British Columbia Library Association

Remote Communication Structures to Foster Community Amongst Staff and Patrons

By Alexandra Kuskowski and Emma MacFarlane

As part of the University of British Columbia (UBC) Library network, the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre (IKBLC) provides educational resources, spaces for study and research, and academic and technology support services. As Learning Services Librarian (Alexandra) and Learning Commons Coordinator (Emma) working in this space, we manage a team of up to 18 student staff in 3 different roles, who co-design and deliver online and in-person synchronous and asynchronous academic and technology support; staff our Learning Commons Help Desk; and design website resources. 

Throughout COVID-19 we have expanded our approach to services and patron support as well as student staff supervision. Our student teams and services went fully online in March 2020. We reopened our building in September 2020 to students, faculty, and staff at UBC while maintaining our online presence. A podcast conversation between Brené Brown and Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, inspired us to consider how our chosen formats, mediums, and settings of communication impact the interactions that occur and messages that are conveyed through our service points. It highlighted the need to deliberately choose communication formats when our typical structures and formats of communication are no longer sufficient (Brown, 2020). We will share our best practices for remote communication structures to foster community amongst student staff and patrons, using our experiences working in a hybrid context over the past year as a template. We have considered the where, what, and why of the information we need daily, weekly, and monthly in order to support students and patrons and we hope you will find them useful for your contexts. 


Daily, Weekly, and Monthly Communication Structures

Daily communication required the biggest shift both for our student staff and for our patrons. Student staff needed to tell us they have taken a COVID-19 self-assessment before starting work in person; inform us when they arrive for their shifts; and be able to ask questions quickly. COVID-19 self-assessments were not required before, so we set up a privacy-compliant Google Doc (first names only, wiped each week) for students to alert us when they have completed the self-assessment prior to their shifts. This shared document allowed us to quickly track all student staff following safety procedures. 

Before COVID-19, student staff could easily reach out to staff by visiting the office or phoning. However, even after returning in person, the ability to contact staff quickly in a digital format was required, as the physical office was no longer accessible to student staff. We have relied on the messaging service Slack for student staff to let us know when they arrive for their shifts (online and in person) and if they need assistance. We encourage the students to call or text our personal numbers after hours when we do not monitor Slack. We have found Slack to be a quick way to contact multiple staff members at once, communicate between student teams, and convey information during shift changes while minimizing face to face contact.

For our patrons, prior to COVID-19, we had a very busy service desk. Nearly all of our transactions were done in person. When we switched online, we implemented two new contact points: an email, and an online office with optional video and chat text (Collaborate Ultra) where patrons could book a spot or drop-in. We also kept our phone line open. We have found even after returning to in-person service that a high number of patrons continue to contact us through the video and chat option or by phone. We believe users value the ease of access via web and phone; there is no need for them to book in advance (as is currently required to enter our building), or worry about COVID-19 restrictions.


On a weekly basis, we hold Zoom meetings with our student staff to communicate updates about our spaces and services; provide ongoing training and professional development; invite campus partners to lead activities or share about their services; and facilitate games, icebreakers, and activities to promote connection. Since we are unable to gather in person, these meetings are a great opportunity for our student staff to connect, and for us as supervisors to gain a sense of how their work is progressing. It is also an opportunity for student staff to bring up questions and issues they encounter. Our student staff also complete a brief (10-15 minute) weekly remote work-plan survey using Qualtrics, answering questions about their performance, patron encounters, and the ability to balance work with other commitments due to the added stressors of the pandemic. This has been helpful in quickly gauging and responding to student staff’s personal needs in a timely manner. We also send weekly update emails to student staff to share reminders not covered in the meetings. Lastly, we consistently update our WordPress training blogs (one per student team) which list FAQs, training resources, and guidelines pertaining to all aspects of their role.

We share information with patrons on a weekly basis through updates to our Learning Commons WordPress website. Our website houses numerous resources pertaining to students’ academic success and learning and had over 120,000 visitors throughout 2020. In response to COVID-19, we restructured our website menus to make our online learning support prominent. This includes asynchronous guides and toolkits for online learning and online exams; online events and workshops; blog posts that centre student perspectives; and our ‘Ask Us’ online peer support services — all of which our student staff prioritized creating this year. Student staff maintain our website as well as our social media (Instagram and Twitter). As we have heard feedback that students are oversaturated with information in the online learning environment (from course materials and announcements to newsletters and emails), our student staff use bright, engaging graphics and brief text to communicate key points about our resources via our social media channels.


On a biweekly-to-monthly basis, we host brief, informal 1-1 check-ins via phone, Slack, or Zoom with our student staff in order to discuss their work. Formal 1-1 meetings, guided by personal reflection documents written by both student staff and professional staff, enable us to discuss student staff’s professional goals, their progress, and how we as supervisors can support them in achieving their goals each term. Holding longer 1-1 meetings gives us space to engage in meaningful conversations with our student staff and helps us to build supportive, authentic relationships. This is especially significant as daily, “happenstance” conversations are often interrupted by operational needs in the space.

