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Skills for the New Environment


If the pandemic year-plus has made you re-evaluate your life’s work, raise your hand. Judging from anecdotal evidence and Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) numbers alike, there should be a sea of waving hands.

The serious drop in employment in many industries during the pandemic had many predicting a bonanza for employers when the economy started to rebound, as many workers would be competing for places. Instead, it’s a job-seekers market. People are even leaving jobs—a half-million of them in April, according to the BLS.

Why the exodus? That re-evaluation is one major reason cited. Some were unemployed, or ill, and had some time to think. Others, working double shifts, realized they wanted time to think. Some discovered that they were better off not paying for childcare. Some felt employer practices, including layoffs, had eroded their sense of trust.

But in some industries, workers stayed. The BLS average rate of voluntary termination (another term for resigning) in health care and social services is 2.6, below the U.S. average of 2.7 and well below the 5.6 rate in accommodations and food service.

While senior living has consistently had a problem with recruitment and retention, the employees who stay really stay. They get a sense of purpose, connection, and trust that they have not experienced elsewhere. When they re-evaluate their lives, they know their work is meaningful and makes a difference—and their employers recognize this.

When about 180 chief executives of provider companies responded to an Argentum survey recently about how communities made it through the COVID-19 challenges, nearly all had praise for their teams—associates and direct caregivers in particular.

“Our greatest asset is our resilient team, particularly the grit of our leaders,” was a typical comment. And: “Our greatest success was found in the resolve of our associates who walked through the door each day to ensure our residents received the best possible care.”

What are the skills needed to develop and maintain a workplace people want to return to? What can you offer that engages and cements their sense of purpose? As the numbers of voluntary separations grew, many consultants, think tanks, academics, and experts put their research and expertise toward finding out. Presented in this section is information on five of the skills that came up often in discussions of what’s needed now and for the future:

  • Teamwork: We talk about teams—but what are the factors in culture and action that make teamwork really work?
  • Flexibility: Workers want flexibility. Employers need people who are flexible. Here are some ways to make this a win-win.
  • Inclusiveness: Intentional diversity, equity, and inclusion programs are essential going into the future. But inclusiveness also demands cultural and structural changes as well as personal skills that pave the way.
  • Communication: It’s one of the top soft skills in demand in most workplaces—and it needs constant practice and improvement.
  • Learning: Another win-win: A big reason people left jobs was to learn other skills— or because they were not able to learn anything new at their jobs. A culture of lifetime learning can be a link to retention.


Teamwork is made for rapidly changing times at workplaces—as many who had to put teams into play during the pandemic discovered.

COVID-19 and the resulting workforce shortage has changed many organization’s policies about teams and how well they work. The Mercer Global Talent Report 2020 says that “as COVID-19 proved, rapidly adjusting capacity and redeploying resources is not only possible but critical to success.”

As a result of the pandemic, it reports, more organizations are prioritizing skills over roles. One in three organizations “made it easier to share talent internally” in 2020, and one in five say they plan to do that in 2021.

Types of teams change, too. The types of teams have undergone change from the classic definitions. For instance, in early 2020, articles were still referring to “virtual teams” as a type of team in itself. With the rise in remote work, “virtual” isn’t a differentiator. Teams can be hybrids of remote and on-site employees, synchronous, where all work on the same screen at the same time, or asynchronous, where team members often work at different times toward the same goal. Some types of teams that have evolved include:

  • A relay-style team can help each other cope with overwork and keeping up with communication. Typically, in senior living, one caregiver can pass the baton, picking up where another left off at a change of shift, relaying the information about residents or workplace issues during the change. Trust and communication skills help these teams succeed.
  • A synchronous team, all going after the same goal, can have a big impact and save time. An example would be a sales team that makes memorable presentations together, or a group of associates who energize the room when they all lead an activity. This kind of team can develop a unique identity that unifies them. They need to be skilled in collaboration as well as to trust in each other’s competence and that all will share accountability for results.
  • A “justice league” style team is one in which each member has a particular skill, and the skills fit together to tackle a problem. These are common in tech and product development. Members can be naturally supportive and uncompetitive because they can easily recognize each other’s roles and skills. But they also need to respect each other’s expertise and experience. For instance, the compliance hero may need to check in only occasionally to be sure that their part of the goal is staying between the rails. The communications hero, who must attend every meeting, needs to understand that compliance isn’t slacking.

Swim in your lane

To do well as a work team, act like an athletic team, advises expert Craig Wortmann, executive director of the Kellogg Sales Institute.

“In any athletic endeavor where there’s a team, each team player must have a very specific and disciplined understanding of their role,” says Wortmann.

“There’s another metaphor I can mix in—stay in your own swim lane,” Wortmann says. “It would be chaotic in a race if everyone was crossing into each other’s swim lanes.”

But “chaotic” was often exactly the word for it, Wortmann saw, when he observes teams in research or training. “They’re stepping on each other. They’re piling on. They don’t know quite how to hand off to each other, or when to say what, or who tells what story.”

Practice, practice

What’s the solution? Wortmann teaches the “selling for impact” methodology, where sales team members identify their roles, timing, responsibilities, and handoffs—they call these “the rules of engagement.” You don’t go into the room without knowing who is going to do what or answer which type of questions.

And they practice. As Wortmann points out, athletic teams practice continually—and as a result, they’re fit and ready to face any number of different scenarios in a fast-changing environment.

