Now that millions of people around the globe are working from home, many involuntarily and with short notice, how to work from home effectively is a hot topic. Advice on how to set up a home office is rampant—and often contradictory.
There’s a new acronym in town: WFH, which stands for Working From Home. Now that millions of people around the globe are working from home, many involuntarily and with short notice, how to work from home effectively is a hot topic. Advice on how to set up a home office is rampant—and often contradictory. A search for the phrase or the acronym on any web search engine garners a multitude of results. Some of them are based on long experience from the home front trenches, while others are only slightly concealed advertisements. In the latter category, I’ve seen “advice” that you really need a bigger monitor or an additional computer or noise-cancelling headphones. I think most of us are intelligent enough to see through these.
Turning to the advice of those who have spent decades, or even the last few years, as WFH people, I have a problem. Yes, they’ve had a lot of experience. But they also had the luxury of planning for the WFH adventure. They didn’t go into an office, or a library, one day only to be sent home and told to WFH. They could look around their home space and decide where to establish an office. They could shop for the technology they needed. They could decide on a desk and chair configuration that made them comfortable during the working day. Suddenly and unexpectedly becoming a WFH person is an entirely different proposition, particularly when the WFH person expects the situation to be temporary.
The sudden popularity of the “Working From Home” phrase makes it a better search term than the established thesaurus terms of subscription databases. The notion of having a home office predates the current situation. I first established an office at home in 1987. EBSCO’s Business Source Ultimate uses home labor, home offices, and telecommuting as controlled vocabulary terms. Limiting the search to the last 12 months, home labor had 333 hits, home offices, 303 hits, telecommuting 1,839 hits and a free text search on “working from home” had 1,938. ProQuest’s ABI/INFORM uses the thesaurus terms Work at home (456 hits for the past 12 months) and Telecommuting (1,201 hits for the same time period). Free text search on “working from home”: 8,487 hits!
BOTH SIDES NOW
I’ve been on many sides of the WFH experience. Transitioning from a corporate library environment to a self-employed consultant/researcher with a home office was not a quick process, although it was a quick decision. I bought a desk, a desk chair, a computer, a printer, and office supplies. I chose the place in the house that would become a home office. I set up subscriptions to online services that I would need to research business topics for clients. I did not really think of this as “working from home;” I thought of it as my office that happened to be in the same building as the one in which I lived.
Today’s WFH librarians confront a very different scenario. They are WFH only until they are allowed back in their offices and their libraries open up. As a temporary situation, they are not about to spend money on setting up a full-blown office. Instead, their “office” could be the dining room table and an uncomfortable kitchen chair. They probably already have a laptop, or their employer can supply them with one for the shelter from home duration. They may have a phone, also employer-provided, or be able to press their personal phone into service. Their library already has subscriptions to digital resources in place, although some workarounds may be required to access them easily outside of the physical library.
Some people can get into their libraries for brief periods of time, even with shelter at home policies in place. Others cannot. They might not have a key to the library or, if it is a secured building, their badge could have been deactivated. Email can be problematic. Some librarians, particularly those who work for government agencies, are prohibited from accessing their email accounts remotely. Unless they gain authorization, they are essentially unreachable by email.
What I’ve found helpful is setting up a routine. If you normally arrived in the library at 9 a.m., then start your workday at the same time at home. Don’t forget to schedule some breaks, some time off during the day so that you don’t become overwhelmed. You can lose track of time and work longer hours than usual if you’re not careful.
Not everything is different for those temporarily WFH. Distractions are a constant. At the library, it was interruptions from co-workers, emails requiring immediate responses, and unexpected research requests with ridiculously short deadlines and/or mind-numbing complexity. Granted, some of those distractions continue to exist, even when co-workers can’t drop by the office physically.
At home, the type of distractions change. Regardless of whether you plan to WFH permanently or not, the siren call of cleaning, cooking, and other household chores can still distract you from working. It’s good to remember that the WFH acronym refers to working your day job while you are at home. It doesn’t equate to housework.
Now that people are living with shelter in place, whether they are WFH or “stuck at home,” numerous opportunities exist for distraction. Watching movies, playing video games, enrolling in an online class, viewing digitized museum collections, participating in a crowdsourced data project, and exploring virtual travel destinations vie for our attention. Whether it’s improving your mind or simply goofing off, the distraction of extracurricular activities is a challenge when you WFH. You wouldn’t watch TV at 11 a.m. at work, but the temptation to do that at home can be surprisingly strong.
Add to that the other people in your household. Even those who have been working from a home office for years find the sudden distractions caused by homebound children and significant others annoying. Not to mention cats who want to curl up on warm keyboards while librarians are trying to actually use the keyboard as it’s supposed to be used and dogs with an insatiable desire to be petted and walked. The internet is full of memes about pet distractions. There’s the scowling cat saying, “Get a human, they said. It will be fun, they said. Humans are hardly ever home, they said.” And the dog happily wagging its tail while reveling in 5 or 6 walks a day.
