Happy Workplaces with Dr. Paul Wyss
Connections: A Podcast of the James L. Hamner Public Library
Published June 15, 2022
Transcripts are edited to aid with ease of reading. Verbal fillers, stuttered phrases, sounds of listening, and laughter are generally removed, but grammatical errors and similar verbal idiosyncrasies are included. Ellipses (…) are used to indicate unfinished sentences or interruptions.
[Intro Music] Jill 00:04
Welcome to Connections, a podcast of the James L. Hamner Public Library. I'm your Jill and the ideas in this episode represented the opinions and experiences of the speakers; they may not represent the library's official position.
Hello, everyone. With me today is Dr. Paul Wyss. Dr. Wyss is an academic librarian, and he is talking with me about ways that employers, supervisors, people in leadership at jobs can help create the kind of environment, including an interview experience and a performance review experience, that could lay the groundwork so that employees can be happy and comfortable at work. Many full-time employees spend 40 hours or more at work every week. So, essentially the majority of their lives. And Dr. Wyss and I wanted to talk about some of the ways that things could be better at work, or the things that are going well. But first, our featured resource.
Today's featured resource is the library's STEM learning toys available for use inside the library. Library account holders may checkout a coding robot, an electricity experiment kit, designed for children, and other STEM related toys and kits to use inside the library. And now for the episode.
Paul, thank you for joining us today, would you be willing to give us a few sentences so that we know how to evaluate what you're saying? Because as librarians, we care about people knowing where their information is coming from.
Do you want me to talk about me?
Yes, maybe one or two sentences, whatever you think is relevant, that you think would be important for people to know about you as we start talking.
Well, the reason that I started getting involved in librarianship was I really wanted to do something socially responsible. And I wanted to help a lot of people, whether it could be simply checking out a movie so that they could be at home and sort of take a video vacation, or at academic libraries where I've been helping people do scholarly research. So, I just thought of helping people.
The reason I was hoping to talk with you is because you've been in the profession for longer than I have. And from hearing you talk in other contexts, it seems that you and I both care about creating workplaces where people feel good when they're at work, because most people spend the majority of their lives in their workplace. So, do you have any thoughts that you'd like to start with, on maybe let's start from the physical aspect of a workplace and then go a little bit into, like, the structures, like the political or social structures of a workplace, things like that. Will that work?
That would be fine, because I also agree that it's really important for people to be happy where they work, because not only are they more productive when they work, but when they go home, they are more productive with other individuals, and they're happier with other people as well. So, I think that comfort in a workplace is very important.
You know, it can be something as simple as a nice temperature that people are working in. Or, you know, what they're wearing. All of those things are really, really helpful to people.
The political things that a worksite can be, especially in academia, very, very difficult. And, there are some people that I've encountered who are kind of petty, and it's something that I fail to understand. Because, it seems to me that when one person is successful, everybody is successful. That at times is hard for people to really comprehend it seems. So, the political stuff can be really, really hard to navigate.
But it sort of gets back to that happiness aspect of work. I think that in psychological terms it would be called a feeling of efficacy. And people have to feel effective, and that leads to a much better work environment, as far as I'm concerned, anyway.
Also, at a job that I used to have before I was a librarian. I used to be a retail store manager. And one thing I didn't want was really, really tired, fatigued employees. So, I didn't schedule employees for a lot of hours. And, it seemed like they were happier and better employees, just simply for the fact that they weren't tired.
I hope that kind of answers that a little bit.
That's good, thank you.
From your experience, what are things that you have seen employers or companies or workplaces do well that lends to... that you have seen the employees feel more comfortable or feel happy at their workplace?
I think that it really... well, it would really help me, if I was an employee, to have a supervisor who was a good person. Someone that I could trust a lot. And who is also somewhat humorous. I like funny people, and sometimes seems as though a person in a supervisory role, they seem to be really, really serious. And I suppose they have to be, but I like to see a little bit of humor come out there, too. If I were supervising people, I would try to be cheerful and happy. At least I would try to, like, seem that way. I don't know if I could always be happy. But I would try to be.
I've had some supervisors, this was before I was in librarianship, who were kind of S*Bs. And they seem to delight in that. And it's something I never really understood. Maybe they had people who were above them who were somewhat nasty as well. One can never tell.
You mentioned having a supervisor that you can trust. What sorts of things could a supervisor do to demonstrate that they are worthy of trust?
I think being really, really honest with people and being the type of person who doesn't minimize someone's efforts that they're putting in, which would be really hard in a larger organization, because... I think experience can tell an individual how much effort someone is putting in, or could be putting in.
Trust is a hard thing to develop. It seems to be fairly easy to destroy. It takes me a long time, for example, to trust someone and minimal amount of time for them to tear that trust down.