“If you and I are presenting to a room full of seniors about our property, what part of the story are you going to tell? How am I going to introduce you? And how are we going to endorse each other?” he says.

“When a sports team takes the field, they have covered all of this stuff in minute detail, but when it comes to business arrangements, or business selling via teams, we often don’t do this planning and practice before, quote, taking the field.”

Learning together

Teamwork can extend to many types of activities, such as innovation or training. In fact, in the McKinsey Global Survey on reskilling, respondents who said they used peer learning teams or expert coaching “are likelier to report successful transformations, which underlines the importance of the team-based learning that, in our experience, is a crucial ingredient in successful skilling strategies.”

And for many, working together as a team is one of the best parts of a job. About a third of senior living employees responding to OnShift’s recent Employee Perspectives survey said their strong relationships with co-workers was one of the most rewarding parts of their job.


“I can count on people to cooperate.”

Activated Insights uses agreement with the statement “I can count on people to cooperate” to measure teamwork in a workplace. In their polls of 102,056 senior living employees, agreement stayed fairly strong and was high during the beginning of the pandemic.

Teamwork means:

The collaborative effort of a group of individuals working toward a common goal.

Teamwork requires:

  • Professional dialogue
  • Mutual trust
  • Recognition of diversity of qualities, expertise, and experience
  • Recognition of emotions
  • Establishing a distinct identity and goals that can be communicated to those not on the team

97% Of employees and executives believe lack of alignment within a team impacts the outcome of a task or project, a McKinsey study reported.

86% Of employees and executives cite lack of collaboration or ineffective communication for workplace failures, said a Salesforce study.

83% Of professionals depend on technology to collaborate— and 82% would feel impacted without that technology, according to an Alfresco study.

75% Of employers in a Queen’s University of Charlotte study say teamwork is very important.

53% In Mercer’s Global Talent Trends report said collaboration skills are critical for future resilience.

50% Is the increase in time employees spent working in teams in 2020, compared with 2015, in a Microsoft study.


How did teamwork stand out during the pandemic? How can we keep the collaboration going? Peter Corless, executive vice president, enterprise development at OnShift, a workforce solutions and software company based in Cleveland, Ohio, examines how senior living providers can unite teams for high-quality care.

Q. What does teamwork really mean today?

A. Teamwork today is about coming together for a common goal to lead to the overall success of the organization, while respecting employees, employers, and residents along the way. While there are many goals within senior care, providing high-quality care for residents is paramount.

A major component to building great teamwork is clear and effective communication. During the pandemic, teams came together unlike ever before. Senior care organizations were rapidly adapting to COVID-19 by updating their policies and guidelines with complete transparency, often with the help of technology.

In fact, during the beginnings of COVID-19, OnShift saw a 28 percent increase in messages sent to keep staff updated (measured through its OnShift Schedule software data) and three times the usual volume of surveys sent (measured through data from its OnShift Engage software), showing how important communication and transparency is when building effective teams.

The best teams also have people willing and eager to step in to help when needed. One of our clients shared how quickly they had changed their recruiting strategy due to COVID-19.

Before COVID-19, they had usually given hiring managers a list of qualified candidates to review. But since the pandemic, they have shifted some of these responsibilities to a centralized talent acquisition team, which makes the hiring decisions and conducts the final interviews.

This has helped alleviate the workload of department leaders and resulted in hiring effi ciencies: In just one month, they were able to hire 18 new employees. This change clearly shows how important trust in your colleagues is—knowing everyone is pursuing the common goal of resident care.

When teams work well together, they foster deeper connections, leading to increased trust and a decrease in employee turnover— and, ultimately, leading to better care.

Additionally, many employees develop strong friendships along the way. In fact, one study from Gallup, an analytics and advisory company, found that employees who have a best friend at work are 27 percent more likely to report that the mission of their company makes them feel their job is important and 35 percent more likely to report co-worker commitment to quality.

Q. What are some factors that make a culture of teamwork easier to achieve?

A. There are many, but here are some of the most important.

First, show appreciation and reward employees for their hard work. With all the demands of COVID-19, many employees have been stressed and feel burned out. To help foster a sense of camaraderie and teamwork, celebrate your employees both individually and as a group.

Employee engagement technology, such as OnShift Engage, can help providers quickly and easily track who is doing well and systematically award points for key behaviors, such as consistent attendance. Managers are also prompted to recognize employees for their contributions and employees can trade in points for rewards.

During the pandemic, when many communities were short-staffed, supervisors and managers stepped in shoulder-to-shoulder with associates and other employees to help with the work that needed to be done. That willingness to assist employees with their workload demonstrates a commitment to teamwork and builds stronger relationships.

Finally, managers should make sure to keep lines of communication open and encourage a strong feedback loop among their team. As managers gather and review comments from their staff, they should take action, especially if there are a lot of negative reviews in one area. A main function of any leader in a community is demonstrating consistency in caring for employees.


Today’s workforce and managers need to be flexible about how they define and practice the skill of flexibility. There’s flexibility from the employee side—being empowered to set scheduling or locations, try out different roles, create a program, or have a voice in strategy. And then there are in-demand skills from the employer side: Being able to put your best forward while managing change; being open to diverse perspectives; exercising judgment and critical thinking in a crisis.

