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Excellence in Human Understanding—Designing a better on-boarding experience for senior-living staff

Most would agree that human understanding is a hallmark of excellent clinical providers. Healthcare customers deserve nothing less. But what goes less appreciated is how much it matters for team members, too.

To fully flourish, healthcare organizations must cultivate an engaged and empathetic staff—which can only happen if leaders learn to demonstrate those virtues themselves. It’s these thoughtful leaders whom NRC Health recognizes with its Excellence in Human Understanding Award.

One of the nominees from 2020 is Michelle Rivard, Learning and Development Manager, and Christy Johnson, Talent Development Director, at Ecumen, a senior-living organization based in Minnesota. This article explores how Rivard and Johnson developed a new orientation process to welcome new team members into Ecumen’s culture—and spur them to perform at their absolute best.

Taking it online

The journey began with an effort at consolidation.

“Ecumen is a big organization— we have about 40 owned and managed communities,” Rivard says. “Last year, we hired about 1,800 people.”

It became a major challenge to bring all these new workers into the fold. Rivard and Johnson wanted to ensure that every team member would understand their new roles, Ecumen’s vision, and how their work contributed to it.

New team member orientation can be a powerful tool to achieve that education. But with such a vast influx of new people across so many different locations, Rivard and Johnson couldn’t be sure that every new team member was getting the same orientation experience.

“We used to leave it up to individual communities to conduct orientation,” Johnson says. “But that way, each community inevitably tweaks the process. The result was, we turned around one day and we had 19 different versions of orientation going on.”

In the long term, this would not be sustainable. So Rivard and Johnson set out to create a consistent orientation curriculum—one that would take place live, totally online, and that would be personally designed and hosted by Rivard, Johnson, and their Team.

This would help unify new team member orientation at Ecumen, and thereby help to unify the entire organizational culture.

(Note: Ecumen’s push for an online onboarding experience also happened to coincide with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the organization was much better prepared than most to bring on new team members).


Right away, Rivard and Johnson recognized that they should avoid outright imposing a vision on every community in the Ecumen organization. Instead, they systematically built consensus, involving People Services and clinical team members in the development of an on-boarding curriculum that could be truly meaningful.

“One thing we did really well was communicating about this plan,” Rivard says. “We told everyone and sought input from everyone, especially People Services team members.”

Over the course of these conversations, Ecumen staff revealed a common criticism of previous orientation efforts: too much box-checking.

Legal strictures require that healthcare organizations inform new team members about topics like HIPAA, the ADA, etc. But Rivard and Johnson’s consultations with Ecumen team members showed them how such requirements can bog down an orientation.

“We took that feedback and transformed the first three and a half hours of the orientation experience,” Rivard says. “We felt it was so important to connect our team members with our mission before we got into compliance. We set up and say, Why Ecumen? Why senior services? Why is this a noble profession?”

Rivard and Johnson firmly believe that when team members can connect to an organization’s sense of purpose, they’ll ultimately provide a better experience to customers.

“Think of all the caregivers you’d want for your grandpa,” Johnson says. “You don’t want them just showing up for a paycheck, do you?”

A higher standard for online engagement

As many of us are all too aware, videoconferences can give attendees an excuse to tune out. It’s hard for a video call to hold up in the face of real-life distractions. Rivard and Johnson knew they would have to address this issue for the new orientations to be a success.

“We have pretty high standards, and we communicated them right away to our orientees,” Rivard says. “We expect presence. We expect attentiveness. We’re vigilant about it.”

A number of tactics help to enforce these standards. Rivard and Johnson’s team, for instance, leads orientations in pairs, so that one person can observe team members while the other presents.

“That way, if one of us spots someone who’s always looking at their phone, we can message them privately and ask them to re-focus,” Rivard says. “It usually works.”

In the rare cases where orientees are unable—or unwilling—to direct their attention to the conference, Rivard and Johnson’s team does not shy away from kicking people out of the conference call.

“We’ve only had to do that a few times,” Rivard says. “But that’s part of the high standard we want to uphold.”

Far more important than these enforcement strategies, however, is making the orientation event more engaging in the first place.

Never one to lecture, Rivard and Johnson focus on making the videoconferences as active as possible. There are consistent prompts for team-member participation—opining in the chat window, annotating a document, answering questions—every three to four minutes. This way, the audience stays engaged and attentive.

“People used to tell me that if we went virtual, we would lose all the interpersonal dynamics that make our trainings effective,” Rivard says. “But that hasn’t been the case. We have those cameras on, and we have lots of interactions. No one’s passive in these orientations.”

A final touch helps to make the orientations feel impactful for all involved: personal calls from high-level leadership.

For every single orientation session, Ecumen’s President & CEO, Chief People Officer, Talent Partners, and People Services team members make a point of jumping on the call to emphasize Ecumen’s mission and extend their welcome to every new team member.

“They hop on the meeting to say, ‘We’re so glad you’re here,’” Rivard says. “It really makes an impression.”

The power of understanding

Altogether, these changes to Ecumen’s orientation have won widespread approval. Results from polls on new team member sentiment speak for themselves: 98% of new team members either agreed or strongly agreed Rivard and Johnson’s team were very engaging, 98% of them also that said they felt welcomed into Ecumen, and 98.5% of team members said the same of feeling excited about working there.

Because this initiative is relatively new, it’s too early to tell if these changes will have an impact on team member retention. But Rivard and Johnson feel confident they will.

“In general, the data backs that up, you have a strong orientation, and team members are more likely to stay,” Rivard says.

However the results shake out, no one can dispute the principles that Rivard and Johnson put into practice. By taking a thorough account of what new team members needed to feel welcome, they demonstrated empathy of the highest order—exactly the kind of human understanding that NRC Health celebrates.

Kudos to Rivard and Johnson, and to all of our nominees for the Excellence in Human Understanding Award.