Visible Culture Creates an Engaged Workforce

Five key drivers hold the solution to many labor challenges.

By Jennifer Sodo

Our industry is in an unprecedented time of staff shortages, stress and burnout. A recent OnShift survey of senior living workers indicated that 90 percent of leadership reported high or elevated levels of stress, and 80 percent of caregivers and hourly employees are facing critical levels of burnout. 

We know there are a lot of challenges contributing to these numbers, many of which require systemic economic, political and social shifts well beyond the scope of what an individual provider or community can address. However, providers do have control over one big factor that can significantly impact staff recruitment and retention: the physical space.

The spaces we inhabit can have physical and psychological impacts on our health and well-being. They can change our mood, raise or lower our vital signs, and make us feel big or small. The proportions, organization and characteristics of spaces shape our daily lives in profound ways, and these spaces become visible indicators of culture. 

In today’s workplace culture, a convergence of people, places and technology lie at the heart of an engaged workforce. When we provide a meaningful experience for employees through the right technology and the right space, we can elevate the experience of the employees — therefore elevating resident satisfaction, visitor experience and even business results.

Over the last few years, our workplace strategy experts at EUA conducted extensive research and surveys on worker engagement. We wanted to understand what characteristics of our physical spaces are stressing us out and what we can do to address them — and, better yet, set the course for high employee engagement through design. From this research and analysis, five drivers of an engaged workforce emerged:

1) Safety and security

Communities must address their employees’ most basic needs, including safety, personal comfort and inclusivity. To keep and elevate our diverse talent, our spaces must reinforce a culture in which all viewpoints are valued, voices are heard and every employee is encouraged to make a meaningful contribution.

2) Brand and identity

For today’s worker, just having a job isn’t enough — they want a career that gives them a sense of purpose and allows for display of their personality, individually and collectively. When employees can connect with each other, residents and families on a personal level beyond their daily tasks, they build a shared bond that motivates their engagement.

3) Well-being

Providers must demonstrate that they care about the whole person, not just the “employee,” to attract and retain top talent. The American Institute for Preventative Medicine reports that for every $1 invested in worksite wellness programs, companies experienced an average savings of $5.82 in reduced absenteeism. Beyond programming and amenities, communities should provide convenient access to indoor or outdoor multi-sensory nature experiences for employees, which can lower stress.

4) Knowledge sharing

Whether you’re concerned about staff turnover or upcoming retirements, knowledge sharing is critical to building strong teams and fostering a culture of growth. Open communication facilitates a two-way street of learning between supervisors and employees and creates better environments for both employees and residents to thrive.

5) Trust and empowerment

A 2017 article from the Harvard Business Review found that organizations with a high level of trust among their employees had elevated levels of worker productivity and engagement. Employers can show trust through providing varied workspaces and empowering employees to have control over their environment and tasks when possible.

The experience of an engaged workplace

Employees in seniors housing communities are met with unexpected situations every day. Having clear entry sequences, health and safety procedures, and appropriate comfort and acoustic controls can make these situations easier to navigate. 

Creating a clear, comfortable entry sequence — both spatially and procedurally — for employees is also important to set the tone for their belonging in the community. From the moment an employee enters a community, the space should reflect the organization’s identity. Beyond environmental graphics we typically see in lobbies, our spaces should celebrate organizational values, team success and employee personalization as much as it highlights residents’ personalities.

It’s not uncommon in senior living communities that offices, breakrooms and other staff spaces are relegated to less desirable parts of the building, often without access to natural light and nature. Communities should prioritize access to nature for employees as much as they do for residents. 

Beyond that, providers should evaluate use of resident-facing amenities for employees and design for flexibility in this extended use. When it’s not practical to include certain services onsite, consider partnering with nearby providers for desirable amenities like grocery assistance, meal preparation, child care and continuing education.

Balancing opportunities for engagement and respite is particularly important in seniors housing communities, not just between employees, but also between employees and residents. Employees can’t be expected to be “on” all the time around residents and visitors; they need space to recharge or do focused work. 

Community leadership should empower employees to utilize a variety of public, semi-public and private spaces to work. This choice allows them to be self-directed in their work and control their level of access to other employees and residents. 

Understanding transparency and privacy in our spaces is also key. The use of decorative screens, sidelites or glass doors where appropriate can provide varying levels of physical and visual access, lowering the first barrier to open communication.

What does your building say about your culture?

There’s much more nuance to each of the five drivers of an engaged workplace than we have space to unpack here. Ultimately, these drivers are intended to be a framework for conversations as providers work with their own employees, stakeholders and designers in creating spaces for their employees. 

We encourage providers to get as much feedback as possible from their employees through anonymous surveys or small group meetings. Understanding their specific pain points will help guide the conversations around these drivers and the eventual design of their space.

We all win when we can create spaces that lower stress and encourage employee engagement. Stress is contagious, and employee engagement and resident satisfaction are often correlated. The better we take care of ourselves and our employees, the better we can take care of our older adults. 

Whether we’re starting from scratch with a new building or repositioning an existing space, we should be intentional about seeking ways for our environments to lower stress and encourage an engaged workplace.

Jennifer Sodo is the senior living market leader at EUA, based in Milwaukee.