There’s little question that flexibility is in demand. When asked in the Prudential Pulse of the American Worker survey what would encourage them to stay at their present employers, flexible work schedules were at the top of the list, at 31 percent. The PwC Workforce Pulse Survey of March 2021 found workers said these were the top three skills critical to their career path: Problem-solving; ability to learn new skills and apply them quickly; and adaptability.

Yet for some, the challenge of having to stretch so far for so long may have lasting consequences, resulting in workers and workplaces being less flexible just as they are called on to be more flexible.

As the Deloitte report “Workforce Strategies for a Post-COVID Recovery” puts it, “The biggest challenge organizations will likely face in recovery is the tension between preparing for a return to previous activities and routines—getting back to work—while also embracing a new reality—rethinking work.”

“While many workforces have demonstrated resiliency in the face of crisis, it is important to remember that transformative change can be difficult and unsettling for many workers.”

This resonates for those in the middle of senior living’s recent major ownership and management changes, sales, and new brand launches. While these may strengthen the industry overall, from an individual employee’s perspective, the changes can be stressful and unsettling. Offering flexibility on the job can be a way to empower an employee and re-connect them to the community.

Flexing the benefits

More flexibility in scheduling was something associates sought even before the pandemic made it a necessity, and flexibility in pay through using pay cards and real-time earnings programs. During the pandemic, many workplaces offered help with childcare, transportation, and food and household basics—these could be hard to get either because of pandemic-related financial problems or because they put employees and their families at risk.

This more flexible definition of benefits will likely continue. The most recent OnShift Employee Perspectives survey asked senior living workers which perks are or would be most valuable to them—even if these weren’t offered by their employer. A quarter of workers named a flexible work schedule.

PwC’s Workforce Pulse Survey also found employees valued benefits that may not be part of the usual package, such as paid time off for community service volunteering and extensive mental health benefits.

Think skills, not jobs

Also likely to be a continuing trend: Cross-training and role-switching, once necessitated by the pandemic and now essential because of workforce shortages and changing workplaces alike.

“Roles are disrupted, but skills prevail,” states Accenture’s “Creating Shared Workforce Resilience” report. “Business leaders typically think in terms of jobs or roles, rather than underlying core skills. However, skills are the new currency and will be the key to rebuilding resilient workforces in the future.”

It also urges looking for adjacent and related skills workers have—this can allow more flexibility in management and for the employee and start an empowering career path.

Another flex test comes with the rapid advances in technology during the pandemic. Not only telemedicine, but also robotics and AI are radically changing senior living. Have managers thought about what that will mean to them—and to employees? How might this change roles and duties? What about the emotional and well-being consequences of these changes to staff and to residents? We’ll all need to be ready to learn and change.

2020: Your greatest resource

As a manager, much of what you need to know can be found in the past year. Examine how roles needed to change or expand. Recall times that certain parts of once-reliable processes and policies turned into dangerous obstacles. What kind of support did employees need to weather the constant changes? The crisis showed us where we may need to provide benefits, training, or resources—and what is safe to leave behind.


“I’m able to take time off from work when I think it’s necessary.”

In Activated Insights’ polls of 102,056 senior living employees, 75 percent or more workers agreed that they could take time off—making senior living well-positioned to answer employee needs for flexible scheduling.

Flexibility means:

Willingness, skills, and resources—on both the employee and employer side—to not only respond to changing needs and circumstances but to be proactive and problem-solving regardless.

Flexibility requires:

  • Comfort with change
  • Resources such as technology to make flexible roles and schedules work
  • Big-picture perspective—time off today might mean a more motivated employee later; a change in roles is a chance to learn a new skill
  • Good boundaries: Understanding what must not change or be compromised
  • Trust, and more trust

76% Of millennials would take a pay cut of at least 3 percent to work for a company that offers flexible hours, says a Qualtrics/Accel Partners survey.

$6.5T Is how much wide-scale investment in upskilling—training existing employees in new skills—could boost US gross domestic product by 2030.

51% Of employees said they have considered looking for a new job that has more flexibility for working parents, according to 1,000 surveyed in Bequom’s 2021 Culture and Compensation report.

60% Of employees in the Bequom survey said their companies had created more flexibility in working hours in 2020.

50% Of employers said the skills critical to resilience are adaptability, a growth mindset, and openness to change, according to the Mercer Global Talent Trends 2020–2021 report.

48% Of companies say their immediate priority in post-pandemic transformation is to reinvent flexibility, according to the Mercer report.


As vice president of go-to-market strategy and operations at Caremerge, Josh Studzinski helps senior living providers find technology that can improve engagement and inspire collaboration between residents, staff, and families. Here, he shares insights about how flexibility matters in communication and daily work.

Q. Especially in the past year, flexibility has not been an option in senior living. What can managers do to help cultivate this quality within the workforce?

A. Managers who work to modernize procedures and communication methods stand a better chance at aligning teams, and technology can help cultivate those standards. Senior living managers need to meet the communication needs of the modern workforce. Mobile devices are the preferred point of communication for most people, especially as younger generations join community staff.

By communicating with everyone via methods they typically use, managers can set a standard of engagement for staff that fits into the age we live in today.

For example, if there’s an urgent all-staff meeting, sending a mass text message instead of an email is much quicker. A mass text message alerts the staff of the level of urgency and can spread the word faster for a better turnout.