You were talking about not minimizing somebody's efforts. Part of the job as a supervisor is to tell somebody when their efforts are not producing the desired results. So, what are your thoughts on how to balance those two things?
It's the type of thing of having an understanding of an employee. I once had an employee, and the employee was a really, really good sales person, but wasn't a real follow-through, hard-working kind of person. And one time I told the guy, you know, a pat on the back is exactly 12 inches from a kick in the butt. And I didn't quite say it as nicely as that. But I did read the guidelines on the release form and I couldn't exactly say that the same way.
But that would be one way. I knew the employee that I was talking about. I had some knowledge of that person, and that person would think it was rather humorous, and still get the message of actually following through on jobs.
So, it sounds like maybe you're saying it takes understanding different people and presenting the message the way that person might be best to understand it?
Yes. that would be it.
Which is very hard to do in an academic setting, because... I remember something that I read this really, really old interview a long time ago. And it was an interview where someone was interviewing F. Scott Fitzgerald. And he said, when he was really young, he could just write. And toward the end of his life, he said that if he could write one page per day, he'd be happy.
And for me, I've thought about that. And I've thought, yeah, if I could write one page per day, I'd be a happy guy. Because one page is like, what would that be? About four paragraphs? Right around there. If I could do that every day, that'd be really, really incredible.
But that's the type of thing where, you know, in academia, if someone said, I think that I can write four good paragraphs a day. Someone might actually scoff at it a little bit. But, quite frankly, if it's good enough for F. Scott Fitzgerald, it's good enough for me.
When we are thinking about the physical workspace, you mentioned temperature, which is almost impossible to make everybody happy. Are there other things that you have seen or that you wish workplaces would do that you think could make the space more comfortable to be in for 40 plus hours a week?
Boy, that's really hard, because, it's hard for me because I like things to be really quiet and that'll be hard for other people. Because I know some people think that quiet things are... It makes them nervous, I should say, or they don't like things to be as quiet as what I do. I really, that's, that is such a hard question, because what seemingly would make one person comfortable might make another person really uncomfortable. So that's, that would be a really, really hard question for me to answer. I'm sorry about that. But that will be really, really tough.
From what you are thinking through and commenting on, it does sound like perhaps individual workspaces, instead of large group workspaces could help each person have the kind of workspace more like what they want. Because if you have your own office, you can have better control of the temperature in that office, you can play music or have silence. And when you're in a large shared workspace, you don't have that kind of control.
That's not possible.
Also, whether somebody has a neat office or a messy office, that can be a thing, too.
Like where I used to work, we had individual offices, and some were really, really neat and some were a little messy. And the dean we had there didn't like the messy office. And I have to admit, I was somewhat of an offender on the messy office.
It seems to me that if you're working with adults, presumably you're employing adults, and there are no vermin, it really shouldn't matter. Maybe if you're doing a tour, you might ask people to shove things in a cabinet or something, but otherwise, it's their workspace.
Well, I did this. There were times where I had people over to my office, and I would make sure that it was really nice and neat and people could feel comfortable.
I thought for a while about having a different job. I kept the job that I had, because I was starting to get a little bit older and I wanted to retire. And so, I hung on for a while there. And maybe I shouldn't have. I really don't know. That's another very, very difficult thing.
When we are thinking about hiring people from the employers perspective, we want to show our workplace as it honestly is day to day, but also, you know, we kind of want people to feel good when they come to the interview and think "this is someplace that I want to work." What are things that for you, a workplace or an employer could do that would make you think "this is a good place, I think I want to work here?"
I hate to sound so superficial and so selfish about this, but I would like to have a good wage and good benefits.
As we all would.
But I would also like to know that people weren't resistant to a few things that might change at the worksite. Which is to say, I would like to know that the people work there were somewhat adaptable. By looking at the space and see if the space is adaptable, too.
Like at the library I just worked at, it physically had a lot of difficulty because it had columns in a lot of places. Well, the columns were like support structures. And, so this space was not as open as what I would like to see. It didn't really have the ability to adapt.
I think a lot of libraries have that problem. The structure is not adaptable as technology and workplace needs change.
And also, what people seem to not understand about libraries is that some of the items contained within a library are rather heavy. Books on runs can be extremely heavy. So can microfiche. If it's in cabinets, it can be really heavy and it has to be in an area of the library that can support that type of weight, as well. Some of those spaces don't, through no fault of their own, they don't necessarily have the aesthetic quality that they might otherwise have.
Is there anything that when you go for a job interview you like it when the interviewers do or prepare, or anything that they do that make you feel more comfortable in an interview?
I like it when people pay attention. I was at an interview once where some guy just turned his back on me. And I felt like saying to the guy, "Look, you paid a lot of money to bring me here, you might as well pay attention."
