Method to the madness: Using RISWS to ensure consistent communication when everything else is unpredictable

Welcome back, everyone. It’s been awhile!

Where have we been?

We took a planned November/December hiatus from the project blog, knowing that we’d have too many holiday schedules to contend with to keep up an active posting schedule. During the break, we all continued using RISWS in our libraries, receiving, triaging, and commenting on our teams’ weekly reports in order to eliminate obstacles and establish better workflow in our libraries. In late January, the three of us, plus trainer Magda, finally re-convened for a team conference call. Here, I’ll report on some of the trends we’ve encountered in the past few months.

No one is here: staff vacations and holiday closures

For academic libraries, the winter holidays often bring us lovely, quiet times. Classes aren’t in session, students are away, library hours are shortened, and you can get a chance to work on long-postponed desk projects. However, for a manager, this time of year also means an onslaught of requests for PTO from employees, the threat of severe weather, and, sometimes a sense that whoever is left in the office has to do all the work that vacationing colleagues leave behind. What happens to big projects when no one is around to help get them done? How do you keep staff motivated when everyone is thinking about their holiday plans and online shopping during lunch?

Keeping RISWS going through the consistency of the weekly reports helps keep the team moving toward goals, even when you can’t have everyone in the office at the same time for an in-person meeting. As manager, you can monitor the reports for emerging crises and observe what’s happening to overall morale during this weird time of year. And you can really see if people are still doing their assigned work or if they’ve slacked off early. Once you get everyone back from vacation, you can use the reports to structure your agenda for your first face-to-face meeting in the new term.

Everyone is here: kicking off a new semester

And then, all of a sudden we’re busy again! The students come back in January. At my school, January is our most hectic month. It starts with an all-student two-day Convocation and then we move into three full weeks of Intensives (on-campus, 9-5, M-F class sessions) for our distance learning students. And, in Chicago, the weather was still bad and the flu bug of the season was going around. We remained short-staffed and over-extended for weeks past Christmas and into the New Year.

When we’re extra busy with lots of student/patron service tasks, I notice interesting problems start to bubble up in the weekly reports. Capacity issues (not enough time to devote to helping more students with more detailed reference requests), facility issues (competing user needs in a limited library space), and evidence of employee burnout (staff can’t keep up with daily tasks because it’s all hands on deck all the time for special requests) show up in the reports week to week. While we have to wait for quieter times to address these bigger, systemic issues, the good news is that the documentation is in the weekly reports waiting to be used.

Teams in flux: On-boarding new staff and taking on new roles

Since November, I’ve added a temp employee and an archive assistant to the team at my library. Happily for her, but unfortunately for us, our library assistant altered her shifts this term so she could take on another opportunity in LIS. In another library, one of our trainee managers was promoted to Department Chair for the new semester. Throughout these times of flux, again, I’ve found the consistency of the weekly reports to be a valuable management tool.

My team files their weekly reports on a shared Basecamp site where everyone can see everyone else’s lists of challenges and accomplishments. From day one, I’ve asked the new folks to contribute to this process, adding their lists to the document everyone can see. This has proven immensely helpful to me as I manage their orientation and on-boarding. I can see where they need more guidance and training, and what “new hire” obstacles (information gaps, confusion about priorities, lack of proper equipment or software) continue to stand in their way. I’m excited to see other staff pitch in to offer their assistance with problem solving. The RISWS process is part of the regular workplace rhythm and it’s helping us to build a team by letting the seasoned employees jump in to help where they can.

What we missed and where we’re going

One of the other lessons learned this winter hiatus is about the value of the learning cohort. Though we sometimes feel isolated inside the particular realities of each of our institutions, having the structure of a monthly phone check-in and information-sharing through our Basecamp site has helped us to feel less alone. Despite our schools’ differences, we face similar challenges, and through this process, we’ve been able to share stories and troubleshoot solutions. I’m glad to have that structure, plus the RISWS weekly report system, back in place to help us power through the next few months.

On that note, we should be back to our usual monthly posting schedule as we wrap up the spring semester and fulfill the term of our grant-funded project. If you’re interested in RISWS training for your library, please email me at

Thanks for reading!