Another example we’ve seen is if there’s a weekly community newsletter, a member of the staff is usually delegated to print out individual copies and place them throughout the community. But there may be a better way to accomplish that uses less resources or time. In communities, transferring and sharing newsletters digitally ultimately makes the day-to-day work a lot easier for staff.

It boils down to the type of technology communities are using to help teams communicate and get work done. Not providing community staff with the tools and methods they’re already accustomed to puts everyone at a disadvantage.

Q. What kinds of challenges can worker-centered technology present—and how can teams overcome these?

A. In the post-pandemic era, as more teams start operating virtually, the shift can sometimes hinder responsiveness, transparency, and overall honest communication.

One of the big challenges we’ve seen for senior living staff is sifting through the constant stream of daily noise. Between text messages and emails, it can be hard for community staff to decipher what’s pertinent and what’s not.

Within communities, there will be difficult conversations between staff, managers, and ultimately the loved ones of residents that can impact their care program and quality of life.

For instance, if a staff member sees signs of early onset dementia, that needs to be addressed immediately. But it can be easier than ever to be unresponsive and hide behind devices when things get tough, which creates communication gaps among staff.

The best way to address these obstacles is to regularly have face-to-face conversations with staff to make them comfortable confronting any issues that may come along. Community managers who build trust and transparency in relationships with teams early on can foster that ability.

Q. Do you have an example of where you’re seeing more flexibility in senior living?

A. We’ve seen senior living staff getting away from the desktop computer and the office and embracing technology tools that operate on mobile devices, such as staff efficiency apps.

An activity manager in a community in Connecticut, for instance, recently told me that she found our Caremerge app helpful during the time that dining rooms were beginning to be reopened. It was very important to track who was there and who was not.

She had been going back to a desktop, but now she just pulls out her phone to take attendance, and she can stay where she needs to be.

Mobile staff apps have been helpful during the constant change communities experienced throughout the pandemic.

Prior to the pandemic, having extra time in the workday was already a luxury. Now it’s even harder to come by.


Nicole Moberg is COO at Thrive Senior Living, based in Atlanta. In an email interview, she explored the value of trust and gave specific examples of ways to keep trust strong, day after day.

Q. Erosion of trust was an issue in some industries over the past year. Do you see restoring trust as an issue going forward?

A. At Thrive Senior Living, we don’t see trust being a problem within our communities going forward, because we remain committed to the well-being of our team.

We understand that trust fractures can happen but we continuously uphold our mission to the best of our ability to ensure our team members feel seen and heard, that we truly care about them both personally and professionally, and that we are grateful for them. We value what they do every day—we recognize their efforts.

Q. What is the value to an organization of keeping trust strong?

A. We recognize the value of being relationship and trust guardians since both are too important in the workplace to brush anything under the rug. Problems can fester and become reasons why people leave if we don’t address the issues head-on.

Through radical transparency with our team members, Thrive Senior Living has remained committed to truly listening, especially throughout the pandemic, because one of our companywide core beliefs is that transparency creates an excellent environment for trust.

A lack of trust can lead to people leaving. Our goal is to always have open lines of communication with our teams and foster those relationships.

Q. What are some ways Thrive has found to keep trust strong?

A. Some instances of eroded trust stem from a lack of clear and timely communication. Thrive Senior Living has avoided this by creating touchpoints, listening circles, and focus groups with our team.

To maintain communications and enhance trust among different shifts, we developed a “Shift Change Communication Log” with the clinical care team.

Quarterly, Thrive implemented team member feedback opportunities based on Gallup Q12s [the polling firm’s engagement measurement survey], which has served as an important listening and trust-building tool among our team.

Although online feedback is helpful, it should not replace face-to-face feedback. With this in mind, Thrive implemented customer net promoter score (NPS) paired with listening circles for customers and focus groups for Thrive teams.

Additionally, Thrive unveiled quarterly growth summits with key leaders for “food, fellowship and financials” as a place for team members to learn and connect.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Thrive released the Motigram program to encourage recognition in the communities and company-wide. Through this program, team members and leaders nominate others on the spot for the great behavior they see.

Additionally, if team members of an organization or company do not feel seen, heard, cared for, or appreciated, they may be left feeling more like operational assets than valued team members.

Thrive introduced a company-wide newsletter to highlight some of the goodness between communities—such as raising $4,000 in one hour for a team member whose house had been destroyed by tornadoes. Our founder, Jeremy Ragsdale, once drove across the country to pick up a team member’s dog, so the trusted companion could be reunited with its owner.


It’s the I in DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) programs—and more. Including others is an intentional action, a part of strategy and processes, and a skill that needs exercise. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Avoid presenting new initiatives or work tasks as a fait accompli. When you can, involve people who will be affected by a change in the planning of the change. They may have an idea on how to do it more efficiently. When you can’t get their input, make an effort to give them information about what’s behind the change.
  • Communicate high-level concepts to all levels of employees. Many experts say that you can never remind everyone of the company mission too often. People can’t feel included if they don’t know how what they do every day job connects to the mission.
  • Communicate news and information in accessible ways. Have central places to go to see what’s new. Use multiple platforms and channels when possible. Go for plain language; avoid lots of jargon and acronyms.
  • Look for common ground. Connect on your mutual humanity—over concern for a resident, or over a happy occasion. People can feel hesitant to speak up to someone with power. Using your emotional intelligence and leading with empathy can minimize the differences and make people more comfortable.


