Top employers know just how important employee retention is for any organization’s long-term success. Organizations need staff who are not only connected to their work but also their company’s values and purpose. Trend sat down with the Tennessee Aquarium’s Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, Julie Piper, SHRM-CP, to learn how this Chattanooga staple and one of the top aquarium attractions in the U.S. creates positive employee experiences that universally apply to many organizations.

Tennessee Aquarium Vice President, Chief Human Resources Officer Julie Piper.

Exploring Employee Engagement

Trend: Why should leaders care about employee engagement?

Piper: Employee engagement affects how interested employees are in their jobs and how well they perform. An employee can be satisfied with their work without being engaged at their workplace. Satisfied employees are content while engaged employees feel deeply connected to an organization. At the aquarium, we want our staff to be proud of the work they do here.

Trend: What led you to decide to implement a company-wide employee engagement initiative?

Piper: At the beginning of 2020, the leadership team felt we needed employee insights to improve our organization. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit before the survey was released. Times were stressful for all organizations, but visitor-serving organizations faced unique challenges. The aquarium shut down on March 13 for 96 days. Essential staff still had to come on-site to take care of the live animals and plants that depend on us. Amidst global chaos and difficult staffing changes, we knew our staff was worried about their futures. While we wanted employee insight pre-pandemic, our reasoning took a more serious tone as COVID ramped up. Employees were struggling and needed to hear from leadership, and vice versa.

Trend: Why did you decide to use an employee engagement survey versus other methods?

Piper: Leadership wanted to build trust with staff. We wanted to find out what employees needed rather than guess what was important to them by gathering qualitative and quantitative data. A survey is a practical way to collect both types of data.

Trend: What insights did you hope the survey would reveal?

Piper: My disclaimer is that we worked on a wage and compensation survey in tandem with the employee engagement survey. I do not recommend this because juggling so much information can be overwhelming. However, we knew pay and benefits needed improvement. Wages were rapidly increasing during that time. We needed data to evaluate what the market meant for our jobs and figure out how to increase wages while avoiding wage compression. If employees know individuals in similar roles and industries are paid exponentially higher, they will feel undervalued and performance will suffer. We also researched communication, professional development, meaningful work, personal motivation and how leadership’s actions aligned with the messages they conveyed.

Brook Trout. Image courtesy of Tennessee Aquarium. Photographer: Todd Stailey

Testing the Waters

Trend: How did you position survey questions to get actionable feedback?

Piper: We split our survey into four specific areas: “My Job,” “My Supervisor,” “My Department” and “My Organization.” Within each area, we structured questions on a scale of 1 to 6, with one ranking as strongly disagree and up to six as strongly agree. Staff rated statements such as my supervisor gives me feedback, I have the necessary tools to do my job and my compensation is appropriate for my position at a nonprofit organization. Our goal was to gather information we could act on. If leaders have no intentions of acting on something, don’t ask questions about it. The aquarium staff would have been disappointed if I asked questions about raising wages only for me to tell them doing so is not feasible.

We added open-ended sections to each of the four specific areas and one mass open-ended question at the end of the survey.

Trend: What are other important aspects leaders should consider when creating an employee engagement survey?

Piper: Think about anonymity. Many employees want to know their shared information will be kept private. I asked if the employee was part-time or full-time, how many years they had worked at the aquarium and their job level (VP, director, manager, lead, etc.) Those demographics helped me see where there was skewed data. For example, if someone said they had never been offered professional development opportunities but had only been working at the aquarium for three months, I would know the data was skewed. We used an internal system we already had to collect the survey, but organizations can consider third-party systems. Talk with your senior leadership to decide which is best for your organization. Also, give a reasonable timeline for completion. People might be on vacation or want more time to think about their answers. We gave our staff three weeks. In total, the survey took about 10-20 minutes to complete.

Indo Pacific exhibit at the Tennessee Aquarium

Strategies to Making Waves With Employees

Trend: How did you sift through and disseminate your data in an organized way?

Piper: We had so much information to organize. I worked with our VP team and two HR team members to evaluate information. I advise not involving too many people in the evaluation process. We presented the data to our board and held multiple town hall meetings for our staff. We also created multiple opportunities for staff to learn about the data. We shared several of the highest and lowest comments in each category. We generically addressed specific situations mentioned in the survey, but we always mentioned HR was available for anyone to talk to on a one-on-one basis. Also, we eliminated data that was no longer applicable by the time we presented. For example, we no longer had the mask policy while releasing data that we did when the survey was released.

Trend: How did you create short and long-term goals based on survey results?

Piper: After evaluating the data, I worked with the HR team to select survey information most important to employees. I talked to departments affected directly by data to gather their insights, such as when I talked to my HR team about benefits. These conversations helped us pinpoint immediate action items and long-term strategic plan items. Then, I began to present the information to decision-makers like our senior leadership and board of directors. The HR team needed their financial and organizational buy-in to move forward with implementation. I plan to release a major employee engagement survey every other year, with sporadic touchpoint surveys throughout the two years.

Image courtesy of Tennessee Aquarium

Trend: What were some of the solutions you implemented?

Piper: I think our staff was happily surprised at how much we offered, but we wanted to truly show employees how much we cared about them. We approved several compensation and benefits initiatives such as increasing accrued vacation time, bereavement leave and pay ranges in order to create an overall higher starting base pay. We offered two flex and personal days in addition to vacation time, and employees receive four paid hours a month of volunteer time off (VTO) to give back at another nonprofit. We also decided to consistently look at our climate and plan initiatives accordingly, like when gas prices skyrocketed in 2022 and we offered a “summer boost” cash bonus to help employees with expenses. Further, we allow positions that are able to work from home to do so as needed, such as when they are working on big projects and need uninterrupted focus time. We found employees enjoy this as they save time and increase productivity.

We also encourage our departments to set aside money for team-bonding activities, such as walking to Ben and Jerry’s to grab ice cream. Additionally, we implemented an internal communication platform where we post everything from HR announcements, to weekly aquarium updates, to pictures of new baby turtles! It’s a work in progress to have every employee migrate to a new internal communications channel but has been beneficial.

Trend: What other pieces of advice do you have for leaders on increasing employee engagement?

Piper: There is no one tailored approach that fits best for every organization. However, by using your knowledge and working in tandem with senior leadership, you can use best practices to find the approach that works for your company. Also, invest in yourself so you can lead effectively and stay on top of trends. For example, I earned my SHRM-CP certification after enrolling in UTC’s SHRM Exam Prep Course. The class expanded my knowledge and allowed me to network with HR leaders who had fresh ideas I could apply to my organization. I am actively involved in Southeast TN SHRM, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and frequently talk to other nonprofits to hear their approaches. No HR team is an island.

Featured Image of Stewie the sea turtle courtesy of Tennessee Aquarium. Photographer: Doug Strickland.

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