The Art of Team Development

By Maggie Frankel and Katrina Rahn, City College of San Francisco

A group of library staff sit at a blue-paper-covered table folding origami stars and talking, sharing a bowl of kimchi-flavored chips and Girl Scout Cookies. Everyone is relaxed. Drop-ins are welcomed with a chair and no one has been assigned to take notes. A sign on the table asks us, “Have you taken your break today?” This isn’t your average committee meeting or workshop and it isn’t a party.

This was a team development model we cooked up ourselves. And we poured creative ideas into the model: We mused about how we would update the library if given $100,000. We collaboratively drew faces with an exercise adapted from Lynda Barry’s Making Comics. We doodled with markers on scrap paper, strategized on how to better-share information literacy teaching ideas, and made origami paper stars. We consumed snacks. Many snacks. The group met on diverse days and times to accommodate different schedules. Attendance ranged from three to twelve people. 

We, of course, are library workers, and these activities diverged substantially from our typical daily tasks that included reference and circulation, teaching, course reserves, systems work, electronic resource management, and much more. We’ve been meeting once a month-- for about an hour at a time-- for the past semester and a half. It’s part of an experiment that has been enacted to foster collaboration among workers of different classifications, to remind us why we love our jobs, engage in self-care, and discuss general wellness as it relates to work.

Sample checklist for building the blue tables described in the article

Since the Shelter in Place mandate, we have taken this show online, complete with positive messages of support and use of an online collaborative drawing platform. 

But this wasn’t just about fun and games. It was a rescue effort. Like many workers in public education, we’d spent the past year overwhelmed at the jobs we loved. When we conversed in passing, we spoke of stress and deadlines more than hope and innovation. Reference, Circulation, and Technical Services were all overwhelmed in their silos. Librarians were spread over 12 near-independently functioning-yet-interconnected locations (all functioning as the same college) but could go over a month without seeing one another. Budgets were shrinking. Responsibilities were growing. Indeed, we were getting things done-- big things! In fact, despite the budget cuts and political instability, we participated in the California Community College LSP project as a vanguard, led campus OER initiatives, and served more students through online workshops and live instruction than ever before. We were on the fast track to burnout. 

There were periodic college-mandated flex days and faculty travel budgets, but we lacked a mechanism for library-based professional and team development. Something had to be done. One afternoon, we sat down together for half an hour. Things were crazy and we had to fix it. What could we control? How could we make things better with very little time and zero budget? We devised a monthly hour-long meeting. Scheduling a “meeting” somehow legitimized our efforts. We scheduled it on the half-hour to maximize attendance by folks from multiple shifts. We advertised it across all locations, and to both classified staff and faculty at times that would be the most achievable to the most people. We made it low stakes and drop-ins were welcome.

The first meeting took place at a banquet table we’d recently placed in an awkward yet open staff area near the librarian cubicles. We covered the table with some blue paper we had on hand, and it became “the blue table.” 

Attendance was greater than expected, and we had to roll up chairs to accommodate a larger group. People came out of both curiosity and professional responsibility-- but all agreed that we’d needed it. We have noticed that a significant number of actionable ideas and reflections have come out of this. We plan to continue this project and use it as a barometer for our team vitality and continued growth. This is a model that can easily be replicated.