It’s a best practice for inclusivity to be part of every facet of a community. Troy Yates, vice president of learning and development at Belmont Village, LP, explains the different ways the provider strives to build inclusivity into several processes and programs.

Q. Career pathing and promotional opportunities are important for inclusivity. Are these open to people in different areas of a community—caregiver, culinary, activities, etc.?

A. Our managers are encouraged to identify “rising stars” from not only within their own departments, but from other areas where there is someone who may want to redirect their career path as well.

We have a lot of examples of internal growth amongst our front-line staff, with many of them being promoted within their own department and others being promoted in other departments after making the transition. For example, we’ve had caregivers who have continued their educations to eventually become nurses.

We take a lot of pride of growing and developing our own, as well as encouraging them to find their true passion.

Our leadership training program, titled “BVLead,” is a key point of focus for Belmont Village. We have numerous examples of current managers who were given opportunities to grow and develop into managerial roles, even if they originally came from a different department.

We started an executive director-in-training program 15 years ago, and we are proud to say that 30 percent of executive directors today are successful graduates of that program. Many of them came from the departmental areas of memory programming, activities, and human resources. One of our current senior executive directors started with us as a food server and then transitioned into an activities-related role before eventually becoming an executive director.

In the past several years, we have added additional manager-in-training programs for a variety of other disciplines. I’m also proud to say that many of our current management team members are successful graduates from those programs as well. At the corporate-level, team members who have joined us through college recruiting and internship programs get a lot of exposure to various areas within the company before we align them on a true career path. We try to give them a diverse range of experiences in the hopes that they can find their true calling.

Q. What are some ways of getting all voices heard and making that part of the culture? Can you share some ideas on how to include employees in decisions that will affect them?

A. Belmont Village has a tradition of valuing and hearing the voices of all team members. We do this through various survey programs (e.g., Great Place to Work, new hire surveys based on a timeline of 7/14/30/60/90 days, etc.).

We also pilot a lot of processes before we roll out new programs, getting feedback from all parties involved to ensure we get their buy-in. From our experience, we highly recommend that you take a little extra time to pilot a new program and get feedback from your direct caregiver team before rolling it out company-wide.

Having a consistent survey process for direct caregiving staff to share their voices is important, but following up with them and letting them know that they were heard and were key in creating change is golden.

Q. What can executive directors look out for at the workplace to ensure people are working well together and are open and welcoming to new faces and voices on the job?

A. Executive directors should establish a culture that focuses on frequent connection points with all staff—new hires and current staff. They should learn their strengths, what’s important to them, what they like most about working with seniors, hear their bright ideas, and celebrate their differences.

If employees know they are listened to, it becomes the foundation of an “inclusive” culture. Having a united culture that is consistently championed by the community leadership team is critical. The executive director must take this to heart. A good culture will be sustained when you have “buddy trainers/mentors” who not only establish this inclusive culture, but also stay continuously connected to everyone they train as mentors.


“People here are treated fairly regardless of their race.”

Activated Insights uses agreement with the statement “People are treated fairly here regardless of their race” to measure inclusivity in a workplace. That this hovers around 85 percent is an encouraging sign for senior living; nonetheless, many companies are continuing and improving their learning and practices in this area.

Inclusivity means:

Taking action to include different people, ideas, voices, and perspectives in workplace decisions, strategies, and opportunities.

Inclusivity requires:

  • Learning and training
  • Daily practice—it is a skill
  • Recognition and self-awareness of biases—for instance, the assumption that good ideas can come only from people high on the career ladder
  • Resources such as checklists, new processes, and analytics to understand where an organization is, where it needs to be, and how it can take intentional action to get there
  • Trust, trust, and more trust. People must trust each other to include each other— and to be willing to be included.


You can’t communicate too much became a maxim during the pandemic. Communication had to be frequent. It had to be transparent. Also accessible—and efficient. And clear.

Many in senior living managed to hit all these standards, and the result is becoming apparent: healthy residents, move-ins picking up, and improved retention.

These crisis communication standards aren’t going away. Experts looking at workforce skills needed most going into the next era, as well as data drawn from multiple surveys, send a message that communication skills will be more in demand than ever.

Key to engagement

Even before the pandemic, employees hungered for transparent, honest, empathetic communication on the part of leaders.

Communication plays a major role in engagement; Gallup’s “State of the Global Workplace: 2021 Report” points to an interesting paradox: “Nearly half of employees in the United States and Canada reported experiencing a lot of stress before the pandemic, in 2019, and they were even more stressed in 2020, with 57 percent reporting high stress — far above the global average. But employee engagement in the U.S. and Canada also increased.”

Gallup puts the U.S. engagement rate at 36 percent for 2020, with global at 20 percent, and “best-practice organizations” engagement at 73 percent—up two percentage points in the pandemic year.

This raises the question of whether the increased communication necessitated by the crisis had a side effect of increasing engagement. Whether that’s the case or not, there’s much to gain by continuing any best practices in communication established during the pandemic, as well as by examining some important touchpoints where improved communication can net great results.

Interviews: If you think of an interview as a conversation rather than as an interrogation, says the Qualtrics Employee Experience guide, you set the tone for the future from the beginning. Conversational elements such as empathy and showing and respecting vulnerability will be important for the employee not only for the caregiving environment, but also when it comes to feedback, just-in-time communication, peer-to-peer communication, and leadership advancement, so you can find out at the interview if your prospect has these skills or will need training. “Let the conversation breathe by listening carefully to every answer,” Qualtrics says.