The new WFH environment necessitates a crash course in technology. With so much moving online, technology glitches are inevitable and your IT department probably doesn’t make house calls. Bandwidth issues proliferate now that so many more people are accessing the internet from home. This could be a geographical problem. Librarians who live in a broadband “dead zone” will have serious WFH difficulties. However, it could be solvable if you realize that others in the household are sucking up the bandwidth you need because they are streaming media or playing video games. Keep in mind that the WFH bandwidth issues faced by librarians are also faced by library users. You may have to provide guidance to them about effectively accessing library resources.
Video conferencing has become front and center in a WFH world. Whether it’s Zoom, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, BlueJeans, Skype, or another service, talking to your computer has taken on a whole new meaning. Suddenly we need to think about how we look, at least from the waist up, on a computer screen. Positioning the computer so that your eyes are even with the camera could mean putting your laptop on a pile of books. Then there’s lighting, ambient noise, and backgrounds to consider. The mute button is your new best friend.
Creativity rules the day when it comes to conferencing technology. Managers are using it to foster team spirit. That could be a morning check-in, and afternoon tea break, or occasional planned lunches as a group. Associations are hosting get togethers. Webinars have sprouted up like weeds. However, back to back Zoom meetings are immensely tiring and do we really need to attend webinars on a daily basis?
Cybersecurity also needs attention. This health crisis has proved to be fertile ground for criminal activities, ranging from phishing to ransomware, from hacking to scams. It’s not just hand washing we need to stress, it’s information security hygiene as well.
Business librarians share the professional concerns of other subject specialists. If they have money to spend, it’s restricted to digital resources. There’s little point to buying physical books when the library’s mail room is shut; there’s no one to catalog the books; and shelving is simply not happening. Looking ahead, the budget for materials is likely to shrink, which will make for some very difficult decisions. Interlbrary loan is almost completely shut down, a peripheral casualty of the health emergency.
Publishers have stepped forward. However, much of the freeing up of resources has been in science and medicine rather than business information. Information Today Inc.’s NewsBreaks (newsbreaks.infotoday.com) has been compiling these initiatives. Search covid-19 to see all of them.
In Indiana, my public library now offers (temporarily) EBSCO Business Source Ultimate, where before the libraries shut down, we had access only to EBSCO Business Source Complete. Ultimate is much larger than Complete, a huge boon to business librarians, entrepreneurs, and businesspeople who are also WFM. According to an EBSCO representative, the decision to upgrade subscriptions at no extra cost to the libraries for a couple of months is on a case by case basis, since every library’s situation is a bit different.
ACCESSING DATABASES REMOTELY
Business librarians usually maintain subscriptions for a large number of bibliographic databases, some of which are very specialized. A local university library lists 59 databases under the Business topic area. A job advertisement for a research analyst at a corporation lists the databases it expects candidates to be familiar with—there are 36, including Google Scholar. Most can be accessed remotely.
EBSCO has long made its bibliographic databases easily accessible remotely. The same can be said for ProQuest databases, Nexis Uni, Factiva, and most text-based library databases. Market research databases, such as Mintel, IBIS World, and Profound, are attuned to those WFH. Core databases such as Capital IQ, S&P NetAdvantage, SDC Platinum, Mergent, and Eikon offer remote access, although a log in workaround may be required. Even before the current shutdown of libraries, universities, and businesses, we had businesspeople working from home and distance learning was increasing in popularity. This translated into libraries pressuring publishers to make databases accessible for remote workers, students, and faculty. It seems to have paid off.
Resources that are terminal-based are another story. If the producer demands that users walk into the library and use the terminal housed there, a closed library means no access. Bloomberg’s answer seems to be its Disaster Recovery Solution or Bloomberg Anywhere as a temporary fix, but not all libraries have been able to switch their access. It may well depend on the terms of the library’s license and how good a relationship you have with your customer representative. It could also hinge on who is designated the account administrator.
You may encounter a situation with the number of allowed seats able to simultaneous access the database. Even before everyone was WFH, I had this situation when trying to teach Factiva to a graduate library school class. The license was limited to 4 seats at a time, so the entire class could not all view a Factiva search session individually. Do people get bumped in the middle of a search if the seat count is exceeded or does the newest person simply not be able to gain access? This is a good question to ask your rep.
For business librarians, it helps to look on WFH as a marketing opportunity. As one librarian put it, during an SLA hangout, “We’re here; we’re online; we’re more than books.” This is a time to prove the value of information professionals, to reach out to our user base and demonstrate our expertise in business research.