Culture: The Only Way to Fill Your Buildings

by | Jul 20, 2021

Guest article by Denise Boudreau-Scott, President at Drive

We’ll call her “Nancy from HR.” There’s one in every organization . . . oftentimes ignored, frequently thought of as a kook. Her musings about organizational culture being the crux of the problem when it comes to poor outcomes are brushed off as hippy dippy, too soft for “real” business.

“Nice contribution, Nancy, but we have to work on our staff retention and occupancy.”

Other industries have made incredible workplace cultures the really cool and profitable thing to do. And within those organizations are Nancys by the dozen; she’s even in the C-suite! The Nancys of senior living, however, are forever frustrated over the unheard message and the untapped treasure that is culture.

“Culture drives outcomes,” she pleads.

It’s time somebody gave that lady a bullhorn.

Senior Living Is Hog-Tied

Senior living has been slammed by a pandemic, and before that, racked with historic low occupancy, horrendous turnover and PR issues galore—all while a tsunami of baby boomers—soon to need care and housing—are heading straight for it.

The alarm has sounded. Leaders in this field need to wake up and take culture seriously to get out of these ties that bind. Little do they know, their culture is the thing to free them, once and for all.

The Power in Culture Change

It sounds crazy, but this pandemic provided a little taste of what “could be” in senior living. Research shows this crisis caused major culture change to happen in months instead of the years it usually takes.

Organizations were forced to cut the crap, focusing only on the essentials. Barriers were broken. There was less hierarchy, better teamwork, more appreciation and flexibility. And people liked it.

Speaking of people, they became the priority in this crisis-time culture. Like it should be.

Why can’t senior living organizations harness this microburst of culture change, embrace and cultivate it, so that it works to their benefit for the long term?

I see my clients do it all the time. Positively shaping their culture allows them to reduce turnover, agency usage and overtime, and improve employee engagement, resident satisfaction, public image and occupancy.

The last part—occupancy—is key. You may be able to get by with big overtime and agency expenditures. You may be able to keep your doors open with less-than-stellar reviews and a shoddy public image. You may even eke by with a checked-out staff. But you MUST fill your community to stay in business.

None of these outcomes is what you want, and they are hardly sustainable, but it is occupancy that will make or break you.

So, here’s where I need to convince you that a healthy culture can do so much for your organization, including the critical—fill your buildings. (Lord knows Nancy tried.)

The Lady With the Bullhorn

Recently, when we were reviewing a client’s results from our culture assessment, the only tool in healthcare that quantifies and qualifies organizational culture, we noticed a trend. It was a relationship we had long suspected here at Drive.

We presented how community A has a very strong culture, as demonstrated by its low cultural entropy score (a measure of the conflict or frustration employees encounter that limits performance). To which the director of sales remarked, “That community is consistently full.”

Conversely, the data indicated community B struggles with culture challenges. To which the director of sales offered, “And they historically struggle with occupancy.”

This trend continued through all of their communities. And when we dug through our other clients’ data, we found this same relationship across the board.

Our research showed communities with the healthiest cultures reported an average occupancy of 94%, whereas those with the least healthy cultures reported an average occupancy of 66%, well below the national average of 87%.

A significant relationship between turnover and occupancy also emerged. Communities with unhealthy cultures were creating both high turnover and low census. However, communities with the healthiest cultures showed the lowest turnover rates and fullest occupancy.

Culture drives occupancy. It’s a fact.

We co-authored this research, the first ever of its kind linking culture and occupancy in senior living, with the Barrett Values Centre.

Your Future Depends On It

The future is full of things that will challenge your position in this field. It has become increasingly clear—even more so with our compelling occupancy data—that organizations that build strong cultures will have the best chance at future success.

It is easy to be distracted by the symptoms of an unhealthy culture, such as engagement, turnover and occupancy issues to name a few. The only way to get free from those limiting factors is by focusing on strengthening your culture, the thing that’s causing those symptoms in the first place.

The timing is right for culture change. And now that the data confirm it, the stakes are too high to keep it on the back burner. Prioritize culture, and everything else follows. Listen to Nancy: It’s the only way to fill your buildings and secure a successful future.

And while you’re at it, give her a raise.

For more articles from guest contributors and senior living thought leaders on the Love & Company blog, click here.

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