Q&A: West Point Grey Academy reflects on being a Transit-Friendly Employer

Q&A: West Point Grey Academy reflects on being a Transit-Friendly Employer

Front of West Point Grey Academy

West Point Grey Academy, an independent JK-12 school in Vancouver, is one of newest organizations certified by TransLink as a Transit-Friendly Employer!

By doing so, the school joins a growing coalition of committed sustainability leaders. It encompasses 30 organizations in Metro Vancouver, including Vancouver International Airport (YVR), Intel, and Vancouver Coastal Health.

Our certification recognizes organizations for making employee travel easy, affordable, and climate-friendly. Participating employers provide at least a 50 per cent transit subsidy to their employees, with the employees covering the remainder.

We wanted to learn more about why West Point Grey Academy chose to become a Transit-Friendly Employer and their journey so far. Zachary Strom, a Senior TravelSmart Specialist at TransLink, spoke with Leanne Schultz, Director of Human Resources, and Jonathan Pike, Director of Operations.

Why did your organization become a Transit-Friendly Employer?

Zachary: What motivated you to become a Transit-Friendly Employer?

Leanne: One of the driving factors for us is being a good steward of the environment, and sustainability is a key focus of our strategic plan.

I looked at it more from a human resources lens — what benefit could we offer our employees to not just help them de-frame the costs of their commute to work, but also help them help us achieve our strategic goal of becoming a more environmentally friendly employer.

Jonathan and I saw it as a win-win.

Jonathan: Personally, even though I live a long way from the school, I’ve enjoyed taking alternate means of getting to work as best I can considering the distance.

I’m also looking at all sorts of different ways in which the school can be sustainable.

Leanne: Also, way back in the day when I started my career working in Vancouver, my employer at the time offered subsidized transit passes.

I realized — what an incredible perk it was for staff and just how easy it made things, especially living in a city like Vancouver where things are so expensive.

Zachary: What encouraged you to provide a 50 per cent subsidy?

Leanne: We’re very fortunate as we’ve got a very motivated and educated community surrounding us.

We had a very generous donor who wanted to help us encourage our staff to look at alternative commuting methods, so that’s why we could move forward with this project quickly.

Because we didn’t need to go through our operational budget process, we could take a quick straw poll from our staff to see how many people would be interested in participating.

And then in subsequent conversations with yourself, Zac and your partners at Commutifi, we learned that we should look at targeting a 50 per cent subsidy to really get the most uptake. And fortunately, we were able to do it.

We’re governed by a board of directors who help us to set our budget allocations every year. And they’re very enthusiastic and supportive of the school’s work in this area.

And now the TransLink initiative has become more of a budget line item, so we’re not as dependent on donors.

Zachary: What workplace challenges were you hoping to solve when your organization enrolled? And how has working with TransLink specifically made a difference?

Leanne: The biggest problem that we identified is it’s far too easy to take a car to work here.

We have lots of free parking spots, and as much as we’ve got access to great bus lines, there is a bit of work for our staff during windy, rainy, and inclement weather to get to these bus stops. So that’s why we wanted to go strong initially with the 50 per cent subsidy because we felt that’s where the behavior change would start to take place.

Jonathan: Also, our teachers don’t walk out of here at 4 p.m. on any given day repeatedly. Some have schedules that are all over the map because they’re involved in coaching, have meetings after school, etcetera. Most of us are parents as well and students have their stuff with them.

We have more success on the operation side of staff, like housekeeping or kitchen staff, as their schedules are more fixed and defined.

The second barrier for our employees choosing transit is our location. We’re obviously on the west side of the city, and many staff members commute a significant distance.

Leanne: That’s a really good point about the restrictions. Thanks to Commutifi, thanks to TransLink, and thanks to my own HR information systems, I can break down the demographics of who’s participating.

Our data shows that it skews to staff who don’t have children or whose kids have left the nest or aren’t as dependent.

Benefits of being a Transit-Friendly Employer to the organization and its employees

Zachary: What advice would you give to other employers who are considering offering transit benefits but may have reservations related to budget or logistics?

Jonathan: To be honest, whether it’s riding the bus or taking other alternate means of transportation, providing incentives such as this is healthier for the organization.

So while you might be concerned about the budgeting side of things, I think employers might be surprised at the benefits of the staff being offered these programs in terms of engagement, time in school, and collegiality with others.

There’s also a bit of a buzz about it and that can do wonders for your culture and your staff — just the “what is it?”, the watercooler chat as they say. People appreciate and want to come to work.

Leanne: If this is launched and framed properly, then it’s an employee engagement exercise. And it says to the staff, you know we care about you. We care about the planet. We want to make things better and here’s the way we can do it.

If it’s not a huge factor as a line item in the budget, it’s definitely an investment worth making.

Jonathan: It’s also good that if you start using your bus passes to come to work every day, then you probably will start using your bus pass to do all sorts of other things as well, whether you’re on your way to work or on your way home from work.

It’s not just the sustainability piece for commuting to work; it’s touching other aspects of your life as well.

Leanne: It’s also neat to talk about when I’m recruiting because I’ll mention that this is one of the perks. And it’s one that really makes everybody’s eyes go, “Wow, really you offer that?”

It helps distinguish us as an employer of choice, which I always get excited about.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.