Images of empty supermarket shelves have been a familiar sight in recent weeks due to the so-called “pingdemic”, but the staffing crisis caused by self-isolation rules has also led to widespread disruption in the museum sector.
It is one of a number of staffing impacts playing out in museums across the UK this summer as they grapple with the combined effects of Covid and Brexit.
The Jewish Museum London is one of many smaller museums to be affected by lack of capacity due to self-isolation – at one point, 30% of the team was self-isolating after being “pinged”.
Managing the situation is a logistical headache, says interim director Frances Jeens. Many staff have to use public transport to get to work, greatly increasing their chances of being asked to self-isolate. When they are notified they have to leave work immediately, which Jeens says can throw a whole day of planned activities into disarray.
The museum is dealing with the situation by putting new rotas in place to separate staff and ensure there is a “buddy” with a similar skillset from another team available if someone has to self-isolate.
“We’ve worked out that due to the age of some of our staff it will be early October before everyone who wants to be is double jabbed and therefore doesn’t need to self-isolate after close contact,” says Jeens. “It feels a long way off.”
Forced to close
For many museums, the impact of staff shortages due to self-isolating “will be the difference between being able to open to the public and having to temporarily close again” says William Tregaskes, manager of the Cynon Valley Museum in south Wales.
“In such a small organisation, one person contracting Covid without systems in place means we could see the whole museum having to shut due to staff and trustees self-isolating and ensuring the safety of all staff and volunteers.”
This has already happened elsewhere; in June, Nottingham’s National Justice Museum and City of Caves experience were forced to close temporarily after a staff member tested positive for Covid.
Tregaskes, who also runs the FoHMuseums network, says it is vital to ensure the views of front-of-house workers are considered at this time.
“It is incredibly important that staff listen to FoH and ensure their continued safety,” he says. “Protecting staff with perspex screens, mask wearing, etc. could help reduce the risk of staff having to self-isolate due to contact in the museum because of the measures being maintained.”
Staff capacity in museums has also been hit by low numbers of volunteers, many of whom are older and have been hesitant to return during the pandemic.
An employee at one small, volunteer-led museum says her institution has been forced to halve its opening days from six to three per week because of the lack of available volunteers. “Our revenue is plummeting and we cannot sustain much volunteer-managed venue hire either,” she says.
Ditchling Museum of Arts + Craft in East Sussex has also been affected by the lack of volunteers, says director Steph Fuller. “Covid safety measures mean we need more members of staff on in order to open safely – that’s too much responsibility to put on volunteers,” she says. The museum has also had to find cover for furloughed staff who have accrued large amounts of annual leave.
It has reduced its weekly opening days as a result of these issues.
‘Eye off the ball’
Fuller has also experienced difficulties in recruiting new staff – one recent role took much longer than usual to fill and attracted far fewer applications, she says.
Although it’s difficult to narrow these recruitment issues down to a single cause, Fuller says Brexit may be part of the problem – this summer marks the first tourist season with the UK’s strict new immigration rules in place.
Ditchling recently lost one European member of staff who would have stayed if not for Brexit. “We can certainly see the impact of Brexit in our visitor profile,” she adds. “We have virtually no EU visitors now. Being in the south-east we would often have EU students who stayed around and volunteered here. I think because of Covid we all took our eye off the ball on Brexit.”
The museum is re-examining how it operates in the long term to address these issues. Fuller believes the move to home-working could open up new recruitment opportunities for museums – Ditchling recently employed a freelancer who prefers working from home to fill a role that did not need to be done in-house.
“We’re thinking about the people we’re advertising to and where we’re advertising – how we can get the word out in a slightly different way,” she says.
In order to attract and retain staff, museums need to benchmark their salaries against comparable local employers – but Ditchling has been hampered in doing this by the stipulation that organisations in receipt of the UK Government's Culture Recovery Fund grants must exercise pay restraint for 18 months post-grant. “It's quite unhelpful,” says Fuller. “You've got to be able to pay the going rate.”
A resourcing manager at one large heritage employer says he is also struggling to recruit staff, particularly in commercial areas. Brexit has tightened the overall recruitment market, he says, meaning there are now more employers competing for UK staff – and wage inflation is putting some skill areas out of reach for the charity sector.
His organisation has also found that many furloughed staff who found interim roles have been reluctant to return to their previous jobs now that the sector is reopening.
These recruitment challenges are exacerbated by the exceptionally high demand for seasonal staff this year – even compared to pre-Covid times – as the UK tourism market is saturated by staycationers.
“So many people desperately want to continue to work in the sector and the fact that we are experiencing staff shortages is troubling,” says Tamsin Russell, the Museums Association's workforce development officer.
“We need to think creatively about how we recruit, enabling as many people as possible to work within it. Meeting their needs, part-time hours and flexible working are ways of doing this, as well as looking beyond the sector and adopting recruitment practices that attract and include rather than alienate and exclude.”