What is your institution doing to sustain high staff morale in tough economic times?

Staff-intern outing in Chicago

This is an extended discussion of the question that appeared in the Viewpoints department of the September/October 2011 issue of Dimensions magazine.

We make time to celebrate successes! It’s important to focus on the impact our institution has on its visitors and how each staff person contributes to this impact. Additionally, we continue to have an Activities Team to develop time and space for staff to engage in fun activities during and outside of work hours. From chili cook-offs to baseball games, there are opportunities for staff to get to know each other and take their minds off of work from time to time. (Pictured: A staff-intern outing to a food festival in downtown Chicago.)

Joy Kubarek-Sandor, student and teacher programs manager
John G. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago

We share problems and ask for solutions from all staff and the board.

Maya Halevy, director
Bloomfield Science Museum Jerusalem, Israel

Among other things, the museum has weekly “free coffee” sessions Friday mornings in the Atrium at 9:00 a.m. (We open officially at 9:30 a.m.) At our bimonthly all-staff meetings, we have contests and reward prizes like “free parking for a month,” etc., to staff.

Kat Stein, director, public relations and communications
The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia

“The need sharpens the wit,” says a popular Spanish proverb. In fact, in our museum, the current economic crisis is acting as a stimulus to test new, creative, cost-effective solutions, and everybody in this business knows that this means a lot of fun. For instance, we turn our main design efforts from expensive exhibitions to state-of-the-art activities.

Francisco J. Franco del Amo, technical manager
Aquarium Finisterrae-Museos Científicos Coruñeses, A Coruña, Spain

The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan) has science communicators involved in reaching out to the public with precise and scientific knowledge. We engage in multiple methods of science communication with the general public. Their many responses suggest that the issues are “alive,” and that encourages us. Plus, Miraikan continues to train, advise, and acknowledge each staff person’s efforts, thereby providing a base of respect, recognition, and sense of accomplishment within the entire Miraikan family. This results in a strong sense of belonging and a strong sense of teamwork. We share all feedback and take a positive learning approach to achieve open and innovative communication.

Yuko Okayama, science communicator
Miraikan: National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, Tokyo, Japan

The economic difficulties have been an impetus to fight “against all odds,” ensuring that El Museo de los Niños de Caracas continues to help children “learn by playing.”

Mireya Caldera Pietri, director
El Museo de los Niños de Caracas, Venezuela

It is increasingly difficult to sustain staff morale and more importantly to retain staff in these tough economic times. Our science centers face the challenge that they are not widely recognized or funded, and there are no clear career paths for staff. We hope that the 6th Science Centre World Congress in Cape Town in September 2011 will help to bring our centers into the forefront of public thought and support.

Derek Fish, director
Unizul Science Centre, Richards Bay, South Africa

While we have not been able to offer raises in this economy, our senior management has made a point of advocating for continued investment in staff through avoiding pay cuts, adding staff positions to ease workload if needed, and providing additional professional development opportunities. Staff is encouraged to attend professional conferences and workshops. We have also instituted a “Brown Bag” training program that educates staff from all functions of the organization on different aspects of our operations—exhibit development, animal training, science programs, and personal health.

Rachel Meyer, executive director
CuriOdyssey, San Mateo, California

Because of the kind of institution that Maloka is (we must be a self-sustaining institution in a Latin American country), we are used to working in difficult economic conditions. I think difficult times are the moments when morale must be higher; they are the times when you as a professional are working for a community facing its greatest challenges, and it might inspire you. Motivation is something very personal, so the best I can do is to show the staff the opportunities that a time of crisis gives to us and let them participate in the design of new solutions.

Sigrid Falla, director of research and development
Maloka, Bogota, Colombia

Every year, all the employees of Technopolis go on a day trip together to another tourist attraction or science center. During a real team-building day, they catch a glimpse of how other tourist institutions are working and handling things.

Twice a year, a meeting with all Technopolis employees reviews the status of our current activities and reveals the future plans of the science center for the next half year.

Every year, in September, all Technopolis employees (public workers, technicians, office employees, etc.) clean the exhibition room, the cafeteria, the offices…together. This also is a sort of team building and a way to create some involvement for everyone.

Technopolis believes it is important to set up inspiring projects that are highly appealing to the media. For example, in February 2011, Technopolis broke the world record of the largest chemistry lesson with 526 students. The positive vibes of the event and the accompanying media attention gave a good feeling to everyone and was a boost for staff morale.

Steven Vols, marketing and communication director
Technopolis, the Flemish Science Center, Mechelen, Belgium

Over the past year, I’ve been fortunate enough to serve on our museum’s Rewards and Recognition Committee. The purpose of the program was not necessarily to raise morale, but to reward and recognize staff in nonmonetary ways. The goals of the program are to

  • recognize employees whose efforts make a difference
  • recognize individual team members equally for their efforts
  • build a spirit of teamwork and cooperation among co-workers
  • demonstrate that employees’ work is valued and appreciated.

The committee members are museum employees from all departments and serve for a term of one year. The first task for the committee was to conduct an employee survey to establish a baseline for future metrics and gather ideas from staff on what they would like to see as part of the program. From that, we put together an action plan of potential programs to implement throughout the year. The plan was reviewed and approved by our senior management team. Some of the new programs the committee initiated are

  • raffles held during monthly all-staff meetings
  • a peer recognition program where staff can recognize their peers for small achievements
  • a reciprocal pass with local museums and attractions to provide free admission for employees (+1 guest) to participating organizations
  • pins and lanyards to recognize staff service milestones
  • a staff variety show to showcase staff talent
  • lunchtime professional development programs for staff.

Based on annual survey results, staff found Rewards and Recognition to be a great program and appreciates the effort the museum is taking to recognize staff. For year two of Rewards and Recognition, we will continue to support ongoing initiatives and are looking to add new programs based on feedback from staff, such as a staff break room, a summer picnic for staff and their families, and a staff weekend at one of our residential outdoor school sites.

Nate Lesiuk, program developer
The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Portland

From our Facebook page:

I’ve found that giving people ownership over small projects really helps. Most of my staff members are part-time and they have qualifications to be full-time, but the institution cannot afford it.

However, if they feel they can contribute a program to the whole institution, it increases the value they feel in the job. It also helps that part-timers know that we tend to hire from within for full-time jobs, so they have opportunities to advance.

Sarah Schoenlaub, physical science gallery leader
Saint Louis Science Center, Missouri

The above statements represent the opinions of the individual contributors and not necessarily the views of their institutions or of ASTC.