Editor’s note: Carlsbad, CA-based Continuing Life was No. 2 on the Best Workplaces for Aging Services for 2020 list, released last month by Fortune and Great Place to Work. See more details here.

When we created Continuing Life to support a growing group of continuing care retirement communities, we invested in being a great place to work. 
It took a few years of work, and we’re not perfect, by any means. Fast forward to this year, and COVID accelerated our mission to be a GPTW even more. Here is the story of our journey.

Let’s start with B.C. (before COVID)

When we formed Continuing Life, we supported four residential living and four healthcare campuses: Morningside and Park Vista, La Costa Glen and GlenBrook, University Village and OakView, and Stoneridge Creek and CreekView. These entities collectively employed almost 2,000 employees who serve several thousand residents. At the same time, we likely were growing to support two other new campuses: Reata Glen and The Glen at Scripps Ranch.
Five things in particular helped:

  1. Mission and values. We codified our mission and values. Although we had a culture, we never written down the mission and values. We created our S.T.A.R. values: Service to residents and colleagues, Team success, Aim for excellence, and do the Right thing. In rolling out these newly codified values, we made sure to celebrate — and made and distributed nice pens, cups and other “swag” items.
  2. Education and recognition. We used our mission/values to catalyze education for all managers and bring recognition to all frontline staff. We invested in STAR University, an education program for all leaders including front line supervisors. They go through a communication-style assessment and also learn how to have difficult conversations such as conflict resolution and performance discussions. We also created  STAR Awards of the month, quarter and year, as well as invested in a a peer-to-peer recognition platform for all employees.
  3. Great Place to Work and Activated Insights. We invested in Great Place to Work and the Activated Insights platform. Doing so allowed us to slice and dice the data to identify gaps compared with ourselves as well as to our industry and outside our industry. That way, we could roll up our sleeves and work with each manager on his or her areas of opportunity. We inserted culture-related metrics into our performance evaluations.
  4. Pay study and adjustments to bring all wages to market levels. We invested in compensation management software to understand the market and then carefully made market-wage adjustments to ensure that all staff members are rewarded properly. Doing so was difficult to get right, because we needed to look at the skills of each of the roles to benchmark them to market wage comparables, and we have unique roles in this industry.
  5. Promote from within. Several years ago, we set out to help each entity grow its own talent and advance careers. We set a goal that 30% to 50% of all leaders at the two new locations would be promoted from other entities supported by Continuing Life. To keep track of the many talented employees, we created a “Career Card,” or development plan, for each person, including whether they would be up for relocating and how ready they were to assume a leadership role.

Now let’s look at A.C. (After – and During – COVID)

As it did with other providers, the fear of COVID hit us quickly. Foundational to our being able to move quickly and support all of the employees is the investment in our culture and each employee. Specifically, we invested on several fronts:

  1. Safety first. We focused on keeping all residents and employees safe. We shut down all move-ins and tours, and when the communities did open up for tours, they were highly selective and implemented pre- and post move-in testing of residents. We distributed personal protective equipment and supplies to employees, constantly communicating and checking to see whether they needed anything else.
  2. Full life support. We saw that many employees had food and childcare needs, so the communities provided free meals, household basics and shopping assistance and offered stipends for employee childcare assistance. All communities committed to a “no layoff or reduction in hours” policy, regardless of occupancy, and this policy remains in place today.
  3. We got and used timely feedback from employees. Although we had pushed back our spring employee survey with Great Place to Work/Activated Insights, we rescheduled it to May. Although we were concerned about overloading our executive directors/administrators with too much to do, I’m so glad we got the feedback when we did. It allowed us to hear from all employees and make adjustments in our decisions to support them even more.

Of course, COVID is not over. But as 2021 begins, we reflect on the past year and feel fortunate to have learned a lot and advanced in our efforts to continuously improve our culture. When we are a Great Place to Work for all employees, we then are the best place possible for our residents.

Warren Spieker is managing partner of Continuing Life. He joined Continuing Life in 2001 and provides general management oversight. He holds a master’s degree in business administration from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

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