The Future of Senior Living Corporate Offices: Leisure Care, Asbury, Solera Adapt to Covid-19

When interviewing for a job with Solera Senior Living earlier this year, Janale Flores went to the coworking space near Denver where the company’s corporate team was based. She got the job, but she never returned to that office space, due to Covid-19.

“My first day was actually at home,” Flores told Senior Housing News. “We had the laptop shipped to my house. I had to switch gears pretty quickly, as far as how we were all working.”

The rapid shift to working from home made for an unusual start to Flores’ senior living career; she has a background in hospitality and commercial real estate, and joined Solera as corporate director of human resources. But, the experience overall has been positive, she said — and Solera’s leadership has no immediate plans to return to a physical office space.

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Having launched in 2016, Solera made a hiring push last fall, including adding some new corporate roles. Still, the executive team remains lean, at just five people, making it relatively easy to switch to remote work.

The pandemic forced senior living corporate teams of all sizes to work from home. And now, providers are contemplating the future. They are determining when workers can return to offices and how to ensure their safety. They are also evaluating lessons learned through this large-scale, forced experiment in remote work in order to make longer-term decisions about how much office space is needed and what policies will best support workforce productivity, satisfaction and safety.

Leisure Care’s office at the epicenter

With about 55 communities across the country, Leisure Care is one of the 20 largest U.S. senior living providers — and it has the corporate team to support that scale.

About 100 people work out of its headquarters in a downtown Seattle highrise, so Covid-19 presented a significant logistical challenge. And there was little preparation time and numerous uncertainties, given that Seattle was the first major metropolitan area to be struck by Covid-19 in the United States.

“We were the epicenter, so we probably got a jump on most companies and closed our office fairly quickly,” LeisureCare CEO Dan Madsen told SHN.

It was not clear in those early days whether the office would be closed for a week or for a much longer period, but it was clear that associates had to be equipped with the right tools to communicate remotely. The IT team “understood immediately” what was needed and was “incredible” in their response, Madsen said.

Thanks to those efforts, the company’s coronavirus task force was able to communicate frequently on Zoom, WebX and other platforms.

“We were meeting every morning, online and on the phone, discussing what’s going on, what our next moves were, and getting input from everyone,” Madsen said.

In those first days and weeks, the corporate team went through a lot of training on how to use all the online tools and platforms in order to maximize efficiency and productivity. And after transitioning to remote work on the fly, the company settled into new processes and routines that have proven effective in the months since.

“We’ve been so productive and so efficient,” Madsen said. “People work so well from home, [even while] going through such a difficult time.”

A significant proportion of Leisure Care’s corporate workforce traveled often, so remote work was built into the system to some extent already. But Madsen attributes the success of Leisure Care’s work-from-home approach in large part to the relationships that the team built through years of working together in person. In some cases, Leisure Care employees have been colleagues for decades, creating a strong culture that now translates into the new way of working.

Madsen is asking himself how much flexibility Leisure Care can maintain with work from home policies on a go-forward basis, while still nurturing its culture. He believes that being together, in person, remains crucial.

“How we build culture is togetherness — sharing passions together, breaking bread together, enjoying each other’s company, brainstorming and getting ideas and solving problems,” he said.

Well-established, large companies like Leisure Care face structural challenges even if they do want to transition to remote work on a larger scale. For instance, they have existing leases on their office space, Madsen pointed out.

“Restructuring a lease and saying, everybody’s going to work from home, or we’re going to take 30% less space, that would be great if we could put that in the equation, and perhaps we’ll be able to at some point,” he said.

For the moment, however, he’s not considering cutting back any corporate office space, but is contemplating how the company can continue to grow without adding additional space.

The focus currently is on safely reopening the headquarters as authorities in Seattle and at the state level allow workers to return. Cleaning stations have been installed, conference rooms have been reorganized to accommodate social distancing, and the team has been prepped on policies such as mask wearing.

“We are very, very prepared,” Madsen said.

Asbury adapts a next-gen office

When Doug Leidig became CEO of Asbury Communities five years ago, he wanted to encourage a more collaborative culture. Moving into a new corporate headquarters without any private offices was one dramatic step toward meeting that goal.

