British Columbia Library Association

Building dynamic teams remotely

By Chloe Kitt, Nikolas Lamarre, Aidan Moffatt, Hannah Tolman, Pia Russell, and Gord Lyall

Introduction

This article outlines the technological lessons learned about effective remote work by a group of new information professionals employed as Young Canada Works Interns. As key team members of UVic Libraries’ British Columbia Historical Textbooks digital collection project, four interns located across the country summarize the technological strengths and weaknesses of productive and fulfilling work undertaken during a pandemic. Three specific technologies are discussed with an emphasis on building secure multi-site team cohesion and embracing practices of decolonization.

Internships in uncharted technological waters

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically transformed the employment landscape of academic institutions and those in Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (the GLAM sector). Work that previously would have been undertaken by a close-knit group sharing ideas in person must instead be performed via video conferencing by individuals who are often hundreds of kilometers apart. It is easy to focus on the negative aspects of GLAM’s “new normal” for remote work, but there are also benefits to be found in working entirely within the digital space. This article outlines some of these benefits and offers “lessons learned” by sharing the remote work experiences of a newly formed team of Young Canada Works (YCW) interns, who are employed full-time from November 2020 to April 2021.

The current intern team supports an innovative digital library and public history project centred upon UVic Libraries’ collection of schoolbooks used in British Columbia’s (BC) schools between 1871 and 1921. The British Columbia Historical Textbooks (BCHT) project team is made up of four interns and two supervisors. The interns are recent graduates from undergraduate and graduate programs in history, creative writing, library and information science, and the study of the book. They have never met in person and live disparately across the country in Victoria, Whitehorse, and Montreal. The interns are supervised by a project leader who is a librarian and a project coordinator who is a doctoral student, both are based at UVic.

For all four interns, this is their first professional position after graduation. So, not only do the interns have to initiate new professional identities, they have to enculturate themselves into an entirely new organization and adopt fundamentally new ways of working that are wholly remote. Instead of experiencing weeks of in-person, on-site new employee orientation, the interns rapidly adjusted to both new professional identities and productivity technologies without any in-person support.

A variety of tools were utilized to gather virtually in meaningful ways, share information effectively, maintain task productivity, and support impromptu chats. New ways of ensuring team cohesion that would previously have been commonplace in a standard office had to be quickly identified and implemented. All of the tools required by BCHT interns needed to be available online, including professional learning resources for Indigenous cultural acumen training, such as the University of Alberta’s ‘Indigenous Canada’ course, and text encoding programs such as Oxygen XML editor and Apache Subversion (SVN).

While benefits are clear, challenges related to remote working exist as well. Because every team member is using their personal computer, there are inevitable technical difficulties when it comes to downloading and installing certain programs or running various functions on separate devices. Reliance on internet connections can also complicate meetings that would otherwise be simple face-to-face interactions. In the case of the BCHT team, three technologies have been instrumental to the remote work process: group meetings using Zoom, shared work using Microsoft Teams, and text encoding using Subversion.

Software and digital platforms

Zooming through your work

Because each BCHT staff member works remotely, we felt we were missing a key component of the work experience, namely team dynamic. Normally, working in a shared space would allow us to chat regularly, become familiar with one another, and share thoughts on everyday topics and serendipitous interests. In lieu of this, the interns created a weekly Zoom meeting where we catch up on how we are feeling about the work and discuss potential solutions to shared challenges that may arise. Many of these discussions lead to talking about books or podcasts we enjoy, or about the kind of music we listen to while transcribing in XML. The full team also has a weekly meeting, which includes interns and supervisors, where we report on our progress and project ideas. These two meetings have enriched our experience of remote work and strengthened our ability to work cooperatively online because they provide focused time to address shared work experiences.

Though Zoom has been an excellent platform for casual socializing, it is not a stand-in for a more organic physical conversation and some “etiquette” is required. Lessons learned include being mindful of giving others plenty of time to speak, not interrupting over the audio lag, and being courteous of how much time we speak on a question. Practicing this Zoom etiquette has been paramount to ensuring consistently productive discussions. Having a supervisor facilitate these discussions has been extremely helpful, and though free-flowing discussion does occur, it is useful to have a facilitator bring the focus back to the topic and time left within the meeting.

The interns have enjoyed using Zoom for various reasons. That said, video conferencing fatigue is something we keep in mind—along with proper ergonomics and self-care methods practiced during the work week. As we further relied on Microsoft Teams for overall project management, we found that switching the weekly interns meeting from Zoom to Microsoft Teams was helpful in alleviating some of this fatigue, as Teams is where most of our workflow takes place. Streamlining the platform for meetings, workflow, shared documents, and chat into one consistent space has lessened the stress of keeping up with various systems.  In Microsoft Teams, we simply click the video icon to call other members into the meeting. This has been useful when we need to get in touch for a variety of purposes, but mostly it eliminates the step of having to set up a separate Zoom link through Outlook. However, the advantage of Zoom remains when individuals not affiliated with the project need to be included into video conferencing. When team members are working closely on a focused project with shared documents, we found video conferencing most effective through Microsoft Teams.

Learning curves for Microsoft Teams

Microsoft Teams (Teams) is a productivity system approved by the University of Victoria and offers a secure platform for the BCHT project to operate within. The adoption of this system is recent and coincides with COVID-19-instigated remote work infrastructures so the project’s use of this is still new.

To ensure a smooth introduction to the platform for future team members, the process of setting up a Teams account and using it for project work was documented with screenshots of each step. Despite the relative simplicity of Teams, learning how to navigate the platform is not without its issues such as learning how to manage assigned tasks, locate shared files, and using video calls differently between the Teams app and website. Because the team works from home, computers vary, and each team member must navigate the platform on their specific device and according to different software specifications.

