Andrea Griesmar headshot

The Fortune Best Workplaces in Aging Services lists were unveiled last week, and the results were inspiring. For any senior living provider to be recognized nationally as a great workplace in the midst of a global healthcare crisis is no small accomplishment. 

As we reflect on how Brightview Senior Living not just survived but thrived in this most difficult of situations, three themes emerged as powerful lessons learned for us. We are pleased to share these insights.

Being a great place to work is priority No. 1

First, being a great place to work is at the very top of our priority list — always. In fact, the original 1990s business plan for Brightview Senior Living included this objective: Create a great place to work for associates, and the communities will in turn be great places to live for residents. Not only does this investment in associates help to create a great working environment, it just makes good business sense.

Our CEO, Marilynn Duker, was the second employee to be hired in 1982 at the company that would become Brightview Senior Living. Just as Marilynn has grown in her career with us, many associates who started as dining servers or caregivers have grown into managers and department directors. A full 41% of open director positions across both our new and our existing communities were filled from within the company this past year.

Read Brightview CEO Marilynn Duker’s 2019 guest column. |

In normal times, this “promote from within commitment” is important, because those who have been promoted help the culture to flourish at all levels of the business. Each of our communities is operated as its own business, with 100 to 125 associates at each location. With almost 5,000 associates operating in a 24/7 environment across 42 locations in eight states, building and sustaining a cohesive culture can be challenging.

The formal leadership teams of executive directors and department directors, coupled with the informal leaders who thrive across every department, work together to promote and protect our culture. They are supported by regional leadership teams, subject matter experts and an extraordinary home office group who are equally vested in the Brightview culture. That cross-functional support proved to be invaluable as we weathered these difficult months of the pandemic. 

Hire carefully, as if your future depends on it

Second, we hire differently — and do not compromise our standards when searching for service-minded and caring talent. Given our “promote from within” culture, each new hire is part of a deep bench of potential leaders. And each person we bring into our organization will, in some way, have an influence on the lives of our residents.

The first interview for a candidate is not a one-on-one discussion about experience or skills. Rather, we start vetting potential associates in a group format, where we focus on candidates’ mindsets and motivations to be successful in an environment where our main product is providing an exceptionally high level of service. “Tell us about a time when you’ve had to deal with someone who had limitations of some sort,” or “Tell us about a time when you went above and beyond to service a customer” or “What are you known for on your team at work?” are typical types of questions.

Although responses to those questions are important, our directors also are looking for body language, such as making eye contact and listening attentively to and being supportive of other applicants as they give their answers. These cues are just as vital as work experience and credentials when deciding who should get the opportunity to join a Brightview community. Maintaining this discipline in hiring is so important that we did not deviate from this model, even during the height of the pandemic, inviting applicants to group interviews in outdoor tents and video calls when social distancing became necessary. 

Do the right thing, every time

Third, our culture deeply prioritizes “doing the right thing,” which has been critical in fighting COVID-19. As a company, doing the right thing has meant protecting our associates first, and it has taken many forms during these trying times. 

One of the ways that we hold ourselves accountable to doing the right thing is to embrace transparency. And transparency was critical during the rapidly changing and uncertain world of COVID. To be able to share information quickly and openly, we created a new all-associate communication network using a mobile app — and we did it in fewer than 6 weeks! The tool made it quick and easy for our senior leaders to communicate regular updates, ensuring that all of our almost 5,000 associates have clear, transparent and timely information at their fingertips.

This network proved timely following the death of George Floyd, when our CEO reached out to all associates with a message, listened to their feedback and voices, and responded with authenticity. Throughout the COVID crisis, we have regularly communicated messages of encouragement and appreciation, safety and protocol reminders, company updates, and HR information. Our Great Place to Work scores reflect how these communications increased our associates’ trust in Brightview.

And in the face of increasing unemployment throughout the nation, Brightview community associates organized and managed two new meal programs to assist their coworkers: a food pantry for associates who needed to take food home, and a free meal program so all associates could eat a free meal while at work. These meal programs often helped some families make ends meet when spouses lost their jobs, kids were no longer getting meals at school, or associates were affected in any number of other ways by the fallout of COVID.

The free meal at work has become a permanent benefit of working at Brightview. One director shared: “An associate at my community worked a second job in a restaurant to earn money to bring his wife and children to the United States from Central America, seeking a better life. Once they arrived, this extra income helped to support his family and pay for their visas. When he lost his restaurant job during the pandemic, he relied on the food pantry to help feed his family. We also arranged for him to pick up additional shifts in another department to help make up for the earnings he lost from his restaurant job.”

We also chose to use compensation to share our appreciation for the heroic work of our teams with every single community associate benefitting from this program. In addition to “hero pay” for hourly associates, a discretionary bonus was paid to directors. After the trend of hero pay in healthcare had expired, Brightview took the extra step of making permanent adjustments to wage rates for a significant number of frontline workers, primarily those in healthcare roles.

Directors who normally received a year-end bonus based on community performance were notified that we still would pay bonuses in spite of any financial impact the community may experience in 2020. Community sales directors received bonuses to compensate for the fact that sales commissions would not be earned while the communities were closed to new residents.

The feedback from the teams was overwhelming. A director wrote to us to share her story: “Several years ago, I needed to get the kids and myself out of a very difficult situation. We were homeless for some time — staying with family, trying to get on our feet. I went back to school and worked full time while in school full time, with young children. I graduated first in my class, quickly worked my way up, and ultimately landed here with Brightview. This position has been life-changing for me, and I cannot tell you enough how much I appreciate and respect all that you (and Brightview as a whole) do for the associates and directors. I have a second side job that is shut down for now. As a single mom, with no additional support, I rely on that second job to make ends meet, and I have been worried about how I am going to manage to stay afloat until I am able to resume that. I just want you to know how much this bonus is appreciated and that it truly is going to make a difference for me and my children at this time.”

Because no program can address all the various needs of all associates, executive directors were encouraged to spend money from a COVID discretionary fund that was created to help associates. Whether for childcare issues due to school closings, Uber rides to work during disruption to public transportation services, the fund could be used for whatever was needed to ensure associates would not experience a disruption to their income or a drain of their paid time off accounts due to the entire country experiencing a difficult adjustment to school and business shutdowns.

A caregiver who is a single mother of four came to the community two days before school was about to begin, in tears, saying that she had no choice but to leave her job because she couldn’t work out the coverage for her school-aged children to do online learning. Within 36 hours, the team had coordinated changes in the schedule to move her from mornings to evenings, allowing her to be home with her kids during the school day and still keep her job.

Without a doubt, 2020 has been the most challenging year that most of us have ever and, hopefully, will ever experience over the course of our careers. In the midst of it all, we are thrilled to be named as Fortune’s No. 1 Best Workplace in Aging Services! Our underlying commitment to our associates, to transparent leadership and to simply doing the right thing proved to be invaluable in allowing us to weather this storm and emerge stronger on the other side.

Doug Dollenberg Jr. is president, Andrea Griesmar is senior vice president, operations, and Julie Masiello is senior vice president, technology and marketing for Brightview Senior Living.

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