The Telecommuting Museum Professional
As telecommuting becomes increasingly popular, companies are now eliminating the overhead of offices and becoming fully or mostly distributed. The benefits of working from home, including high cost savings for employees and employer, stronger work/life balance and greater productivity make the arrangement seem like a no-brainer. Could telecommuting be productive for museums, cultural heritage sites and similar institutions?
As a museum professional, the physical act of being in the museum is inspiring — peeking at exhibitions as they are being installed, visiting hidden curatorial offices tucked between galleries, eavesdropping on couples as they whisper interpretations of the art to one another, or observing tourist families gear up for their one full day of roaming the museum. Moments to observe visitors intermingling with the art, the staff, and the space provide a valuable feedback loop to validate and inform my work.
For the last few months, I have been working from home one day a week, as my schedule allows. It started as a Friday productivity boost, to ensure that I leave my work at the office as I head into the weekend. But I quickly noticed something more meaningful about working outside of the museum: it’s much closer to the perspective of our target audiences online — the people who interface with the museum without ever stepping foot inside, who are just discovering the museum through referrals, who are deciding whether to plan a trip, or who experience the museum through online content only. Then there are the people for whom the museum has never been a thought in their heads. The world contains a lot more of these people than those who visit the museum.
It can be daunting to not only keep a large public institution running, but to increase engagement and reach online. Of course, this is task of the 21st century. Many museums face irrelevance if they don’t pivot their programming to appeal more to young, diverse, technically savvy, and socially conscious global audiences — many of whom are constantly online. These people want different things from their museums than the older, whiter audiences who have always shaped the priorities of American Museums. Museum people know this. Many museums are clamoring to address the audience engagement crisis through strategy, new initiatives and projects, and cherry picking forward-thinking leaders to join their ranks. But is the culture of the museum workplace contributing to a new way of engaging the public?
When we spend the better part of the day in a space filled with tens of thousands of visitors, we are liable to internalize the feeling of being at the center of the universe. Maybe its harder to imagine why we would have to engage new audiences when we’re constantly seeing crowds at the entrance. Meanwhile, comfortably perched at my sun-drenched dining room table all alone with my wifi, laptop and coffee, I can actually feel the distance between myself and the museum. When I visit the museum’s website, see the tweets in my feed, and open the app, I’m allowing the museum into my home and my neighborhood, and I notice different things.
To be clear, I’m not saying that this act of working from home constitutes user research. The role of user research and data analysis is indispensable to our work in museums. But for me, the simple act of changing up my environment forged a realization that I need to make an effort to identify with different user segments more frequently. I wonder if there is some universality to this experience—are we aware of the ways in which our environment influences our work, and are we willing to try different things to disrupt lazy thinking?
Tech companies spend a lot of time and energy on improving company culture to the extent that it’s almost a joke — well, actually it’s a show on HBO. But the serious work behind it is that there is a relationship between culture and output that is worth examining no matter what industry you’re in or how much money your organization has to burn. Tech companies haven’t just offered the telecommute option as a fringe benefit to attract talent; they have analyzed the effect on productivity and quality of output. They have taken the feedback and the numbers seriously and have invested in cultural change. And they pivot to stay ahead of the curve.
Maybe this all comes down to the work that museums have been doing in recent years to dissolve the silos of organizational departments. Almost every project I’ve done in the last year involved a cross-departmental team working together on visitor experience. How might we involve the Human Resources Department in this effort to help set up our staff for success?
What does your museum do to increase the productivity and happiness of its staff? What kinds of benefits, like a telecommuting policy, would be worth exploring?