How the Vancouver Aquarium motivates its staff

The Vancouver Aquarium is teeming not only with diverse marine life but also with diverse staff. It has 253 full and part-time employees — from scientists and veterinarians to maintenance workers, groundskeepers and office staff.

As a 365-day-a-year operation, the aquarium has a lot of casual employees, too. The number varies seasonally, with about 200 participating throughout the year and 300 during the peak summer months. “They may work one day a week or work on the weekends, or they’re on call to serve at banquets,” says Lori Howe, the aquarium’s vice-president of human resources.

Fortunately for the non-profit, there are also more than 1,000 volunteers per year who give more than 100,000 hours annually. About 60 to 70 per cent of them return each year — simply because the work is meaningful and they can grow in their roles. The longest-serving volunteer has been helping out for 46 years.

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The volunteer program had a curious start. On June 15, 1956, the first chief executive officer, Dr. Murray Newman, and the board of directors gathered for the opening day ceremonies. “There were so many more people that showed up than anticipated,” says Howe. “Dr. Newman and the board called their wives and had them come down to help deal with the volume of people. Essentially, that was the start of the volunteer program!”

Teachable moments

With such a diverse group of people, the aquarium relies on innovative strategies to keep them interested, returning year after year and appropriately informed to promote their workplace’s value as a tourist destination.

Education and professional development opportunities are important. On a monthly basis, employees can nominate their favourite animal in the aquarium. (There are usually three to five nominees a month.) “We do a morning gathering [with about 25 to 40 staff and volunteers participating] so the person who nominated it talks about why they did. The specialist will then educate everybody on the animal,” Howe explains.

There are online educational opportunities, too, with more than 140 courses in the aquarium’s web-based learning system. “We have a conservation program called Ocean Wise, which is around sustainable seafood: having an understanding of what seafood is okay to eat versus what’s not, based on what’s available in the ocean.”

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The aquarium also offers visits to the marine mammal rescue facility in Vancouver. Typically, about 100 to 200 attend in groups of 10 at a time.

Team spirit

Working in an environment surrounded by marine life may have a positive team-building effect in its own right, but the Vancouver Aquarium goes a step further.

It offers hour-long Pilates and yoga classes on Wednesdays — at 7:30 a.m. and 5:15 p.m., respectively — for its employees and volunteers. Not only are the classes subsidized, but they take place in front of the beluga whale habitat!

There are also seasonal team-building events. “We’ve been getting into a tradition of doing a pumpkin-carving contest and a gingerbread-decorating contest,” says Lori Howe, vice-
president of HR. “It’s to pull people together and encourage that team building and collaboration.”

The pumpkins are put on display in the aquarium gallery for visitors, she adds. “Of course, they all end up with an aquatic theme!”

Tour and learn

Not only do employees and volunteers need to understand the marine life on display at the Vancouver Aquarium but, as part of the tourism industry, they also need to be able to explain other area attractions. That’s where the Tourism Challenge comes in.

Now in its 15th year, the challenge gives those in Vancouver’s tourism industry a chance to educate not only themselves but also visitors to the city — as well as a chance to win some pretty cool prizes. “That’s the purpose of the program: so our employees and volunteers can speak intelligently about other attractions,” says Howe.

Employees and volunteers (roughly 700 each year) pick up a passport at the aquarium in mid-April. From then until the end of May, they can collect stamps at other attractions throughout the city. “You have to collect stamps to show you’ve been [to] and experienced the attraction,” Howe says.

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At the end, those with at least 20 stamps will receive the Tourism Challenge Privilege Pass, which allows the employee/volunteer and a guest free admission to the participating attractions for the next year. They’ll also be entered for draw prizes. If they collect 40, they’re entered for more prizes, including the grand prize: a two-day trip on the Rocky Mountaineer (a train that travels by day through Canada’s Western provinces).

Beyond home borders

Soon, employees will also have the chance to take out their real passports and benefit from the learning experience of travel. In the fall, the aquarium will be rolling out a new travel bursary program. “We have a lot of passionate employees who love to travel to look at fish and marine life,” says Howe. “We want to support that.”

The idea came about in July 2013 after one employee approached HR to inform them she was going on a research trip to Mo’orea Island in French Polynesia to learn about octopi. “The employee was doing work-related research on her vacation, so we thought, ‘Let’s pay her a bit of a stipend to do so,’” Howe explains. On her return, the employee then wrote a series of blog posts on her experience and what she learned.

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With the new program, employees will submit applications for their trips, and a committee will review them. The budget for the first year will be $5,000 and will be assessed on an annual basis, based on interest and use. “This amount will be divided among a number of employees, so it’s not huge,” says Howe. “It depends on where they’re going and the cost.”

After their trips, employees must report on what they learned. There’s no set format; it could be a blog post or a slideshow.

Funds are also available for other training opportunities. For example, the aquarium has sent two to four groups of employees per year to other marine facilities in the U.S. to observe how they look after a particular species. “For some groups, this is the only way they can truly learn animal care for various species,” Howe explains.

Not every workplace educates its employees on the job. But it’s definitely nice work if you can get it.

Brooke Smith is managing editor of Benefits Canada.

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