What Senior Living Can Learn from Southwest Airlines

From branding to pricing to improving health outcomes, senior living has borrowed from airline industry playbooks. Now, one of the largest senior living companies in the country is being inspired by the employee engagement approach at one of the major U.S. airlines.

Specifically, Des Moines, Iowa-based Life Care Services LLC—the third-largest senior living operator by resident capacity in 2015—is drawing lessons from Southwest Airlines’ approach to employee engagement.

“One of the best ways of actually showing what employee engagement would look like … would be Southwest,” said LCS Vice President/Senior Director of Human Resources Yvonne Rickert, speaking Tuesday at the company’s Senior Living Summit in Minneapolis.

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The renowned workforce engagement at Southwest—often cited as a gold-standard—is all the more striking because the airline industry is so difficult, Rickert noted. Flight attendants, for example, are on the front lines in dealing with disgruntled customers or those exhausted travelers who are not primed to have a terrific experience of the company.

LCS considers employee engagement to be of the “utmost importance,” Rickert said, describing its effects on everything from quality of care to customer service and bottom-line labor costs. The Southwest model is one touchpoint that can help explain why LCS is dedicating more resources to employee engagement, and what the company hopes to achieve, she said.

Cutting Through the Buzz

LCS is not the only company that is zeroing in on employee engagement; the concept is undoubtedly hot right now, as noted by Forbes. The danger is that “employee engagement” may begin to seem like just a business buzzword.

There’s so much noise out there right now about employee engagement,” Rickert said. “But how do you cut through the noise and [determine] what employee engagement really looks like?”

One way is to look at companies like Southwest that boast an engaged workforce, in an attempt to see how that manifests. Looking at Southwest, examples abound of a unique workplace culture. It may seem like just a “funny or quirky” approach to customer service—but that in itself shouldn’t be dismissed by senior living providers.

“We all know that in our communities, some of the best things we do are quirky and funny,” she said.

As an example, Rickert shared a video of a Southwest flight attendant that has gone viral on the Internet. It shows the worker taking a unique—perhaps “quirky”—approach to the standard pre-flight announcements, enlisting the help of passengers in order to perform the announcements as a rap.

This video helps move “employee engagement” out of the realm of hollow buzzword and into an actionable concept by showing what happens when a worker is engaged. In this case, the flight attendant feels like he can bring his own unique skill set onto the job, and he does so to the obvious pleasure of his customers.

“[Employee engagement] is really about … allowing your employees to be the best that they are in their role and empowering them to do so,” Rickert said.

Translating that to senior living allows LCS to paint a vivid picture of what an engaged workforce looks like.

“It is the difference between asking a dining server, what do you do for a living, and they say, ‘I just feed people all day long, and handle complaints,’ and you ask another person who’s engaged, and they say, ‘I make the experience of my resident coming to dinner one that they will never forget,’” Rickert said. “‘I remember them when it’s their anniversary, I know that if Mr. Smith is sad, I bring him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a glass of wine.’ We are working diligently at creating that engagement at our communities today.”

3 Steps to Engagement

As for what LCS is doing to achieve this vision of engagement, one element is working with Holleran Consulting, a research and consulting firm specializing in community engagement and satisfaction. There are three main steps to boosting worker engagement, Michele Holleran, CEO and founder of the company, said at Tuesday’s event:

1. Measure engagement, “slice and dice” the data

2. Share the data with managers

3. Provide managers and supervisors with training on how to foster engagement

In terms of measuring worker engagement, LCS has partnered with Holleran to survey employees every other year. Currently, the company does not know what percentage of highly engaged employees are on the payrolls of LCS communities, but that is in the process of changing, quickly, Rickert said.

In an initial survey of 23 communities, 47% of workers qualified as being engaged—beating the typical score for a company utilizing Holleran surveys by seven points.

Understanding data around engagement is not necessarily straightforward, however; for example, an organization such as LCS that now is tracking engagement may notice that in response to efforts to improve engagement, the number of workers who emerge as unengaged “resistors” actually increases, Holleran cautioned. But this is not necessarily a bad sign.

“Now they’re battling it out for the corporate culture,” she said.

Another trend to expect is that engagement is high in an employee’s first year but then drops precipitously in the second year, at the end of a “honeymoon” phase, Holleran said. Interventions such as mentoring programs or “stay interviews,” which assess why a worker has decided to continue with a company, may help in these situations.

However, it also is incumbent on leaders at the company to make judgment calls as to whether it’s worthwhile to expend what may be an “inordinate” amount of time and resources on employees who simply are not a good fit and are better off leaving the company. To prevent an exodus of second-year workers, the initial hiring process has to be honed to identify those people who are most likely to become—and stay—engaged.

At LCS, that hiring process is rigorous, with Rickert spending eight hours with executive directors to train them on the interviewing techniques most likely to identify top prospects. These techniques include behavioral interviewing and pair interviewing, in which a current worker—say, an RN—would participate in the interview along with an HR professional, to get a sense of whether an applicant would fit in with the team. Pair interviewing also helps win buy-in from existing workers before a new hire starts.

But there’s also a more subjective quality that LCS is looking for, that is key to determining whether a person will be an engaged worker.

“Our focus in every single training we do, and in hiring our folks, is heart,” Rickert said. “If you ask [CEO Ed Kenny] what is the mission of our company, and what are we looking for in every single person, it would be the mission to serve. Sometimes … people can make you feel like they have the heart to do it, then when they get into your community, it’s not sustainable. But we know that is the first thing that we’re looking for.”

Although Rickert did not draw the comparison herself, this focus on “heart” may be another reason that Southwest is a particularly apt model for LCS. The airline recently debuted a new look with the tagline “Heart sets us apart,” and it now emblazons a heart logo on the belly of its aircraft.

Written by Tim Mullaney

Photo Credit: “Southwest Airlines (LAX)” by Zen SkillicornCC BY-ND 2.0

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