Feedback: Gallup research shows 26 percent of employees agree that their manager’s feedback helps them do better work— meaning many managers could sharpen up feedback skills. Another tough statistic: “four out of five start looking for a new job when they get negative feedback from a manager.” Learning to coach in order to improve performance without stepping on this trip-wire of negativity could net great retention results.

“If your organization is changing, your feedback program should, too,” points out Qualtrics employee experience guidance, which recommends asking employees at least quarterly for their feedback. Sixty-three percent in a Qualtrics study said it’s “very important” for employers to listen, but only 35 percent said their company was good at turning feedback into action. “It can be tempting to shy away from gathering feedback during times of change for fear of seeing ‘lower scores,’” the Qualtrics guide says. “However, our study shows this is the time to gather more feedback.”

Expectations: Communicating expectations comes up over and over, pandemic or not, as the most vital kind of workforce communication—and it’s not going too well. For instance, Gallup research shows “only about half of all workers strongly agree that they know what is expected of them.” This persistent and corrosive problem will show up in increased turnover and all the costs that go with it. Steps to solve this include: Have regular conversations; lead with the positives; invite honesty from employees first to establish a safe environment for it; and collaborate on workloads—don’t just dump duties on their desks.

Channels: While the remote/on-site disruption isn’t quite as significant in senior living as it is in other industries, the matter of communications channels and platforms is still sparking a lot of uncertainty. After looking at a dozen or so studies and surveys, there’s consensus: Using a variety of channels increases accessibility and improves communication; asking employees which channels they prefer and honoring this reaps good results; and the channel and the platform matter less than “soft skills” aspects of communication—that is, good communication is good on any channel.

Surveys: All kinds of surveys flew thick and fast over the pandemic crisis—it was critical to find out what employees and leaders were doing and thinking. Many worried about inducing or experiencing “survey fatigue.” Qualtrics offers this rule of thumb: “The more frequent the pulse survey is administered, the shorter it should be.”

The experience measurement company says that the problem is not too many surveys, but lack of follow-up: If respondents don’t hear about results, plans for action, or a deeper dive into an issue, trust and confidence is lost—and failure to respond to your next survey will be the least of your concerns.


“Management keeps me informed about important issues and changes.”

While the number of senior living workers in agreement with the statement “management keeps me informed about important issues and changes” dipped slightly, it is still relatively high, as indicated by the polls of 102,056 senior living employees by Activated Insights.

Communication means:

More and more often, it means listening. Being able to get messages across clearly to diverse audiences is another important part of this skill.

Communication requires:

  • Recognition that it is a skill and demands continual learning and practice
  • Resources that ensure people can communicate in the ways most workable to them
  • Training to use various communications devices smoothly and easily
  • Awareness of difference—and of the value of being aware.
  • Trust

77% Of employees surveyed said they had the necessary information to plan and adjust during the pandemic, according to a McKinsey survey of 800 U.S. employees.

61% Of people trust information received from their employer, according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer.

59% Of people said they expected CEOs to speak out publicly on the pandemic impact, the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reported.

50% Of those employed said they were more likely than a year ago to “voice my objections to management or engage in workplace protest,” Edelman reported.

+44 That’s how many points the importance of “having regular employee communications” went up on the Edelman Trust Barometer—from 10 in 2020 to 54 in 2021.

8.3% The increase in the number of emails sent after business hours during the pandemic, a Harvard Business School study found.


David Wilkins is chief strategy officer at HealthcareSource, a recruitment and talent management company specializing in health care, based in Woburn, Mass. In an email interview, he addressed changes in communication during the pandemic and trends that may continue into the future.

Q. Did the pandemic bring up any new capabilities in communication or point out any new barriers?

A. One of the key themes we heard from clients was how communication changed during the pandemic, especially the move from analog and in-person to digital and virtual. Many clients see these are permanent changes or ones that will eventually settle into a new balance with analog and in-person communication.

Three areas where this change manifested most strongly were in talent acquisition, resident communications, and in learning methodology.

The key shift in talent acquisition was to virtual interviewing and virtual hiring. Given quarantines and location lockdowns, candidates could not interview in-person, yet organizations still lost people to turnover and therefore had backfill hiring needs.

One of the things we immediately did as a vendor was to add video interviewing directly into our hiring system to enable clients to “see” their applicants during the interview process. This made things much easier for both candidates and hiring managers because all the technology was built right into the hiring system itself vs. having to use third-party solutions and their various plug-ins and logins.

When combined with all the pre-existing digital communications support for things like email and texting, video rounded out our clients’ ability to transition to an all-digital communication strategy for hiring.

And now as things are returning to normal, many clients have said they expect to continue to offer this option to speed up hiring and provide a more modern and seamless candidate experience.

Q. What were some lessons learned in terms of resident communications?

A. Many clients turned to engagement platforms that enable residents to meet with families via video and to keep up with location news via family portals.

In much the same way that video provided a more engaged experience for candidates, resident engagement platforms provided ways for families to stay connected to their loved ones across distance. And like digital hiring, digital communications tools that support family engagement are likely here to stay as they provide more options and a more holistic experience for all parties.

