Building the Plane As We Learn to Fly It

This article is part of the “Inside the Curve: Business as (Not Quite) Usual” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Hilary Van Alsburg, Children’s Museum Tucson | Oro Valley

Who knew ramping up out of a pandemic would be as hard (or harder!) than spiraling into one? As an organization, Children’s Museum Tucson | Oro Valley (CMT) is facing the same challenges as others in our industry and community and we have gotten nimble in anticipating and tackling them. We shifted to remote working, rolled out our first virtual programming and activity kits, introduced private play dates, and focused on fundraising for things we were inventing at the same time. In the last eighteen months, we have often used the phrase “building the plane as we learn to fly it.” What began as a sprint soon turned into an endurance marathon. We thought reopening to visitors would be the finish line. Wrong again. Opening turned out to be just the end of the first leg of a relay.

When we first closed to visitors, there were maybe fifteen cases of COVID-19 in our state. By September 2021, there were 3,000 new cases reported every day. And we are open. When we closed to in-person experiences in March 2020, we didn’t receive a single complaint. Our community was in solidarity with us, we were all in it together. When we reopened a year later, our community rallied and celebrated along with us. Six months later, our staff is weary from navigating the fickle and sometimes hostile public opinion about masks, social distancing, and visitor engagement. The vast majority of guests appreciate the rules, and the policies are not a source of contention. The joy in being back at the museum and having a place for kids to play is very real. But for a vocal minority, the policies around masks are an invitation to snipe, challenge, and verbally abuse staff. Pile that responsibility on to a brand new team just learning their jobs—and a team primarily made up of staff under age twenty, entering the workforce for the first time, and facing their own anxieties about working in a public-facing position—it can be overwhelming. These are the challenges of reopening we hadn’t anticipated and are learning to navigate.

The hiring landscape has also completely changed, not only for us but for all organizations and businesses. After being closed to the public for a year, we knew that most of the frontline staff we were forced to let go would not be returning. Our core team of eleven people had worked in the trenches all year, but now, we were looking at hiring all new frontline staff, more than tripling our staff, adding twenty-three new people, in just a month.

Prior to the pandemic, when a position opened up at the museum, we would post the job description widely, seeking diverse applicants. Since most of our frontline staff are college or high school students, targeting school advisors to share the job has been very helpful. We would then review applications, email applicants to schedule initial phone conversations, then set up follow-up in-person interviews. On average, the process took about three weeks. As the museum began to re-open, that process proved unworkable very early on. Half the people who applied didn’t show up for the interview. Many who were hired often didn’t show up to work on the first day, and many others who were hired left after a short duration to take another position.

Now, in a world where every industry is hiring and can’t meet the demand, we do it all in one day. The second we get an application, we call, interview, and decide on the spot to extend a job offer to the applicant. Yes, it is now that competitive. This buyer’s market mentality has unanticipated ripple effects. You take a gamble on folks who might not really be the best fit. You risk sacrificing diversity for immediacy. It is a hard enough landscape to hire and keep people—add to that grumpy visitors who feel entitled to take their frustrations out on young staff, and we have scrambled to sharply refocus and invest in staff support measures.

We are focused on building an all-new customer engagement team. In addition to the normal training, bonding, and layering of organizational culture, we are investing in a good vibe. We are role-playing and modeling how to deal with tense situations and de-escalate confrontation. We are working across the organization to support our frontline Guest Experiences team. Back office staff shares more face time with the frontline team, and together we diffuse tension and laugh. We listen to the banter on the walkie-talkies in case senior staff needs to go to the front desk to offer support when a team member needs assistance with a difficult customer. Every time additional staff needs to support a frontline staff member in enforcing policy, it takes them away from the daily work needed to run a museum. It’s exhausting and disheartening. But it also has unanticipated benefits. This newly focused support helps us build trust, break down silos between front and back of the house, and share experiences that create opportunity for discussion and reflection on our mission and role in the community. We value feedback from all staff and encourage reflection with daily debriefings. We share highlights and focus on our entire team in ways we never did before. This helps us navigate the hurdles and will have lasting benefits. When we do finish this race, we will do it together, and the museum experience will be all the better for everyone. Even the grumps.

Hilary Van Alsburg is the executive director of Children’s Museum Tucson | Oro Valley. Prior to this, she was the chief development officer at University of Arizona Libraries, The Humane Society of Southern Arizona, and the Children’s Museum Tucson | Oro Valley.

Grabbing the Brass Rings

Vanessa King, director of education, along with Michael Bilharz, associate director of guest experiences, and his three managers, Manny Gomez, Roshea Meyers, and Christine Peterson, are jointly responsibly for hiring and training a highly flexible crew frontline staff.  Vanessa describes their approach to navigating a wild job market, retaining new hires, and making organizational change.

Tucson is home to the University of Arizona, so many of our frontline staff are college students. In addition, students and interns from local high schools fill these positions.  For many of these young people, working at CMT is their first job.  So, our training focuses on not only the usual museum components—family learning in exhibits, program delivery, customer service—but on how to have a job—being reliable and punctual, working with other staff.

In “normal” times, we would hire and train one or two new staff at a time, giving them opportunities to shadow experienced staff before they were on their own.  Recently, we hired fifteen people in two weeks and trained them as a group.

To make these mostly part-time jobs more appealing and retain as many staff as possible, we have become even more flexible, adjusting to ever-changing schedules and a competitive job market.

The silver lining?  Relatively new to the museum, I wanted to make some changes anyway, including giving frontline staff more opportunities for interaction and the education team more ownership of programming.  So, when we re-opened, staff (and visitors!) expected some things to be different.  And they were.  We didn’t have to pretend that everything was the same.