Senior living workers and managers have risen to the workforce challenges brought by COVID-19 with strength and creative solutions. As we settle into the new normal, what changes in hiring and retention might stay with us for the long term?
Masks and gowns. “Cover, clean, and distance.” Virtual job fairs. “Heroes Work Here” signs. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought enormous changes to senior living workplaces and workers. Managing the ongoing crisis now and into the future will require providers to rethink their approaches to recruitment and retention.
“This as an unprecedented time in both the speed and scale of disruption in our field,” says Bob Kramer, president of Nexus Insights and founder and strategic advisor at National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC).
Direct caregivers, culinary staff, maintenance, housekeeping, activities directors, concierges—workers from all roles and facets of senior living have gathered their strength, empathy, and skills, often for long hours and extra days, to keep residents safe, comfortable, and cared about. To get this degree of dedication takes attention to ensuring staff members themselves feel supported, valued, and understood.
“They’re going into what right now, in the midst of the epidemic, can be dangerous situations,” Kramer says. “They can do that if they feel that management really has their back and walks the talk.”
And as the initial intensity of the crisis is ebbing and it becomes clear this will be a long-term situation, operators can benefit by taking time to create a more holistic approach to recruiting and staffing.
“Culture is critical,” Kramer says. “The companies that will be seen to have responded the best in the midst of this terrible crisis will be those that had strong culture going in.”
One of the things we encourage clients to do is to openly communicate, because you’ve got a workforce that’s on the front lines,” says OnShift CEO Mark Woodka. Providers used the platform to relay messages about safety protocols and PPE locations.
“A strong culture enables you to truly have a team. And in a crisis, you’ve got to have a team.”
The pandemic has impacted staffing levels in several ways. Some workers have had to stay in quarantine because they were sick or exposed to infected individuals. Some haven’t been able to work because schools have closed, and they don’t have childcare. Concerns about infecting family members or older people who need care in their own families have led some workers to leave their jobs.
Key to keeping workers on the job in the first place is doing whatever possible to keep them safe—and communicating reassurance that management is making every effort. Providing sufficient PPE and sanitizing supplies is obviously important, but the next priority is being able to provide information about what’s happening at the community and how they can keep themselves and their families safe.
At Pathway to Living, everyone was instructed to “cover, clean, and distance” at home as well as in the workplace.
“Our responsibility to ourselves, our team members and residents is to realize that how we behave and act at home matters too,” says Mike Ulm, vice president of culture and brand loyalty at Pathway to Living.
“We wanted to establish with our team that this will probably be an ongoing standard for senior living.”
Communities can offer practical support to associates struggling with logistical challenges. Childcare assistance is one popular option. Another is providing free meals or sending food home for associates and their families. Measures like these help people stay on the job and feel more appreciated.
Today’s competitive recruiting environment requires operators to use multiple approaches in the search for new talent.
When Pathway to Living needed to fill newly created temporary positions, they began by asking existing staff if they had a family member or spouse who needed a job. Next they reached out to laid-off hospitality workers on job boards and social media. Ulm called the general managers of large hotel chains to invite their furloughed workers to apply.
Pathway found additional workers by taking advantage of digital communication technology. They collected resumes from applicants through Indeed, then invited qualified candidates to attend a virtual job fair using GoToMeeting.
“People entered the video environment in a main lobby room, where we would answer general questions, and then they would be sent to private chat rooms with an interviewer,” Ulm says. Almost 100 candidates attended the job fair, resulting in some successful hires.
“The pandemic has made us all up our game when it comes to communication,” says Ulm. Crisis conditions require a communication method that allows frequent updates to be disseminated to all staff members as quickly as possible.
Human capital management platform OnShift offers a messaging application within its scheduling solution. Messages reach staff through text, email, push notifications, or phone calls.
“One of the things we encourage clients to do is openly communicate, because you’ve got a workforce that’s on the front lines,” says OnShift CEO Mark Woodka.
Providers used the platform to relay messages about safety protocols and PPE locations and to deliver supportive video or text messages from the CEO.
Scheduling solutions within the platform help to optimize staff utilization so communities can draw from their own labor pool. Managers used the platform to offer more flexibility to staff and to quickly schedule people to fill gaps in shifts.
Digital platforms can keep everyone in the community safer by ensuring limited staff movement into and within different parts of communities to conform with with any infection control or cohorting plans.
Continual health screenings for employees and temperature checks may also become routine, for the protection of employees and residents alike. To make this a less cumbersome process, SmartLinx added screening questions to their time clocks to determine whether an employee is showing symptoms of illness before they are allowed to clock in.
More such technology, such as remote temperature screening, is likely to be part of the senior living workplace future.
“There’s a lot to be said for this industry becoming more acutely aware not only about what’s available, but why they need to have it and how they need to be prepared for anything like this happening again,” says Marina Aslanyan, CEO of SmartLinx.
“We’re going to have to be able to demonstrate as an industry and as individual companies and communities that our setting is safe,” Kramer says. “There’s risk in everything we do in life, but people have to believe that the risk is reasonable, and that you’re taking all the appropriate steps to protect them.”
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