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Frontline Workers are Professionals

Did you see that title? Are you clutching your pearls? Are you fanning yourself as you struggle with the absolute blasphemy that was just thrust in front of you? If so, you may be fully and deeply subscribed to some tremendously outdated and inequitable practices that you’re going to have to reexamine post-haste. Frontline workers are professionals. It is long past time that the cultural sector starts treating them as such.


To be honest, this feels silly to write. Of course these people who are the face, backbone, and other integral body parts of your organization should be treated as professionals. They were hired to do the tiresome work of delivering your mission to your guests, so obviously they are trusted members of the organization. The mission is the guiding light, the North Star. The people doing this work should be among the most respected in your institution. And yet, across the field, frontline staff are rarely treated as professionals. More often than not, they are infantilized. 


I have made this claim in various presentations, trainings, and arguments with leadership over the years, so allow me to explain what I mean when I say front staff is infantilized. At the time of this writing, I have a badass little eleven-month-old named Calvin at home. While Calvin is bubbling with personality and constantly on the move, he needs a lot of help with the things he can’t do. So I pick out what he wears each day. I decide when he eats. I am in control of where he is and when. This is acceptable behavior for the parent of a baby. This is not acceptable behavior for a person who manages the work of other adults.



What a guy <3


In the next year or two, Calvin is going to gain more and more autonomy as he learns and grows as we all have. That autonomy should not be taken away once we begin selling our labor. No company or museum has the right to take away the choices of how and when we clothe and feed ourselves. But that is exactly what we do to our frontline professionals.


Uniforms

One of the most obvious ways in which museums do this to their staff is through uniforms. A uniform sends a clear message that you do not trust your staff to dress themselves. Uniforms show that you view your staff as cogs in a machine rather than as individuals. A uniform highlights the differences between guests and staff instead of bridging the gap between them. Uniforms are unprofessional, they make it seem as though staff are trying to dress up as professionals. 


The standard uniform I have encountered in cultural attractions is a branded polo shirt and khakis. There are a number of problems with this, mainly with the polo shirt, but let’s get the khakis out of the way first. To behind with, your frontline team is your lowest-paid staff, so they are getting some pretty cheap khakis that don’t hold up well to the wear and tear of visitor-facing museum work. Khakis end up torn, dirty, wrinkled, and looking bad after almost no time at all. They are not as flexible or comfortable as other options for bottoms. A nice pear of jeans is much more durable and suitable for frontline work.


The branded polo is the worst, and I can leave my opinions aside here and just focus on staff feedback. Frontline teams I have worked with almost universally despise polos, and the most consistent complaint is how unflattering, uncomfortable, and itchy they are. The second most common complaint is the location of the logo. Usually, the logo is on one breast while the name tag is on the other, drawing a lot of unwanted attention to the chest. Another common complaint was the impracticality. The boxy design of these shirts seems to fit almost no body type quite right, and in a job where you are moving, bending, leaning, and always on display, having something that fits your body is necessary.


That being said, I encourage you to scrap your museum’s uniform in favor of a dress code. The dress code I suggest is as follows:

  • Tops

    • Museum, content (science for science museums, art for art museums, etc), mission-related, or plain tee shirt (short sleeve or long sleeve)

  • Bottoms

    • Comfortable, neatly kept pants or jeans that are suitable for the work being done

  • Branded Items 

    • Apron, vest, drawstring backpack, or fanny pack in a bright color with the logo

      • Identifies staff as part of the museum team

      • Easy for guests to pick out of a crowd

      • Easy for staff to remove in emergencies

      • Functional pockets for carrying work-related materials

  • Crewneck or zip-up sweatshirt for colder days



Engaging science nerds or generic customer service drones?


The proposed dress code above allows for personal expression and suggests a lever of comfort that gives an air of approachability. Museum staff wearing clothing with graphics that tie to your organization and its mission also helps facilitate a discussion between staff and visitors. I have lost count of the number of times a guest has approached me because I’m wearing a science tee shirt with Beaker from the Muppets on it. That’s not an experience you get with a polo.


Let us also consider where you may most often encounter staff clad in branded polos. In my early work experience, I wore a branded polo while working at Applebee’s, Subway, and a dingy supermarket in New Jersey. In fact, the dingy supermarket polo was the same exact polo I had to wear while working at the Franklin Institute back in those days. Today, I would argue that a branded polo is most often associated with Jake from State Farm. These are not organizations I think of when I am looking to experience culture. 


