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How I Work: Alexandra Yarrow

How I Work: Alexandra Yarrow

April 2, 2017

Alexandra Yarrow is a native Montrealer who loves public libraries, Zadie Smith, bicycles, and Cortland apples. She is also the founder and president of the non-profit Twice Upon a Time, which provides free books to children up to age 12 and is based in Ottawa’s Vanier neighbourhood.

Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Current Gig: Manager of Alternative Services at the Ottawa Public Library, a department that includes Homebound, Bookmobile & Kiosk, and Accessibility Services

One word that best describes how you work: Through relationship-building (yeah, that’s right, I cheated)

Current mobile device: iPhone 6S, Blackberry Q10

Current computer: 

  • Personal: Trusty 2009 MacBook
  • Work: HP desktop with dual screen; HP EliteBook laptop

What apps, software, or tools can’t you live without?

  • Apps:
    • Google Maps
    • Google Drive
    • Dropbox
    • Twitter (where I toggle between my personal account and the @OttBkMobileBus account that we use for schedule updates, special event photos, and to engage with the Ottawa and outreach services commitiies)
    • The Weather Network – to check the weather before my 30 minute walk to work.
    • Good Reads
    • What’s App for group chats with girlfriends
    • BBC News
    • Find My Friends so I can find my husband
  • Tools:
    • Outlook Calendar rules my life (but I rule Outlook Calendar)
    • Doodle polls

What’s your workspace setup like?

Photo of Alexandra Yarrow's office

There is absolutely no clutter on my desk (don’t ask about my living room).

My work as a manager involves oversight of our department’s operations, triaging and supporting the team in solving problems, developing and implementing new project and partnership ideas, strategic planning, oversight of HR and budgets, and lots of email and reporting. In addition to my team of 15, I work really closely with other libraries with similar alternative services, as well as our programming, technology, collection development, and branch teams at OPL. I love having a lot on the go, and I get bored really easily, but I also value simplicity and I can’t stand a cluttered workspace.

I have an inspiration board with photos of my friends’ kids reading, buttons, cartoons (Kate Beaton and Liz Clemo) and infographics (such as Boss vs. Leader) that keep me on track, as well as a report workflow calendar.

I would be dead in the water without my Jabra headset and my JustStand.org desk, and I pace when I am on the phone, especially when I’m talking about something complicated like interpersonal relationships or the jam-packed bookmobile schedule (sometimes I wander into other departments or my neighbour’s office). I am fortunate to have the best neighbours, including the manager of Main Branch, Tony; we compare notes a few times a day.

My walls feature a wooden clock my uncle made, framed photos of some of my favourite library spaces, such as the “Pass on the light” carving outside the front door of the Westmount Library in Montreal, as well as the usual suspects (family photos, degrees and certificates, whiteboard). I also have an emergency magic wand, nine three-dimensional vehicle models, one paper airplane, a vehicle front grill emblem, and part of a willow tree stump.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut?

There’s no one magic bullet, but I am really big on using the right format for the task (phone call, email, meeting, conference call). For instance, I schedule independent work times (we call it “heads-down” in my team). We operate in a very Outlook calendar-centric world, so I make sure to block off time far in advance for projects or reports, so that meetings don’t get scheduled and leave me running for the finish line at the last minute. When someone sends me an email about a piece of work such as a report, I move that email straight to the Calendar and throw together a to-do list in under a minute to get it out of my inbox. Everything in my Calendar (and lots of other places) is colour-coded by team name or audience. I get about 100 emails a day and usually reach inbox = 0 by Friday afternoon.

My colleagues can also attest to my love of the patented Alex meeting recap. If I don’t do it, someone else does, but every meeting I am in is followed by a recap email to all participants so everyone is clear about what was discussed and agreed on, what the next steps are and who’s responsible for them.

Lastly, standards: naming conventions, using “tracked changes” – easy but important stuff! People who “break” an email chain should be forced to re-shelve the entire print non-fiction collection at their nearest library branch as penance.

What’s your favourite to-do list manager?

I don’t have one specific favourite. I use anything within reach, depending on my mood, including Notes, emails, calendars, Word docs, and even a Day Timer (I use it to track voicemails, short verbal meetings, and drop-dead deadlines for the day). I really try to minimise screen time when I am not working, so I keep trusty pen and paper at hand, as well as a good supply of post-it notes.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?

My Bodum to make coffee (do I really need to explain why?). Down with Keurigs! If my team sees me at the Keurig, they know I am too tired for the first tier of Maslow’s hierarchy, and they should offer extra support. Also, I am grateful for my humidifier (did you know the only workplace drier than a library is an airplane?).

Do you find yourself always working on something? Or when you finish a project, do you take time to let your mind wander without concern for what’s next?

One project at a time? What world is this you speak of? I have nine on my departmental work plan, and those are just the ones that the rest of OPL is directly implicated in; my team is usually cooking up at least a few other small ones all the time. I let my mind wander when I am walking to work, on my bike, on a run, or in the shower. Those are the places where I get the best ideas. I’m pretty good at disconnecting, but I believe that everyone’s neocortex chews on things and spits out answers even when we think we’re resting.

What do you listen to while you work?

The sound of my neighbours in the Interlibrary loans and Talking Books department unwrapping the mail, scanning items, and providing stellar customer service. Sometimes I hum or whistle. If I didn’t find music distracting, and if it wouldn’t annoy my neighbours (my door is open unless I’m in a meeting or on the phone), I might listen to Radio Classique Montreal or Kathleen Edwards.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished The Break by Katherena Vermette, and it blew me away. I’ve also been halfway through The Most of Nora Ephron since she died (it’s my security blanket book).

How do you recharge?

Mostly through sarcasm and humour; my team is full of practical jokers and punny geniuses – they have great team spirit and compassion, and their faces and words boost me on the craziest days. Seriously, though, I unwind on my bike or walking home, in my garden or sitting by the river/canal, and of course through reading with a cup of tea or glass of wine on the weekends.

What’s your sleep routine like?

I almost always get 8 hours, and I know I am very fortunate in some respects. There are no phones or other devices on the top floor of our home.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Stay connected.

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