As many organizations begin conversations about re-entering the physical workplace, they can look to those who have been operating in a physical capacity since the earliest days of the pandemic.
We sat down with Judy Panitch, director of library communications for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill), to learn how she and the library’s leadership team approached a phased re-entry and how the past year will inform how they continue moving forward.
While the library environment presents its own challenges for navigating a remote workforce and planning re-entry procedures, Panitch has several lessons to share that apply to communicators of all kinds.
Emphasizing Equity and Values-Based Communication
Even before the pandemic, UNC-Chapel Hill’s main library system, consisting of nine libraries spread across campus, maintained a culture of gathering, information sharing and unity as “one library.” This foundation allowed the system to build on its established structures and values to earn employee trust when embarking on a phased reopening. Beyond the tactical all-staff virtual town halls, daily (and sometimes twice daily) leadership and management meetings in the early days of the crisis, COVID-19 intranet updates and staff handbooks that communicated safety, reopening plans and staffing procedures, Panitch notes that the system’s most important communication “came through action, through doing and through really living our values to make strategic and clearly communicated decisions.”
When reopening, UNC-Chapel Hill’s library system demonstrated its values in two main ways:
Equity for Employees
“We have a deep commitment to inclusive excellence and equity that’s expressed in many ways across the organization, and that was the guiding principle for us here,” Panitch says. In March 2020, several days before the university announced its closing plans, the library’s director made the decision to switch to all-virtual operations. This decision was “a clear signal that the well-being of the staff was going to be paramount.” Putting employees first gained a huge amount of trust, which only helped when the library approached its phased return to on-site services.
The library identified the core operations that had to be delivered in person, and then put a rotational staffing model into play where staff teams alternated working on-site and remotely over a period of time. Panitch says that creating limited and reasonable on-site expectations, along with taking steps such as moving furniture, installing plexiglass barriers and providing sufficient cleaning and protective supplies, communicated that employees’ safety was valued. Not only did this model build comfort for returning to campus, but it also emphasized the library’s value of equity, by sharing the risks and burdens of working on-site.
Including the leadership team in the rotational scheduling also demonstrated how the library system was living out its values. “Library leadership took shifts checking out books and sitting at the front desk. They also were the ones who addressed compliance issues if a patron wasn’t wearing a mask,” Panitch says. “I think that visibility was really important in instilling the sense that we didn’t overpromise. We never said we could guarantee a completely safe situation, just that we would do everything we could … Having leadership on-site demonstrated confidence in the safety measures that we took.”
Beyond equity, Panitch applauds her colleagues in the leadership group for living by the values of transparency and integrity — they were one library, all in it together. “Sure, there were the communication tools that we used, e-mails and all staff meetings and a handbook. But mostly, we communicated through strategic decisions about how to operate, leadership visibility and our commitment to following through.”
Setting Up Employees for Success
When planning for re-entry, it’s crucial to keep employees and their well-being top of mind. Library employees whose non-pandemic jobs normally required an on-site presence were given the opportunity to contribute to work-from-home projects that advanced the organization’s strategic priorities. For employees who did not have computers or internet access at home, leadership provided laptops and even files on thumb drives so that they could continue doing meaningful work.
Wellness became a top priority for the library system, which will continue throughout and beyond its reopening phases. “For many people, their work is a huge part of their social existence. They rely on their colleagues to be part of their day, so helping maintain those connections falls in with our attention to wellness,” Panitch says. A staff committee organized virtual events from crafting, game nights and dance parties to meditation sessions and even a kombucha-making workshop led by the library’s director. “It was always very clear that these activities were work time and they were not intended to increase productivity, but to ensure that each employee was maintaining a healthy lifestyle during a stressful time,” Panitch explains. “We’ve started using the phrase ‘managing for wellness’ as a distinction from offering wellness perks as a way to keep people productive.” Library leadership communicated their care for their employees by clearly defining that these wellness activities were an important aspect of working hours.
Setting up employees for success relates back to a values-based approach to managing the organization. “You can have all of the fun events and all of the Zoom happy hours that you want, but if that foundation of trust and transparency hadn’t been there, we would not have been poised for a successful expansion of our reopening,” Panitch says.
Like many organizations, Panitch and her leadership colleagues will be reevaluating what flexibility in the workplace looks like moving forward. The university and its library system are currently planning for their fall re-entry. “We anticipate a much more normal set of circumstances,” Panitch says. “We also know we can successfully fall back to current operations if circumstances change.”
“It’s easy to say our employees are our greatest asset, but this is the moment when demonstrating that counts.”
Advice for Communicators in Planning Mode
Panitch recognizes that the library is a unique setting for communicators, but her experience and advice can apply to those communicating to a staff of 10 or 10,000. She has two pieces of advice for communicators who are currently in planning mode to re-enter their workspaces.
Employees Come First
As re-entry plans come to life, employees and their well-being must come first. “This is still a stressful time … People are coming back from many different types of situations,” Panitch notes. “As we think about what communications we need to address, we have to assess where people are in their readiness to rejoin the world.” Panitch and her leadership team recognize that returning to the workplace is not a one-size-fits-all approach. “The more flexibility you can have and the more understanding of where your employees are — whether that’s through surveys or conversations or both — the better off you’ll be.”
Walk the Walk
“Truly, I think what got us through this time and will get us through the next phase is having leadership who walks the walk,” Panitch emphasizes. As a communicator, she has a seat at her leadership table and is part of decision-making conversations, allowing her to craft messages, surveys and FAQs to align with her organization’s values. “It’s easy to say our employees are our greatest asset, but this is the moment when demonstrating that counts,” Panitch says. “I’ve been really lucky to be at the table where those decisions are being made and to help shape communications grounded in our deeply ingrained values.”
As communicators plan for reopening, examine plans in relation to the organization’s values. By using transparency and taking a values-based approach to re-entry messaging, the success and trust of your team will continue to build and thrive.
Featuring Judy Panitch
Judy Panitch is director of library communications at the University Libraries, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She holds a master’s degree in library science (MLS) from the University at Albany and a certificate in technology and communication from the UNC-Chapel Hill Hussman School of Journalism and Media. She enjoys drawing from the best of two rapidly evolving information-intensive fields to drive understanding and engagement, both inside and outside the organization. She is a member of the IABC Triangle chapter.