Oxbow Bend, Snake River

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Employee Turnover Headaches? Culture May Be the Cure

Kelcy Fowler

You often hear from us at CoolWorks that one path to retention is a healthy and vibrant company culture. While that’s all fine in theory, many folks ask us, “When am I supposed to have time to visualize and create a culture, on top of everything else I’m charged with doing as HR, owner, department head” etc? And we get it. Those of us that make up team CoolWorks have all spent years in the operational trenches, so we know that as the world turns right now, there’s never been more heat in the kitchen (both literally and figuratively) than we’re living in the here and now of summer 2021.

But the honest answer to the question of when, is Now – in the heat of the middle of your season – in the midst of one of the most difficult seasons you’ve possibly ever experienced. This is when a deliberate focus on creating, shaping, and maintaining culture can pay dividends in the years to come. Whether your teams’ leadership is actively involved in the process or not, culture is being created at your organization as we speak. Culture is what happens when you bring people together, so it does and will exist at your property this season and every season. The question is, what will that culture be, how will you engage and participate in shaping it, and how will it affect your company’s brand and reputation? 

Whatever shape your culture takes in this challenging summer will cause ripples in future summers and recruiting cycles. If you encourage and foster a culture of transparency, feedback, engagement, and staff appreciation, your team will feel valued. They’ll be more eager to consider a second, third, or fourth season. They’ll be more likely to recommend a season with your organization to their friends and family. Some of the fresh faces on your property at this very moment could even become the future managers and leaders within your company. 

However, when leadership defaults or takes a hands-off approach in helping to shape the culture, other forces will step in. It’s common that employees who feel most under-appreciated, most overlooked, and most sour often have the loudest voices – and they may have good reason to. Companies of course have to maintain a focus on customer experience and sales, but creating an exceptional employee experience is equally important. Neglecting the latter guarantees a decline in the former.

We sincerely believe that culture is the most important ingredient in a company’s recipe for success. We know it’s likely a challenging summer for everyone this year, but we also know this won’t be the last challenging summer, especially for employers who fail to focus on the experience and value created for their employees. New lines are being drawn every day around what employment will look like coming out of the pandemic, what employees will expect, what they value, what they need to perform their best, and feel that they’re doing work that is important and appreciated. This landscape will continue to shift rapidly in the coming years, so it’s more important than ever to look around at your team today – and every day – in the heat of this environment of uncertainty and challenges, and try to see the gaps and the opportunities where your leadership team can improve the environment and conditions for the entire organization.

All this said, we know it’s not easy (or natural) to have your best ideas or strikes of inspiration when you’re feeling the heat. It’s hard to muster the spirit to rise to an occasion when you are overworked and exhausted and perhaps feeling the early signals of burnout yourself. So to offer some inspiration, here are three things that you can implement this week that will help you sew positive culture seeds: 

  1. Provide a locked, secure suggestion box for employees, or create a virtual version. Encourage staff to tell you what they think could be better about the employee experience at your place. None of us are perfect, so just asking for feedback and acknowledging that there’s always room to improve (and that you care about what they think and feel) can be a big win and an act of integrity to your employees. Encourage them to include their name so that you can follow up, but also make sure that they know that anonymous feedback is also acceptable and all is welcome. You want to do your best to create a quality environment for their seasonal experience. 
  2. Recreation is a positive culture creator. I know that it seems natural to ask, “Well why is that my job? Why can’t folks get out and entertain themselves?” Maybe people lose steam to explore the area on their own. Maybe it’s crazy busy and they don’t want to fight the tourists for the parking spot or the permits. Whatever the cause that leads them there, it’s discouraging that those same people who couldn’t wait to hike all the hikes and have all the adventures when you hired them now seem to find it more appealing to buy a 12 pack after work, take their place at the picnic table and hold court complaining. We’ve been there. This is heartbreaking and can feel pretty defeating when you’re doing your best to be a culture crusader. But when you put the shoe on the other foot, do you remember your first season? The person who took you out on that sailboat, invited you on your very first backpacking trip, or showed you how to tie your first fly? As much as the folks who have joined you for the summer had all the very best intentions to make the most of every moment, a series of events can lead them to that seat at the picnic table. The how we got here is a question for another time, but at this moment, the “how do we get them up and out?” is one solution to combatting burnout.

    Company-sponsored recreation opportunities can at least provide an alternative to the “there’s nothing to do” lament. While I’d wish upon a star and have every great place graced with an organization as amazing as the Yellowstone Co-Op Employee Recreation Program (otherwise known as YCERP), the reality is that’s just not a current reality for most seasonal locations and communities. While you might not have that sort of recreation muscle, everyone has got something they can do, and believe it or not, there are people on your staff that would love to take you up on it. Even better, there are probably people on your staff that have the sparkle and the energy, and motivation to help to plan and carry out employee recreation initiatives. So look for the helpers! Call around to local lodges in your area to see if they’d be game to try and put together a softball or volleyball or cribbage tournament. Even something as simple as holding a photography contest for your staff and giving out some swag and prizes from your gift store can help folks feel more engaged, less deflated, and reframe how they’re looking at the rest of their committed season with you. The message is, we want you to get the most out of your time here. Ask your team how you can help them do that, and then give a few things a try! It’ll likely give you more ideas and somewhere to go from there. My first company activities were a trip to the Alpine Slide and Dairy Queen. When I left HR I was planning Carnivals, Staff Olympic Games, and the eternally legendary Christmas in August staff party. Company-sponsored or community-focused recreation is important. It gives people a place and a vehicle to connect outside the picnic table and the 12 pack. It’s a powerful aid in culture building. 
  3. We all know and likely use the exit interview or end-of-season survey, why not introduce a mid-season staff satisfaction survey? Again, make them digital, offer the option for them to be anonymous, and incentivize employees to complete them. (Giving away a few sweatshirts or gift certificates for free pizzas to a few winners randomly drawn from survey participants is almost an activity in itself!) It’s your chance to ask for feedback not just on the staff experience, but also the department managers’, supervisors’, and upper management’s performance. We evaluate staff in their performance evaluations, doesn’t it seem right that they should get the opportunity to give that feedback as well? Give thought to how best to disseminate the information received in these surveys in a productive and appropriate manner. Most importantly, act on the constructive feedback you’re given. Responding to something that could be better in the same season demonstrates that you’re walking your talk when it comes to caring about the employee experience and staff quality of life. 

This season will come to a close and you’ll be on the other side of it before you can blink, but as we all know, the next season after that will be just around the corner. Prepare for it now. Culture is not a quarterly objective or a short-term profit target – it’s a long-term investment in the reputation of your company and how the people who accomplish its work feel valued. Keep it in your focus constantly, and those staffing woes that keep you up at night – turnover, mid-season attrition, retraining expense – will occupy less of your time and energy in the seasons to come. Happy Building!