I also one time had a dean... I had to give a presentation. And the guy just left. When I was at the interview, I thought, "Oh m* **d, some guy's walking out." And then, like, later on, I came to realize that sometimes people are just busy. And they have to go and go to meetings, and they have to prepare for them. But, that was a disquieting type of experience, to just have someone just leave.
Would it have made you feel better if they told you at the beginning, "Somebody has to leave early?" Or...
Yes, it would've made a great deal of difference.
I could see that because if somebody leaves in the middle of your presentation, you think you're doing such a horrible job, they can't even stay the next 10 minutes and hear it out.
Yes. That's how I felt. I thought... Well, I should say that I didn't feel important. I felt like I was just, I don't know. It didn't make me feel good.
Yeah, that's understandable.
One thing though that did make me really feel good at any interview was there was this old retired librarian, Max Leggett. Max has passed away now, unfortunately. He was quite old. But, he actually went to lunch with me. And I thought, "I must really be important if Max will come out and go to lunch." It was great. Good on you, Max!
All right, something maybe other people who are hiring can keep in mind
At that same job... I did get that job, by the way. And, this is kind of funny. I hope you'll laugh.
I had to take people out for breakfast, who we were interviewing, and...
Then I bragged about being the breakfast guy. And then other people wanted to be the breakfast person. I loved it. I love taking people out to breakfast. It was great.
This must be for academic interviews.
Yup! I lost my breakfast privileges.
I've done a couple, you know, previous before this job, but they didn't include breakfast. There was just lunch.
So, there's a trend in hiring-advice circles to give people the interview questions ahead of time. You know, whether it's the night before, or as soon as you schedule the interview - the advice varies. What are your thoughts on giving questions before the interview?
Well, you know, if someone knows what the questions are, they can answer them in a way that they feel they should be answered. Sort of like a baseball batter who knows what pitch is coming. If they know what pitch is coming, they can hit it a long way. That's how I would feel, in a way, about presenting questions to a prospective employee in advance. Because then people can tailor their answers to you. Yeah, they might show up and be completely different person than the answer they had given.
You don't like that idea?
Yeah, I would probably say I, I would be not liking that idea. Employee, or prospective employees, should know what the questions are going to be. Or they should have some idea of what they might be just based on the position description that they applied for, or applied to.
Like for example, like, let's say that you are going to interview a cataloger. Well, they should be prepared to answer cataloging questions. If you're going to hire a reference librarian, they might be prepared to answer public service questions.
Yeah. That is an argument against it. I think the reason it's being suggested is because many people have never been taught how to interview. So, if it's one of their first jobs, they wouldn't even know... Yeah, cataloging, but they wouldn't know what kind of questions. Right? Or, they might have managed to get a job, but they're trying to advance in their career, but nobody's really explained what goes into an interview and so they don't realize what the possibilities are. And then the other argument for it sometimes is that there are people who don't do well on the spot. And so being able to think through ahead of time lets them present their best self.
I'm not saying what my opinion is. I just wanted to throw that out there, since this conversation is about making the workplace a comfortable place to be.
I can see that point of view. For example, I will, like, when I think about myself in a situation where I might be trying to get a job, I might be a bit shy and have a great deal of anxiety toward questions. So I can see that going to be the point of view of giving someone the questions in advance, is what I'm trying to say. Because, I wouldn't want someone to be overly anxious or feel like they were being kind of put on the spot, as it were. That'd be really, really tough.
And for many positions, an interview isn't really a test. Right? It's more supposed to be a conversation to give the applicant the opening to tell what they are best at and show off their best accomplishments. But, I think for a lot of people until they have been on the other side and been the person conducting the interview, they don't always have the context for what's being looked for and that can be very stressful for some people.
So, sometimes the middle ground that some people are trying is to send applicants either general topics like "we will ask you something about RDA or Library of Congress or whatever - cataloging specific type things," or they would send a list of questions and say, "We will ask some of these, but these are, like, the pool that we'll pull from."
I don't know how I feel about any of that, either. You know, I can see the pros and cons. It's quite challenging.
I think you brought up a really good point that it's a conversation, really. And so you could send someone a question. And at some point when that person, the interviewee or the interviewer, or is speaking or listening, ask a follow up question. That could be, that could work really, really well, because it could guide the conversation and then expand on that conversation. I can see that point of view.
Yeah. Because I did not know when I was early in my career that I could do that sort of thing. I thought it was more like an academic test where they ask the question; I give the answer and hope it's the right one. Right? Like, it took a while and some experience and some input from other people to learn, it can be just like a conversation, and you can ask them questions, and... Yeah.
And right after I got my library degree at Indiana University, I had a mock interview, because I was having a really difficult time getting a job. And this lady said, "You know, you're really smart, and you're really intimidating."
And I thought, "Intimidating! That's the last thing I want to be. I don't want to be intimidating."