Teams provides virtual office space by allowing for an open line of communication for all BCHT team members and creates a space for members to reach out to one another via the chat for small issues, casual questions, and to share points of interest. The BCHT project is centered around values of decolonization and reconciliation meaning that the Teams chats were often utilized to share links to relevant articles and websites and reflections on readings. One-on-one private chats and chats that only include the BCHT interns prevent supervisors from receiving unnecessary notifications. The Teams app creates pop-up notifications accompanied with an alert noise for new messages, even if the user is not in the app, meaning that important messages can be seen immediately. This pseudo-office environment enabled daily social interactions and aided in the building of cohesion between team members who have never met in person.

Subversion

Not only do we keep in touch digitally as a team, but we also need remote access to our project files. Like many digital projects, we are using an open-source version control system. While Word and Excel files are kept in a consistent Teams folder structure, we keep all our project’s encoding documentation and source code in an Apache Subversion (SVN) repository.

Similar to internal networks or clouds used in most offices, SVN is a server-based backup repository. Team members use a SVN client to download a copy of the source files from a central location to their personal computers and then commit their edits back to the central repository. The server version is then updated to reflect all changes, creating a new version of the entire project file infrastructure. This permits us to keep track of changes over time and revert to an earlier version of the files if needed. For the BCHT Team, this happens at the command line, but Subversion also offers graphical user interfaces (GUI) as well. SVN is then aptly suited for the purpose of the project, which currently runs across multiple operating systems, networks, and locations. All team members can collaborate on the same documents and datasets within one secure repository hosted by the Humanities Computing and Media Centre (HCMC) servers at UVic.

Editing Extensible Markup Language (XML) files within Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) conventions, and committing these changes to the repository, are part of the interns’ daily tasks. However, there are some issues that arise in using the SVN system. For example, if two interns unknowingly work on the same file, change the same lines of text or code, and try to commit those changes to the central repository, they will have what is called a “merge conflict.” In these circumstances, the team has to determine the best course of action, which could be to try and merge both changes, or to take one side of the conflict over the other. Clear communication through our other tools like Teams helps us avoid these situations. Resolving these issues and using SVN has equipped the interns with a new set of digital skills related to collaborative problem solving and data management decision making.

Lessons learned 

The changes brought on by the new culture of remote working have wide-reaching implications for the entire GLAM sector. Increased digitization goes hand-in-hand with open access to historical and academic materials for both students and the public at large. The interns working on BCHT take full advantage of digital sources due to the very nature of the project. Institutional identities and legacies are also being challenged by the necessity of remote working. For example, a student at one university can now find opportunities to work at another university on the other side of the country without requiring relocation, thus breaking down traditional barriers between institutions. Opportunities that would otherwise not be considered are now possible.

In these remarkable times for the GLAM sector, the Young Canada Works interns of the BCHT project have adapted to numerous innovative ways of working and communicating. The use of platforms such as Zoom, Teams, and SVN allow the interns to build and maintain relationships despite the physical distance between team members. Each of these tools have their own challenges associated with them. Zoom requires established etiquette in order to be a respectful and effective meeting place, Teams is a complicated system with a steep learning curve for new users, and work on SVN can be subject to several technical challenges if proper communication is not maintained. That said, the intern team grows more confident with the different technologies over the course of the work term and develops best practices in each case to ensure effective teamwork.

The lack of actual human contact is the greatest challenge, as two weekly meetings and text chatting are still not quite enough to fully capture the atmosphere of a close-knit office setting. However, given the circumstances and the short duration of the internships, the team can be proud of many technical and interpersonal accomplishments. Teamwork and productivity are possible, even in the difficult times of a global pandemic. These UVic-based YCW internships undertaken during unprecedented remote work circumstances demonstrate that with a focus on team cohesion, new GLAM professionals can be positioned for employment success in a twenty-first century digital landscape.


Young Canada Works Intern, Chloe Kitt, holds a bachelor’s degree in Religion, Culture, and Society from the University of Victoria. While working on BCHT she wrote a research paper examining the evolution of schools in Canada, transcribed historical textbooks, and analyzed government records.  Chloe intends to develop a career in the GLAM sector.

Young Canada Works Intern, Nikolas Lamarre, is an early career information professional with a specialized CILIP-certified master’s degree in Book History and material culture from the University of Edinburgh. Throughout his work on the BCHT digital library project, Nikolas conducted original research on the history of the textbook, developed guidelines for marginalia, and encoded primary sources.

Young Canada Works Intern, Aidan Moffatt, is a recent graduate of the University of Victoria Public History Master’s program.  He has had the opportunity to put his knowledge of digital engagement in the humanities to use preparing a social media strategy for the BCHT project and encoding textbooks using TEI.  Aidan looks forward to a career in museums.

Young Canada Works Intern, Hannah Tolman, holds an honours BA in English and Creative Writing from Concordia University and is a founding member of the Salt Marsh Kin-Making Collective. As a BCHT Intern, she developed a style guide, encoded a textbook transcription using XML and TEI guidelines, and created a primer on local Indigenous histories. Hannah is based in Whitehorse and plans to pursue a career in librarianship.

Pia Russell is UVic’s librarian for Education and Indigenous Studies and a doctoral student in history.  She is the Curator of the British Columbia Historical Textbooks Collection and Primary Investigator of Unsettling History.

Gord Lyall is a PhD candidate in history at UVic and the Project Coordinator of BCHT.  Gord’s research interests focus on Indigenous-settler relations and marine sovereignty in the place now known as BC with considerable archival experience in treaty and local histories.  He is affiliated with numerous digital humanities projects such as the Colonial Despatches and Landscapes of Injustice.

Contact: Pia Russell—UVic Libraries, prussell@uvic.ca

 

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