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Building Community Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Gail Kouame, assistant director for research & education services, Robert B. Greenblatt, M.D. Library. This article originally ran in the Southern Chapter of the Medical Library Association’s newsletter Southern Expressions, 2021;37(3):6–7.

In the fall of 2019, Adrienne Hayes, the office coordinator for the University Libraries at Augusta University, decided to organize some team- and community-building activities for Libraries staff centering on the university’s values of collegiality, compassion, excellence, inclusivity, integrity, and leadership. There are two libraries that serve Augusta University, one on the health sciences campus, and the other at the primarily undergraduate campus about two miles away. At the beginning, the activities took place in person at the Robert B. Greenblatt, M.D. Library, since that is where the Libraries administration offices are located. The activities were held monthly, usually on a Friday afternoon. When the COVID-19 pandemic closed the library, Adrienne wanted to continue the activities since it was more important than ever to maintain a sense of community. She transitioned and moved the activities to a virtual environment, which included staff from both libraries. To gain insight into the successful community-building activities for the University Libraries, I interviewed Adrienne about her experiences as the organizer of these events.

GK: What inspired you to organize community-building activities for the AU Libraries?

AH: The Libraries had gone through some turnover and leadership changes, and it seemed like time to do something to refresh and build community. I like to help people be happy, and it was important to me to contribute to that in this way.

GK: How did you come up with some of your ideas for activities?

AH: I always try to make them fun, because I see it as a way for people to decompress as well to engage with one another. I looked at the University’s values as well as things that have gone on recently to guide the themes of the activities. For example, we had one activity that was like “speed dating,” and focused on compassion. That one was really fun to watch. I searched online for some of the ideas, and others I adapted or did “experiments” to see how they would work.

GK: The activities started out in-person. How did you adjust to doing them virtually?

AH: We use Microsoft Teams, and what was nice is that we were able to include staff from both our libraries once we went virtual, where before the activities had been specific to the health sciences campus. Having more people involved allowed people to see more creativity from participants, like a group improv story, where one person starts a sentence or thought, and the next person picks it up and continues.

GK: How have the activities transitioned, since the Libraries employees have returned to campus?

AH: We took a slight break to give people a break from “Zoom fatigue” and to catch up on and readjust to being back in the office. We’ve done trivia quite a few times, because people really like it, but it’s not always the greatest fit in the rotation of university values that we’re using to guide the activities. We are getting ready to resume the activities in-person since the expectation at the university level is to go back to “business as usual” come fall semester.

GK: Which activities do you feel were the most successful? Why? Which ones were more challenging to engage people?

AH: The “speed dating” activity was really popular— people had a lot of fun and had an opportunity to learn things about their colleagues with whom they may not work side-by-side. The energy in the room was great. The one that “flopped” was another compassion-related activity that was asking people to brag on coworkers and express gratitude. It was to be followed by a trivia event, and people weren’t contributing to the first part of the activity. As it turns out, people were just waiting for the trivia part of the activity. This was surprising because we had done a “snowball” gratitude event previously that had gone quite well.

GK: What is some feedback you received from participants about how they benefit from the activities?

AH: A lot of people email and thank me for organizing the events. They say they can tell the atmosphere has changed and that they can feel the difference. People look forward to the events and when we were still working from home the activities provided a sense of community. People love trivia! Even if an activity flops, no one says anything negative, and they are always willing to try something. I have benefited too. I love doing it. I don’t really approach it formally, but have been reading books about team-building. I know that I want to branch out professionally and would like to learn more about employee engagement and would like to find a way to leverage my desire to help people be happier at work. Organizing these activities has given me this sense of direction and purpose. I’ve read Engagement Magic by Tracy Maylett, and have Drive by Daniel Pink and The Fearless Organization by Amy C. Edmonson next on my list.

GK: How do you see the community-building activities continuing?

AH: When we return to in-person, I hope we can find a way to continue to engage people from both our campus libraries. I’d love to do some kind of scavenger hunt. I think people would really like it. We’ll likely repeat the “speed dating” activity since the first time we didn’t include people from both campuses. I’ve thought about holding a trivia event about one another, but not sure how that would fly.

Selected Activities Comprising Augusta University Libraries’ Community-Building Activities:

  • Building with Lego-like blocks and adding onto each other’s creations
  • Craft contest using pipe cleaners, puff balls, etc.
  • Miniature paintings
  • Group improv stories
  • Discussion about favorite charities and volunteer experiences
  • Videos/commercials representing compassion
  • Scenarios from business to foster discussion about integrity
  • Series of videos representing inclusivity with discussion
  • Take an online course together
  • Watch and discuss Mel Robbins TED talk


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