So, the interview thing was, when I was first starting out very, very difficult for me. Very, very hard. Because I wanted people to think that I was smart and that I was competent, but I did not want to be intimidating at all.
And intimidating's so subjective. I've been called intimidating just because I asked questions. And then other people, that's their favorite thing about me because it helps them to do better. So, who knows?
Yeah, yeah, that's, that can be really hard. Because like I say, that's the last thing I want to be is intimidating.
Can we talk about performance reviews?
Yeah, so for performance reviews, they're gonna be stressful no matter what, I think, but what would be ways that you have found that employers have done them well, that have been beneficial for the employee, or at least not unnecessarily onerous?
I used to have to give the performance review. And I would start out by telling an employee, usually, "The way that we'll structure our review is, we'll talk about things that you don't do well first, and then we're going to talk about all the things you do well." So that if an employee needed to improve in some way, I could then tell an employee that, "You know, you're doing great at this, at a certain aspect of this job. We want to elevate this other area to what you're already doing well."
I had a lot of success with that. One thing that was difficult for me and being evaluated at the academic library that I used to work at, I was required to get the second advanced degree. So, I had to have, like, either two master's degrees or a master's degree and a PhD. I went the PhD route.
And during the research that I did, I took a look at what other libraries would want for certain levels of librarianship. And so I adapted some of my performance to what other libraries would want as well. And it seemed to me that what could be considered success in one area, or at one library, was not successful at a different library. That was difficult and confusing for me, understanding success, because it really wasn't...
Where I used to work, there really weren't guidelines for success. There was a vague notion of what success might look like. Really vague. It was very challenging.
I could see how people would want to leave enough flexibility so that as the needs of the job change, there doesn't need to be an official restructuring or re-titling of the position. But it also seems like there needs to be some sort of consistent baseline "ABC, meet these things to be successful" and how you do that maybe can adjust for the needs of the current times.
Yeah, it seemed as though success was rather mercurial. That it was so vague, where I used to work, that things were very, very difficult.
Would you call that an example of what not to do to create a comfortable happy workplace?
Yes, I would. You know, there I had this experience, I was out for a fitness walk, and I saw a professor and the poor guy just looked beaten down by his work environment. And my **d, I never want to see that again. It was very, very troubling to see someone just look completely defeated. And obviously a bright guy. I mean, a PhD professor has to be pretty darn bright. And the guy just looked beaten. It was really, really quite sad.
Well, let's all commit to not being the workplace that creates that.
Paul, as we close, if somebody were trying to become a better supervisor, or a better manager, or was in some sort of leadership position to create a better workplace, what's maybe one thing, not the most important thing because nobody can ever think of the most important thing. Right? But maybe just one thing that you would say, "I hope you keep this in mind."
I would hope that a person would keep the trust issue in mind. And be really clear, be really clear about expectations as well. And also be appreciative of the work that people are putting in.
This is my own selfish point of view. It's nice to be appreciated, and it makes for really, really happy people at the worksite, which I think we would like to see. At least I would like to see that.
I mean, if we're going to be spending most of our lives with these people, I hope they're happy, because happy people around me would make me happy, too.
Well, and, you know, I have this, you know, a Facebook account. And, one thing that, a meme that people put up a lot is: sure you work with a couple of toxic people, but when they go home, they're toxic, and they're by themselves. And so, you have to put up with a couple of not-so-nice people for a few hours a day. When that person goes home, that person is there 24 hours a day. I understand it, but sometimes it's hard to incorporate that into life. Sometimes of like being around a real, real negative person, even if you're around them for like 15 or 20 minutes, it can seem like an eternity and you can spoil the rest of a day. Unfortunately.
As we close, is there anything else that you would like to share with people?
Yes! And I'm going to say this, it's going to be really hard and sound very, very simplistic. Be happy. Be happy where you go to work. Be happy with whoever you're with. Some people seem to think there's an award for being unhappy or being hypercritical, but there's no prize for that. And, just enjoy. Life is too short not to enjoy it.
But also, sometimes it takes a lot of thought. There was a young individual here, and he was talking with a professor two years ago about going for a PhD. And I thought, I just was going to get a coffee and overheard a bit of that discussion. And it didn't seem to be going well. And I thought maybe the person who's going to go for the PhD can at some point make a profound impact on someone else's life. But maybe that person has made that profound impact upon me already without even doing that - going for the PhD.
Paul, thank you for taking the time to talk with us and share some of your thoughts on creating a happy, comfortable workplace.
Well, thank you, Jill. Thanks for having me around.
Listeners, I hope you have enjoyed today's episode, that perhaps it has introduced some topics for you to think further about. If you have found this episode to be of use, please share it with someone. And as always...
[Outro Music] Jill 30:23
Until next time, keep learning.