in which we collaboratively deliver a range of services for a diverse and evolving patron population. We created a service zone intentionally designed to meet the needs of those diverse patrons, as well as for all of our front-line library employees. Within this zone we provide circulation of library materials, including laptops and assistive technology, peer technology help, and highly visible research assistance through both on-demand assistance and through a referral process. We developed spaces for small scale instruction as well as individual and group consultation, dedicated research stations, and an open workspace utilized by studying students when not in use by library employees. This service model redesign contributes a new approach to the professional discussion of service model evolution.
Another way to view the outcome of this process is through the continuation of collaborative and experimental approaches once the service redesign was officially launched. As with every renovation there are unexpected elements in the final product. In our case, staff storage space at the desk did not meet our initial expectations, decorative lighting added warmth to the space but was far too bright in the evenings, and the elimination of clear lines between staff and student space required more consideration than we had accounted for. All of these issues were solvable, and while they were recognized by many people working in the service zone, solutions were championed by those on the redesign committee. The people from the committee also took on a very important role in translating for other employees how our ideas, and our guiding principles, were present in the new space. Formal assessment of staff satisfaction has not taken place. However, through our bi-weekly staff training program, we have regular opportunities for reflection and discussion leading to confidence that our service redesign is viewed as an improvement by staff as regards their work conditions, as well as for delivering service to patrons.
Creating a culture in which the voices of all library employees can be heard requires thoughtful consideration to committee composition and attention to processes that facilitate meaningful participation. A cross-functional team with a discrete objective can provide a useful way to begin shifting expectations toward a shared understanding that all employee perspectives are valuable and important for the success of a complex organization such as a library. In support of the factors for success outlined by Perrin and Daniel (2017), our experience shows that a carefully selected cross-functional team can tackle a complex topic, such as service model redesign, with success. Critical to our process was the establishment early on of active participation by all members in meetings and through preparatory work; this allowed for people with varied levels of comfort with public speaking to contribute regularly. Also important was the establishment of trust in the process itself. Ironically, a transparent recognition at the outset that the outcomes of this committee were largely undetermined allowed our committee the space required to flourish. We knew that our recommendations would be given sincere consideration, even if the budget and timeline turned out to be unfavourable.
Perrin, J. M., & Daniel, J. (2017). Administration and cross-functional teams in libraries: A case study in failures and solutions. Library Management, 38(4/5), 219-225. doi:10.1108/LM-08-2016-0066
Thorburn, D. (2016, December 14). UBC Okanagan focus of $40 million investment for library expansion and infrastructure upgrades. Development and Alumni Engagement News. Retrieved from: https://news.ok.ubc.ca/supporting/2016/12/14/ubc-okanagan-focus-of-40-million-investment-for-library-expansion-and-infrastructure-upgrades/
Voyles, J.F. & Huff-Eibl, R. (2013). Cross-functional training and collaboration within the organization. In A. Wigbels Stewart, C. Washington-Hoagland, & C.T. Zsulya (Eds.), Staff development: A practical guide (4th ed.), (pp. 97-112). Chicago, IL: American Library Association.
Wilkes, B., & Ward, J. (2016). Building community: Synergy and empowerment through staff development and marketing in a small rural academic library. Collaborative Librarianship, 8(4), 180-191. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.du.edu/collaborativelibrarianship/
Barbara Sobol, MLIS holds the position of Undergraduate Services Librarian at UBC Okanagan Library and is interested in facilitating ongoing discussions about academic library services models through a newly established community of practice. Read more here: https://bclibraryservicemodel.design.blog
Kim Buschert, MLIS is the Faculty of Management Librarian at UBC Okanagan Library.