In 2019, Watermark Retirement Communities launched Ripples, an associate engagement program with storytelling at its heart. A ripple, as defined by our president, David Barnes, is a meaningful personal interaction that creates a story that inspires others or is re-told over time.

The Ripples program is the amplification of a workplace culture that values our residents and associates as much as we value our friends and family — and the effects of the program show. Associates who are new to the program or to the company often are moved to tears when it hits them that they are valued, not as workers, but for who they are and how they connect to others.

Ripples recounts associate narratives of personal connection with residents — and with each other — to help inspire colleagues to become the heroes of their own unwritten stories. These ripples are critical to creating Watermark’s unique culture and bringing its vision to life at its communities nationwide.

Kindness ripples through communities

Through February, before COVID-19 hit the United States, we launched the Ripples program launch across 15 of our communities nationwide. We’ve heard stories of kindness emerge from associates across the organization.

At The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay in St. Petersburg, FL, associate Pam Waters regularly prepares residents their favorite foods when they aren’t on the menu, and consistently goes out of her way to improve the lives of residents, associates and perfect strangers. Her kindness was recognized during Watermark Retirement Communities’ Thrive Awards, when she was honored with The Seth Machak Champion Award. The award recognizes one individual each year for their kindness, selflessness and random acts of kindness within and outside of the community.

At The Fountains at La Jolla, a ripple provided resident Sylvia Clayton the opportunity to fly a plane for the first time in almost 70 years. Sylvia was part of Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, and a conversation with associate Bill Zachau led to an opportunity for her to relive the memories of her days as a pilot and connect in new ways with her son.

In these and many other examples, it is the sense of being a part of something greater than oneself that creates the positive culture that business journals call “employee engagement.” Whether you are looking to bolster employee engagement or launch a program similar to Ripples, here are three ways to cultivate a culture of kindness.

1. Set the expectation of kindness early, and remind associates often.

To ensure that Watermark is hiring only associates who fit our unique culture of kindness, the Ripples program has been incorporated into the recruiting process. Our vision for our communities is shared early and often to ensure that all candidates are the kind of people who want to make waves — in a good way.

Once hired, associates must complete a Ripples-specific training during the orientation process that shares how these ripples shape Watermark’s unique culture. Whether you have a formal onboarding process or are in the midst of developing one, consider adding language about how associates can cultivate kindness throughout the community in which they work. Offer specific examples, and remember to include your “why.” For example, at Watermark Retirement Communities, we encourage ripples because we believe that every interaction with residents and associates matters.

2. Provide associates with the necessary resources to do good.

At all of our communities, directors are encouraged to empower associates to create ripples and provide the resources necessary for them to do so. Although many ripples are free — sharing a meaningful conversation or baking a special treat for a resident — some come with a cost. Directors are empowered to set aside part of their budget for ripples-related activities.

Then, when an associate comes to a director with an idea, the director can provide the necessary resources to make that ripple happen. Although the need sometimes involves money, it also can take the form of arranging transportation or connecting the associate with someone in the community who can donate their time or services. At the core, it’s about encouraging ripples, even when they have a cost.

3. Share stories of kindness throughout the organization

At the heart of the Ripples program is storytelling. We believe that telling stories of associates kindness inspires others to follow suit and creates a culture where all associates look for opportunities to do good. People interact with others all of the time, and when we capture those meaningful interactions to celebrate them and allow them to spark other positive, inspiring ripples, the outcomes are extraordinary.

Once a ripple has been activated, stories are shared via the company’s intranet, where they can be seen and shared by other Watermark associates. Associates give and receive kudos, which boosts employee engagement and morale. If your company does not have an intranet, then stories can be shared via email, social media, a company newsletter or even a bulletin board in the break room. The important part is that they are shared.

As we continue with the Ripples program, Watermark is hearing countless stories like Sylvia’s and Pam’s, and our associates are more inspired than ever to create their own ripples. Employee engagement is up, and our culture of kindness has a formal framework to ensure all of our communities are following suit.

When we’re able to slow down, focus with intention and connect with another human being, we find out what moves them. Supporting those passions is how we’re able to create innovative and extraordinary communities where people thrive. At Watermark, that is our sweet spot, and the Ripples program is proving to be a successful approach to educating, inspiring and building our culture.

Aaryn Brewer is senior project manager for Watermark Retirement Communities