How to Score Rockstar Senior Living Staff by Building Smarter

In recent years, the innovative work of senior living designers has helped ensure it’s a great time to be a senior living resident—and more and more, designers are working to make sure it’s a great time to be a senior living employee.

Arguably, designers of senior living communities are catering to residents’ wants and needs more than ever before. Yesterday’s regimented dining rooms have given way to today’s grab-and-go bistros, for instance. And as a senior living resident, you can often move from a full-service salon to a cocktail bar, a “man cave” or a movie theater, all without leaving the building.

Increasingly, senior living designers are also taking the wellbeing of senior living employees into consideration—and that could lead to improved employee retention in an industry that so badly needs it, according to experts. 

Designing for senior living employees

In general, the best workplaces are designed with both the wellbeing of the staff and the consumer in mind, argues Thomas Stat, the chief operating officer at IA Collaborative. Stat summarized his thoughts in a piece titled “Humanizing the Workplace: Using Design Principles to Inspire Workplace Thinking,” which was recently published as part of Sodexo’s “2016 Workplace Trends” report.

The design of a workplace can impact various levels of an employee’s experience, sometimes on a subconscious level, Stat explains.

“Design principles, acting as a set of guardrails, can help direct and shape the promise and trajectory of approaching the design and maintenance of workspaces by inspiring new thinking, fine-tuning directions and guiding decision-making processes,” Stat writes.

That means the way senior living communities are designed can consciously, or unconsciously, impact staff members’ attitudes, workflows, efficiency and chances of burnout. Stat offers some universal tips for how to “humanize” the workplace through design, and Senior Housing News spoke with a senior living architect and a senior living provider who have both leveraged these ideas to great success.

To best engage and retain employees workplace designers should:

1. Take ‘play’ seriously.

Work should not be “all work, no play,” especially because “play” —whether in the form of team-building exercises, ping pong or stress-free time—has so many benefits.

“Especially in group play experiences, we learn about the learning, communication and personality styles of our fellow workers, and that understanding not only humanizes the workplace, but nurtures imagination, improves productivity and elevates fulfillment,” Stat writes.

At senior living communities, encouraging play can be done by letting employees use the same services and amenities available to residents, Rocky Berg, principal and director of senior living business development at Dallas-based three: living architecture, tells Senior Housing News.

“Our more progressive clients find a way to share some of the wellness aspects of their communities with their employees,” Berg says. “Employees can enjoy the pool, they can work out in the exercise rooms.”

This approach has worked out well for Texas-based Avanti Senior Living, Chief Operating Officer Lori Juneau-Alford tells SHN. When new employees first join Avanti, they have the opportunity to choose a spa service or take an exercise class with residents free of charge. Perks like these have created a culture the company is proud of, and have resulted in Avanti becoming the senior living workplace of choice in its markets, Alford says.

The difference in attitude between employees who work at Avanti and the employees who work at Avanti’s competitors is stark, she says—even though Avanti has “stolen” staff from its competitors.

“Our employees dress for success, they’re happy, they just seem different in a positive way,” Alford says. 

2. Respect privacy and mindfulness.

Employees shouldn’t feel as though they are “in the middle of things” all the time; in fact, having quiet spaces at work to think or relax has long-term benefits, Stat says.

“The science of the new mindfulness is simple,” Stat writes. “Even very short periods of inner quiet can dramatically expand our ability to focus, improve our judgment and allow us to communicate more clearly.”

Berg knows this idea to be true, and has designed small, 6’x6’ rooms in senior living communities for personal phone calls, he tells SHN.

3. Blur the organization.

Breaking down perceived barriers and enabling employees at every level of an organization to be heard creates a fantastic working environment, Stat argues. In fact, a traditional “top-down” leadership approach can hinder progress and innovation.

“Unfortunately, when the business goal is innovation, growth and sustainable success, the siloed, hierarchical, command and control model has proven to be an actual barrier to the very business goals and higher aspirations that exist,” Stat writes. “Blurring organizational lines and actually allowing people to ‘cross-pollinate’ is actually a tremendous advantage when developing a ‘what’s next’ goal.”

Senior living designers have found ways to blur the lines between residents and staff, as well as caregivers and administration, to great effect. And the lines can begin to blur in the break room.

“Break rooms are break rooms,” Berg tells SHN. “But there are ways to improve them.”

For instance, try to outfit break rooms with nice cabinetry, sinks, microwaves, refrigerators and personal lockers, among other things, he says. In many cases, though, senior living break rooms are still in the “back of the house.” It’s still possible, and important, to get natural light in those places, Berg says. And since the break rooms are meant to be used by a younger person, they can be brighter, more colorful and “a little more contemporary,” he adds.

“It’s also important that you don’t lower the bar in terms of finishes, and you should turn materials every seven years all around,” Berg notes.

Avanti has taken all of this advice to heart, and then some.

“When designing our buildings, we need to show that our team is genuinely important to us,” Alford says. “They’re equally important to us as to our residents.”

Avanti’s team lounges are actually the front of their buildings, Alford says. And they’re large, outfitted with everything a staff member would want.

“It’s a really big, inviting room, with all the same finishes that the rest of the community has,” Alford says. “It has charging stations, white boards, a dart board, a TV and bean bag chairs, and each community has either ping pong, air hockey or foosball for the team to play.”

Staff should also have a designated entrance, preferably one that leads into the break room itself or into administrative offices, Berg suggests.

“That starts the day right from the get-go,” Berg says. “Whatever you do, don’t bring staff into the building through the service dock.”

Written by Mary Kate Nelson