We engage with patrons on a biweekly-to-monthly basis through hosting Learning Skills workshops (developed and facilitated by our student staff) about topics relevant to the online learning environment. We have also hosted social events such as “Study With Me” sessions and drop-ins hosted by faculty members. We have found the average attendance to online events higher than former in-person events, perhaps due to the ‘visibility’ online and the relative ease of access. We plan to continue these online offerings as we shift back to in-person instruction.


Advice and Recommendations:

When looking to connect with staff and patrons online and in person, adaptability is key! We often adjust services in response to feedback. In our online office we assumed patrons would prefer booked appointments as a way to ensure one-to-one service. As drop-ins became the norm, we made our drop-in link easier to access. We also re-trained student staff on phone-based assistance. Prior to COVID-19, the phone was not a highly used connection point. When we began receiving many more phone calls during COVID-19, we refocused our training to ensure our student staff were giving appropriate referrals over the phone. Lastly, we found patrons in different time zones wanted to attend our live workshops but were not available to attend in person. We felt the best way to assist those patrons was to briefly share workshop sessions on YouTube and develop asynchronous handouts and resources. 


We treat our student staff and patrons as the experts, listening to their feedback as they are embedded in our space. We have found this to be especially important in a time when we are trying new things and do not have long-standing data to back up some choices, as we have had previously. For example, security personnel initially staffed our building entrance, but we found through patron feedback there was a need for front-door staff who knew UBC’s resources well, so we hired student staff. This has incited positive feedback, increased usage of our space, and a friendly peer-to-peer service atmosphere. 


Be prepared to spend extra time on everything! We have needed to check in with our student staff more than we thought. It is easier now for all of us to become overwhelmed and if issues are not caught early they multiply. To allow ourselves to catch our breath after a Zoom meeting, we schedule Zoom meetings for 50 minutes instead of an hour, allowing all to take a break from staring at a screen and to address unexpected concerns that arise. 


Lastly, remember that things happen, even if you do everything right! We had unexpected concerns come up for multiple student staff, making them unable to continue their roles. While the issues that arose would not normally have been a cause for concern, with COVID-19 safety measures we were hiring replacement staff at a higher rate than we anticipated. Recognizing that we are human outside of our work roles and remaining attentive to student staff’s full experience and needs, has helped us mitigate this issue.


Are you interested in implementing some of these structures? As you consider your chosen communication and resource formats…

Start by identifying the need. Adjust communication formats to address patrons’ needs and facilitate ease of access. For example, we realized that troubleshooting technology issues are difficult over the phone and email, so we chose a video conferencing platform where patrons could share their screens. 


Check in and change accordingly. Flexibility is key. When structuring and implementing services, it’s important to involve those affected in the decisions you make. Recognizing that this year has been difficult for us all, we changed the questions on our weekly remote work-plans in order to elicit specific answers about what student staff had going on in their classes and lives outside of work; rather than a general question about how we could support them which did not elicit much detail. This has enabled us to better understand our student staff’s experiences and how we can support them.


Think through the tech logistics, especially when working remotely. Institution-hosted platforms (at UBC, this includes Zoom and Microsoft Teams) are often preferable. Consider privacy guidelines (for example, Slack is hosted on US servers as of March 2021) and software recommended by your institution or company. Make sure to train staff on cybersecurity practices. Consider also what staff, students, and patrons will be able to access. For example, we’ve experienced issues with VPN access in other countries, and have provided asynchronous resources in response. Lastly, be flexible with your expectations, understanding that not everyone has sufficient technological resources or bandwidth to engage in all online activities. This could include making camera sharing and screen sharing optional; or providing multiple options for engagement in online meetings (for example, allowing participants to choose between posting in the chat, speaking verbally, or annotating the screen).

We hope our experiences help you consider communication formats on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis in order to help foster community and connection amongst both staff and patrons!

Alexandra Kuskowski

Alexandra joined the University of British Columbia (UBC) Library in October 2016 as a Learning Service Librarian. A UBC Alumni, Alexandra graduated with a Master’s in Library Science from the UBC School of Library, Archival, and Information Studies (SLAIS). Prior to working in the Learning Commons, Alexandra was a writer and editor for a children’s book publishing company. Alexandra enjoys hiking and crafting in her free time!

Emma MacFarlane

As Learning Commons Coordinator, Emma manages the development and delivery of various programs and services in the Chapman Learning Commons at UBC-Vancouver that support and enhance students’ learning and academic growth, leadership, and engagement. She applies her experiences as an educator and researcher, as well as her M.A. degree in Curriculum and Instruction from SFU, in her work with a large team of student staff and colleagues at UBC Library. Emma spends her spare time creating, connecting, and camping.


Brown, Brené (2020, November 25). Brené with Priya Parker on The Art of Gathering. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Brené Brown Education and Research Group. 

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Rochelle Mazar

Great advice! Thanks Alex and Emma!