But eliminating 30 private offices was only one notable aspect of the new space in Frederick, Maryland. The headquarters also features collaboration areas such an “ideation room” where people can draw on the walls; creative use of flooring and ceiling styles, rather than walls and partitions, to define spaces; and a technology infrastructure to enable people to work throughout the space, while supporting and promoting collaboration.

That tech backbone has proven its worth during Covid-19, Leidig said in a recent appearance on SHN TALKS. Because they were moving around the office every day and working in various locations, associates were already used to being mobile and had the appropriate devices.

Asbury considers every team member within the company — including those based out of the corporate office — to be an “essential worker.” As such, they are allowed to work out of the office if they choose, but Asbury encouraged people to work from home.

The new corporate office design has been beneficial during this time, as the open layout provides plentiful space for people to maintain social distancing and enables strong airflow, Leidig said.

The increase in remote working has also gone well. Like Madsen, Leidig points to a culture of trust and accountability that was already established at Asbury. The organization has not implemented any specific tools to track productivity and has not encountered any issues, even though people are working more flexible schedules.

For instance, some workers are online for a few hours in the morning, then spend time with their children who have not been in school during the pandemic. Later in the afternoon and into the evening, these associates are back online and finishing up work. Meetings are now sometimes taking place outside of traditional business hours to accommodate these schedules.

Going forward, Leidig anticipates a “hybrid” model, in which work from home is more commonplace than in the past, but people still come into the office on some days. This approach should not only help maintain worker health and wellbeing, but also broaden the pool of potential employees, he thinks.

Creating the new corporate office was a significant cash investment of $600,000 for Asbury, but generated a projected savings of $6 million due to reduced rent and other factors. The space also created value in other areas, and Leidig believes the corporate office will continue to pay off despite Covid-19. For instance, applicants outside the traditional senior living pool — particularly young people — have been more attracted to jobs at Asbury thanks to the innovative building.

“People come in here and they say, wow, this is not what I was thinking it would be,” Leidig said.

Solera embraces a remote future

While Leisure Care and Asbury have made significant investments into their corporate office infrastructure, Solera has more flexibility as a smaller and more recently founded company. Given that their lease on the co-working space was coming up soon, the corporate team is fully embracing remote working for the foreseeable future, Flores said.

“It’s proven that we’re all highly efficient and effective,” she said, of how the team has worked from home during Covid-19.

In addition to cutting overhead costs related to a physical office space, remote working should help Solera recruit the best talent regardless of where they live — and, Flores does not believe that remote working necessarily compromises company culture.

“I feel more connected now than I have in any other industry — we stay in touch on a daily basis, trying to support each other,” she said.

Having a glimpse of co-workers’ children in the background during Zoom meetings, or otherwise getting a sense of their home life, creates bonds that were harder to establish when working in an office, she believes. Such bonds help cement the culture that Kaplan described when Flores was interviewing.

“He said, I’m a big believer in both personal and professional successes,” Flores said. “I think that’s the culture he’s creating.”

And as a single mother of an 8-year-old son, she also has appreciated the flexibility that remote working enables.

Her typical routine is to start the work day a little before 8 a.m., take a break around 1 p.m. to situate her son with his daily online learning and support him in that, and then work through the afternoon. Not having to commute adds to her productive time.

Cutting out the commute and other aspects of remote working should make jobs at Solera more accessible to a wider, more diverse pool of applicants, Flores believes. But she is also sensitive to the fact that not every potential employee is on a level playing field when it comes to working from home. Only people who have a comfortable space in their home, with the right internet access, tech hardware and other tools, can succeed.

To that end, Solera is committed to supporting workers in this new environment. That means asking employees if they have all the tools they need to work from home, and what pain points they may be experiencing — and having a culture in which they feel comfortable answering those questions honestly, Flores said.

“If they need a backdrop to wall off a private area of their home … if they need two monitors, if they need a printer, if they need the correct chair, I think those are the basics that, as a good employer, we need to provide for our employees,” she said.

And while she understands that creating a virtual corporate office may not be possible or desirable for every company — whether in senior living or other industries — Flores does expect that it will become more commonplace due to the benefits in efficiency and productivity, cost savings and access to talent.

“I think more employers are seeing that right now,” she said.

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