Several organizations have already adopted dress codes like this one. The Exploratorium, the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science, the Baltimore Museum of Industry, the Mütter Museum, and others have all had success with dress codes in place of uniforms. These dress codes allow for self-expression, show your guests that you trust the professionalism of your staff, make your staff more approachable, and make it easier for your staff to feel comfortable at work. It is also much more inclusive than imposing a uniform upon your team.


There are, of course, some folks who may cling to this outdated notion that everyone on your frontline team needs to be dressed the same. Some may say that the guests won’t be able to find an employee when they need one. Please allow me to assure you that there is no need to worry here. I have been leading frontline workers who are not in uniform since 2014 and not once have I had an instance in which a guest couldn’t figure out who worked there and who didn’t. I have also never had a complaint from a guest regarding the lack of uniforms, but I have received countless compliments from guests on how refreshing it is to see frontline staff showing a little personality. 


Another common and equally unfounded hold-up is the idea that, for some reason, the people you have trusted to deliver on the promise of your mission cannot be trusted to follow guidelines set forth in a dress code. When I was at the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science, the majority of my frontline staff were 18-21 year old college students. On their first day, I presented them with the above dress code and I never had to mention it again. Despite the fact that college students are not known for their sound decision-making and ability to follow rules, my staff met the expectations I set for them on day one without a problem. 


There is no good reason to force your frontline team to wear a uniform. Let your staff dress themselves, and watch as the overall visitor and staff experience at your institution improves.


Scheduling

In 2013 and 2014, I ran the Visitor Services department at Please Touch Museum, Philadelphia’s children’s museum. The museum was open from 9-5 each day, and I ended up working a 55-hour week each week. That is because I would arrive around 7am each day, check the messages for call outs, and then get to work on redoing the daily schedule which I would usually wrap up right before our morning meeting. 


At almost every museum where I have worked, the frontline team is on a daily schedule. This is usually made on a spreadsheet with the day broken into 45 or 60 minute blocks that tell each team member where they have to be and when. It also tells them when to eat, and in some extreme cases, when they can use the restroom. Often there will be certain positions that are designated to start the rotation for each block. In this system, your frontline team comes in to work for the day, is handed a paper schedule, and their entire day is laid out for them.


As the person doing the scheduling, I encountered some issues here and there over the years but never thought to do anything about it. At PTM, it was the constant call outs. At DelMNS, it was trying to ensure no one was stuck in any one place for too long and, at least once a week, covering for the programs team so they could have a two-hour staff meeting. As the person being scheduled, I lamented being stuck in my least favorite place too many times in one day. 


Then, one morning over 20 years into my career, the thought hit me. Do I really need to schedule each day down to the minute? Can’t I just trust my team to do the work that needs to be done? The answer was no. And yes for the second one. Maybe I should’ve rephrased those questions for a less awkward answer. Oh well. Still learning every day, I suppose.





Anyway, the point here is that I decided to give it a try. I told my team that they knew what needed to be covered and when, they knew who needed lunches, and they knew better than I did what everyone’s preferences were. So I told them we would try operating without a daily schedule for a while. 


Much like the dress code, the staff handled it well. Sometimes there would be frequent changing between stations, sometimes one person would opt for one post for much of the day, sometimes people just worked in one space for the day. It varied based on who was working and what their preferences were. Lunches were taken and covered around mid-day, sometimes a bit earlier or later depending on visitor traffic in the museum. 


This freedom not only gave the team autonomy, but it encouraged teamwork and led to staff retention. In eighteen months, only one person left the team. The rest of the group bonded and truly worked as a team. In a department that, in most institutions, is a revolving door, we had a solid, unified team working together to meet the mission. 





That being said, I will likely start off at the Edelman Fossil Park and Museum with some sort of schedule when we open later this year. I am currently leaning toward a Disney attractions-style rotation model to get us started. The way this worked when I worked on the Backlot Tour (RIP) at what was then Disney-MGM Studios, is that there were four rotations of four people. The tour lasted roughly 18 minutes, so you rotated with each tour. In each rotation there was a dock position, spiel position, driving position, and a break. If you wanted lunch, you worked out with your fellow cast members when you’d take a double break, and everyone else would do a double position in the rotation. What I am working on now is based on that general idea without the operation of heavy machinery.


That said, this is more of a tool for me to get used to the brand new operation than it is a mechanism to control the staff. Once we’re all comfortable and we have our workflow figured out, the schedule will be dropped and I will trust my team to do the work that needs to be done to meet the mission.





Visitor experience is all about expectations. When expectations are exceeded, that is a positive experience. Your frontline staff will be better empowered to exceed visitor expectations if you set clear expectations for your team and then trust them to meet said expectations. Stop treating your frontline workers like children who cannot be trusted and you, your institution, and your visitors will all reap the rewards.

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