Summer Staffing: Boosting Team Morale
Adversity can test even the best teams, but Two Oceans Aquarium’s focus on staff morale has helped hold theirs together this past year.
“Having a happy and resilient staff is everything,” says Helen Lockhart, communications and sustainability manager at the aquarium. “It’s vital that you invest in your staff—not just financially—but also emotionally and spiritually. Your team will be more resilient, and the visitor experience will be better because guests are going to engage with this incredible bunch of people.”
A resilient team also provides a good return on investment through increased job satisfaction, engagement, and productivity, as well as reduced staff turnover.
Connect with Team Members
Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town, South Africa, began developing staff engagement programs before COVID-19 hit. The aquarium’s work with consultant Dr. Mariheca Otto, managing director of Motto Business Consulting, gave it a significant advantage in helping employees through the pandemic.
From March to September 2020, Two Oceans Aquarium had to close. None of the 100 staff were furloughed. The curatorial department split into two teams and continued to care for the animals. The technical team kept everything running. Other teams—such as finance, marketing, and communications—worked remotely. Front-of-house and functions/events staff had to bide their time until reopening.
Maintaining contact with employees was crucial. With Otto’s help, the aquarium’s leadership increased the number of check-ins to see how managers and teams were coping. “Keeping in touch with our teams was important because there were people who were struggling with isolation. Besides online meetings, we were having virtual coffee dates and chats about people’s work, family, children, and pets,” says Lockhart.
“Our CEO Michael Farquhar joined one of the curatorial teams working on-site and helped with the diving. It was important for them to feel acknowledged and to have the CEO’s support and assistance,” she says.
Be Open and Honest
Two Oceans Aquarium used savings to pay staff wages and received support from its owners, the Victoria & Alfred (V&A) Waterfront. During the first month’s closure, everyone received full pay. “From June through to October, we had to cut salaries because we weren’t generating any revenue,” says Lockhart.
Management had to be open about the aquarium’s finances and explain why the cuts were needed. Although they did not have all the answers, they were committed to communicating with staff as transparently and frequently as possible as the situation evolved. When people needed help—to pay higher data bills while working at home, for example—the company stepped in.
After lockdown, senior management gradually restored salaries, starting with the lower-paid workers and ending with their own. “Now, everyone is back on their original salary,” says Lockhart.
Share Feelings and Visitor Praise
Having long-serving staff passionate about the aquarium’s mission was a help.
“We’re fortunate to work in such a wonderful environment with beautiful animals. For a lot of the staff, the aquarium is like a second home. It is really meaningful work,” says Lockhart.
After employees returned in 2020, the attraction repeated a company-wide survey (initially carried out in 2018) to reassess team members’ attitudes. It revealed that “staff are 97% loyal and committed to the organization, and that figure hadn’t changed,” says Lockhart.
The survey highlighted a need for team-building activities and training to make up for lost time. “More work is needed in terms of leading with emotional intelligence and building resilience,” says Lockhart.
She has already run a well-being session for the front-of-house team. It included a guided meditation, getting people to breathe and reflect together. Lockhart encouraged them to think about what they were grateful for and asked them to put into words a gift they would give to their team.
“It was incredibly moving to see them expressing what they felt for each other,” she says. “As soon as they started sharing their feelings and where they were at, they could see that they weren’t alone. There’s scope to give people more mindfulness moments in the day.”
The management team is looking at facilitating a more flexible work environment. “Also, when it’s safe to do so, we want to have a party where staff can have a lot of fun together,” says Lockhart.
In the meantime, sharing positive visitor feedback in regular staff emails has helped to raise morale. “We were lucky because Capetonians were desperate to come back to the aquarium, so we opened on a fantastic high,” says Lockhart.
However, the management team did acknowledge staff fears about returning to work and encouraged them to express their anxieties. “Some of our staff lost family members, and some had partners who lost jobs, so we took a very compassionate approach to them,” says Lockhart.
The company recognized people’s frustrations too. Front-of-house staff found it tough acting as COVID-19 safety enforcers, for example. “It’s been quite draining for them because normally they’re the ones inspiring our visitors about our animals and exhibits,” says Lockhart.
Since reopening, the aquarium’s leadership has continued to listen actively to employees.
“Like every organization, we still have our issues,” says Lockhart, “but our senior management team is committed to looking after our staff and doing the best we can for them.”