Often, when a new director begins, change becomes the word of the day. When I assumed the title in March 2014, our external world was changing rapidly. Much of my time and energy was spent in keeping up with real estate transactions and learning how to speak developer. That’s not to say I didn’t know that some things probably needed to change internally as well. But some changes had begun a year before, and we first needed to let the dust settle. In addition, we had some infrastructure changes to complete, including a new website and switching our accounting to QuickBooks.
It’s funny what happens when you’re able to look at your financials a bit differently. We were in the midst of revising our Strategic Plan, where we put the visitor experience as one of our three priorities. In a conversation with Claudia, our business manager, she very gracefully pointed out how little we were spending on our frontline staff. Our budget didn’t match our strategic plan. With a few other changes to our finances, we were able to move our money around. How could we make the most of our frontline staff?
At the same time, there have been long simmering issues with our frontline staff that have bothered me almost the entire time I’ve worked at DHV. Some ticket office rarely left the ticket office. Some history educators didn’t feel comfortable touching the computer, even to clock themselves in. Administrative staff and frontline staff rarely interacted.
Scheduling was also a real challenge. The way our history educator staff were scheduled and budgeted was based on building. So, if our farmstead history educator was out for a week, there wasn’t anyone that could step in and work at that post. Turnover in the ticket office positions was high, and part of me wondered if they just got bored. All of these issues collided last summer, and we decided to completely restructure our frontline staff. Here’s what we did (after many meetings and conversations and a bit of hand wringing. Change can be scary.)
- Abolished the “Ticket Office Staff” and “History Educator” positions. We created one position: “History Host.” We also standardized the hourly rate so that everyone is making the same amount.
- Abolish seasonal staffing (previously, history educators weren’t scheduled in February, July or September due to low attendance). Instead, staff are scheduled based on visitor attendance history. For example, after looking at numbers, we realized that July was a decent month for attendance–and very few people were on site to help those visitors.
- All History Host staff are required to be “certified” to work in at least two posts. For new hires, one post must be the Ticket Office.
- All administrative staff (including myself) are required to spend at least 5% of their time in direct visitor service beginning on February 1.
- All staff must be able to give tours of our two signature homes, Millermore and Sullivan.
We began implementing the changes in the Fall. We held a series of training sessions in various building posts. In January, we did an all staff training of Millermore and Sullivan. And last week, we held an all staff retreat to talk more about customer service and how to share all this knowledge everyone now possessed. We used a few points from The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums to guide our conversation. But the main purpose was to learn from each other some of the key skills needed to best serve our visitors. A few volunteers joined us as well, and we’ll likely do a volunteer retreat later this spring.
So, how is all this working? Well, I’m the boss, so they sure don’t tell me everything. But I do hear a few things through the grapevine. Our frontline staff that have made the transition with us are enjoying the variety. Not every day is exactly the same. Even though administrative staff weren’t required to head out to the grounds until this month, several worked on the grounds during busy school tour days last fall. Staff now have more flexibility in their hours–if they’re able to work more, we will probably schedule them for additional hours. Generally, things seem to be going pretty well.
It’s too soon to tell what kind of impact all of this might have on visitors. Like many small museums, we just don’t do enough evaluation. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to afford AASLH’s Visitors Count program in the next year or so, and then we’ll begin to have some data.
I completed my first shift in Millermore a few weeks ago. It has been ages since I’ve spent that much time talking to visitors, and after 12 years of working at DHV, this was my first standard docent shift. It was a fairly busy Sunday, and I had an absolutely delightful time talking to visitors. It was fun to figure out different ways to tell the story (I might have started my tour upstairs), as well as see what trends emerged during the day.
Long term, I think this could be transformative for the museum. If we’re all interacting with visitors, we all might have some great ideas. And by leveling things a bit, those ideas are more likely to move across the lines that are inherent in any organization with multiple staff members. I’m feeling pretty good about these changes. But you might need to ask me again after my first 700 school kid day. . .
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