Q. Can you share something you personally learned about communicating?

A. I learned that in a crisis, it’s not possible to overcommunicate. Very early, even before COVID was declared a pandemic, I established a daily check-in with my leadership team to ensure we had a near real-time ability to react to changing conditions and information.

This enabled us to respond to emerging challenges within our teams but also from our clients and external conditions with immediate and decisive actions. We cascaded these communication models throughout our sub-teams to ensure that everyone in the company had the most up-to-date intel, so that they too could act with confidence.

We also made sure that all our communications were authentic and personal. If we didn’t know something or we were unsure, we said so.

The result of this model was near perfect clarity throughout the organization at all times about what we knew, what we didn’t know, and what we thought might happen. Our communications became an anchor on which the team relied: In a world of uncertainty and unknowns, our communication strategy became a source of certainty and trust.


When the going gets tough, the tough go to school. It’s what happened during the Great Recession, and it’s been a hallmark of the pandemic crisis as well. The conventional wisdom has it that people’s lives are turned around through losing jobs, and so they go after training in something they think will net better long-term job security.

The pandemic added a feature to the mix, however: An existential crisis. Workers who lost their jobs and those who risked their lives and worked double shifts alike started to ask themselves and their loved ones big, deep questions about what they were doing with their “one wild and precious life,” as the writer Mary Oliver put it (in “The Summer Day,” a famous poem that rightly makes the rounds of social media in troubled times). For many, the answer was to learn something new.

Other elements tie into this tendency toward lifelong learning: Millennials crave meaning, boomers crave reinvention, and generation X craves novelty. There are more opportunities to learn in more accessible and creative ways than ever before. Fortunately, this ties in with the increased need to learn on the job: quickly, proactively, and often.

Learning as a perk

Many of today’s workers, in fact, regard learning as a sought-after benefit. The Qualtrics 2020 Global Employee Experience Trends survey showed “opportunities for learning and development” came in at the second-most powerful driver of engagement.

“My company provides me with the opportunity for learning and development” was also the No. 1 driver of “intent to stay,” when the question was put another way by Qualtrics. “My manager helps me in my career development” was No. 3.

Qualtrics also asked workers how well their community was doing at each driver. Sixty percent said their company was doing well at learning and development opportunities—a gap that represents a chance for a competitive advantage for companies that invest in learning. Only half said their managers were good at helping them with career development—another good opening where applying resources could get a good return.

In OnShift’s Employee Perspectives survey, senior living workers also mentioned training as something that “would make their job more satisfying.”

Make the connections

But as valuable as learning of all kinds can be, workplace learning must be aligned with overall business transformation and address skills gaps to make a difference, says the McKinsey report, “Building Workforce Skills at Scale to Thrive During and After the COVID-19 Crisis.”

Its most recent survey found that organizations that addressed skills transformation in a “programmatic and large-scale way” yielded between 71 percent and 90 percent positive impact on four key outcomes.

The benefits of learning to workers also should be made clear. The Mercer Global Talent Report stated that “employees need to see that learning new skills leads to career opportunities, tangible rewards, recognition, or promotion, something leading companies are just starting to explore.”

Few companies were explicitly connecting such rewards—12 percent, according to the Mercer report. “Companies that link career trajectories and/or compensation to the development of targeted future skills will democratize learning opportunities and create a culture that proactively incentivizes business transformation,” it pointed out.

Scale and formats

As with communication, learning appears to go better when a variety of channels, formats, and platforms are used. Success rates didn’t drop under the pandemic’s digital learning emphasis, this and other reports said. But the McKinsey report states that success rate is 50 percent for respondents who cited four or fewer formats offered—and 70 percent for those who offered eight or more.

Summing up, to develop a learning plan that’s scalable and future-facing requires a great communications plan: Employees need to know how learning connects to provider mission as well as to their individual career and life development. And multiple platforms and formats don’t dilute a learning program’s success— they can increase it.

While an organization may get plenty of mileage from simply leveraging workers’ existing desire to learn, putting these additional practices into place could make learning into a powerful tool for recruitment and retention—as well as strongly further provider goals toward better quality of life and care in communities.


Top Priorities for Learning

The “skills companies have prioritized to address through re-skilling” are increasingly those that are “social, emotional, and advanced cognitive,” points out the McKinsey Global Survey on reskilling. Another indicator: “Interpersonal skills and empathy” went up nearly 20 percentage points, to almost 40 percent, as a priority from 2019 to 2020. “Advanced IT skills,” on the other hand, hovered around 30 percent for both years.

Learning means:

Everyone at all levels enjoys practicing lifelong learning.

Learning requires:

  • Resources including technology, people, and authoritative information sources
  • A culture of valuing, prioritizing, and integrating learning and training—it’s not an extra
  • Alignment with organizational strategy as well as individual career pathing

74% Said leadership development was the most important skill for employees to learn, followed by communication and collaboration, according to a LinkedInLearning study.

46% Of workers said the pandemic caused them to re-evaluate their skill sets, according to Prudential’s Pulse of the American Worker survey series.

45% Of millennials say “a job that accelerates their professional or career development is “very important” to them—vs. 31% of GenXers and 18% of baby boomers, according to Gallup’s State of the American Workforce report.

40% Of workers considered “adaptability and willingness to learn” as one of the most important skills they will need in their careers.

33% Of workers said they would take smaller pay raises in exchange for benefits that let them learn skills and subjects of their own choosing, according to a PwC Workforce Pulse survey.

19% Of workers said the pandemic has made “pursuing education or learning a new skill a greater priority.”


As vice president of learning and development at Belmont Village, LP, a provider with about 30 communities, Troy Yates had to work fast to both strategize and upgrade learning needed during and after the pandemic crisis. Here, he discusses what’s ahead in workplace learning.

Q. Did your approach to learning and training change during COVID-19—and and do you see any of these changes continuing?

A. Without a doubt, yes on both accounts. During the pandemic, we scaled back our in-person instruction and training, such as human-touch classes/exercises, and increasingly relied on virtual learning.

After months of virtual training as the norm, we were concerned that employee engagement may falter with the reduction of in-person learning. For this reason, we upgraded several of our online courses to make them more interactive, engaging, and fun—a welcome improvement that has been well-received by all.

For managers, we created a new skill development series in the form of live virtual sessions (primarily via Zoom) that focus on the learning of systems, soft skills, and a variety of other subjects. It has been a win-win, as our managers like having these new learning opportunities available to them. We will continue to expand these learning opportunities in 2021 and beyond.

Our COVID-19 Vaccine Educational campaign for staff members resulted in industry-leading participation percentages in our vaccination effort. To aid in this effort, we put together a learning tool chest comprised of in-house solutions for both group and one-on-one education. This allowed us to pull together all of our resources and systems quickly to maximize the number of educational tools available. We now have a great method to model after in the event of a future crisis.

Even with all of the significant online improvements, our teams realized that they wanted to return to the use of in-person group training sessions. Under the adherence of strict safety guidelines, we were able to reinstate them in early 2021.

Q. Did you have to do cross-training during COVID-19, or had you done that before? Why or why not?

A. Cross-training has always been structured based on the needs of the community that the employee works for. For example: if a caregiver also wants to work as a food server and that specific community wants to build their pipeline of food servers, management will have them cross-train as a food server.

During COVID-19, this practice continued, but we didn’t see the demand for cross-training increase. This was largely due to our departmental teams having sufficient staff that were, if needed, willing to cover extra shifts.

Q. Belmont Village has a strong onboarding program and in-house certifications. How are these developed? Can you briefly walk through a learning program from concept to execution?

A. We’ve had a great deal of success with our certification programs, such as the ones we developed for enrichment leaders, dementia staff, PALs (Caregivers), trainers, and safety. All programs were developed in-house by our corporate training department and in conjunction with experts associated with the subject matter. They are all piloted internally and carefully modified before they are launched company-wide.

For example, to develop our Dementia Training Certification Program, we researched various dementia training solutions in the marketplace before deciding to create our own process and content. This program uses a phased approach to cover basic dementia training during on-boarding before transitioning to our advanced dementia training process, which is our most popular training with our front-line staff.

Our advanced dementia training is facilitated in-person by our memory program coordinators, who are certified internally as trainers using a rigorous curriculum of learning exercises that are designed to make learning fun. Training is divided into two classes, which allows our staff to absorb the material progressively.

Over the years, we have enhanced our training curriculum and modified the exercises to maximize the learning experience. In doing so, we have created a learning environment that is truly focused on quality competency development, not just compliance. This raises the bar with employee confidence, customer service delivery, and a variety of other qualities. As we see more new employees who are entering the senior living industry for the first time, it’s critical that we have a rigorous and comprehensive on-boarding process that allows for some customization for the learner.

Q. Are you still supporting getting to 100 percent Certified Director of Assisted Living certification?

Yes! Our executive directors highly value the CDAL program. We will continue to require our executive directors to renew their certifications and have our new executive directors complete it.


Morrison Living, based in Atlanta, is a hospitality service provider focused on the senior living industry. In 2021, the company launched a new training program in partnership with the Culinary Institute of America: Culinary Advancement Training Series (CATS).

The program gives staff opportunities to continue to learn and grow in their career paths. Morrison Living, in an email interview, told of some of the best practices it has learned as its leaders designed and established a program that succeeds in offering staff opportunities to continue to learn and grow in their career paths.

Work with a compatible partner

Given people’s love of food and desire for superior dining experiences, Morrison Living’s partnership with the Culinary Institute of America is a natural fit. CATS is concentrated in two groups: hourly and salaried culinarians. This ability to provide high-level training for all levels of culinarians makes it a unique program in contract food management. Designed for development in fundamental and advanced skills, CATS also supports continuous growth and retention.

Ensure learning is accessible to all

A comprehensive class schedule, three hours a week of virtual mentorship, homework assignments, exams, and regular webinars with senior leadership are some of the components that provide a variety of ways to learn and access learning.

Align learning to a clear career path

Upon successful completion of the curriculum and development plan, culinarians who have been actively mentored by a regional or corporate chef will be added to Morrison Living’s list of “Emerging Leaders” for future opportunities within the company. This program can effectively provide a career path for a utility worker to progress through the culinary ranks, leading up to becoming a senior corporate executive chef.

Mentorship isn’t extra, it’s essential

Senior chefs from Morrison Living, who have undergone rigorous training with instructors at the Culinary Institute of America, will mentor CATS participants. Each participant is selected based on nominations from their regional and unit leadership teams. They then submit personal essays supporting their commitment to development and growth. In its first year, CATS will train 16 mentors and graduate 115 students.