Workplace Healthy: Making ‘Employee Experience’ Impact Your Business

by RaeAnne Marsh


Employees do their best for employers who do their best for their workforce. An environment that fosters a healthy attitude results in stronger employee engagement and, ultimately, productivity. And this healthy work environment encompasses employee benefits, company culture and physical space in addition to wellness programs.

For those who wonder what motivates and entices business owners, managers and employees — it may be a surprise to learn that they are the same things that keep business consumers coming back for more. In fact, the new phrase in the human resources world is “employee experience,” according to Lenny Sanicola, senior practice leader of professional development for nonprofit human resources association WorldatWork. “It’s similar to the employer value proposition,” he says.

Benefits to Build Employee Experience

Explaining that “experience” encompasses many things, Sanicola notes employee benefits now is broader in scope than it used to be. “Historically, benefits fell into three umbrella categories — health and wellness, retirement, and time off.” Those are all still important to the employee experience, but other benefits have come to the forefront.

Culture is one of those benefits, according to Sanicola. Potential employees look at how people treat each other and whether or not it’s a respectful and dignified environment. They consider, “The person I will report to on the team — what is he like?”

Flexibility is big now — employees’ flexibility to manage their time. They question, “Do I feel tethered to the smartphone or laptop? Is there demarcation between work and personal time? And do I have the flexibility to accomplish that or do I need to be ‘on’ 24/7?” Sanicola explains.

Along with that is trust. Employees appreciate the trust inherent in being empowered to make decisions as they fulfill the responsibilities of their job.

More attention is being paid now to the physical space, such as general décor and the arrangement of work cubicles, as part of the employee’s assessment of an employer’s benefits.

And wellness is another valued benefit. “Is there a culture of health?” asks Sanicola. Regarding encouraging people to focus on stress reduction, for instance, is it just lip service or is it inculcated into the culture?

A trend in HR is also looking at what the company is doing to differentiate itself in the work-life benefit arena, Sanicola says. “It’s about helping people have a good professional life and personal life — and helping them integrate it.”

This is where financial fitness comes into the benefits picture. It came out of the recent recession, when employers were scaling back on traditional benefits, as a way of helping employees get through that, Sanicola explains, and continues to be a big trend. It is actually part of a total wellness program that includes physical wellness initiatives, but addresses financial stressors such as saving for the future and addressing budget issues.

Also falling into consideration of benefits because of its importance in attracting and retaining talent is professional development and the need to make work challenging. “Employees want to continually keep learning and be challenged,” Sanicola says. Even if there is not much opportunity for vertical promotion, employers can offer horizontal growth that allows employees to learn new skills. On-the-job mentors is one way an employer can help an employee grow as an individual.

“In the need to manage talent, a company’s needs change,” Sanicola says. “But employers need to figure out, ‘What is our goal, our business model, the kind of employee we want — and what will it take to get those employees on board and sustain them to work for us?’”

Know the Company You Keep

Businesses now recognize that a strong employer brand is key to attracting and retaining talent. The employer brand is about the culture, and the experience employees have. Says Denise Gredler, founder and CEO of BestCompaniesAZ, “When employees strongly identify with the mission and the message of a company, it’s more likely they’ll stay.” And she notes that, because talent has become scarce, more companies are becoming aware of the importance of employer branding. “It’s not an option anymore. It’s now the norm for companies to focus on culture, and they also know that once they establish a strong company culture they need to promote it in the community.” She adds that being recognized on a list of top companies is seen as a great way to promote employer brand.

“Here in Arizona, the most talented workers are in the enviable position of having plenty of choices about where they deploy their talent,” says Michelle Sirott, practice director for the Phoenix office of management consulting firm Point B. “And they’re not just selecting employers based on salary and a list of perks.” She has seen a profound shift toward a purpose-driven workforce that is looking for meaning in their lives and their jobs — and this is not confined, per popular stereotyping, to millennials. “We see candidates across the age spectrum who all want the same thing: to apply their talents in pursuit of a larger purpose; to work for a company that genuinely cares for them; and to surround themselves with people who share their values and who they enjoy being with.” And she emphasizes, “One thing is certain: Employees are seeing through ‘happy talk’ about perks or values. They want to see culture in action — in their lives.”

Using Southwest Airlines to illustrate the power of culture as an attraction tool, Sanicola relates, “Years ago, Southwest wasn’t the highest payer in the industry, but it got zillions of applications because people had heard about how they were treated, such as being empowered to be funny.” But a business cannot just copy another’s culture, he notes. “Every organization is made up of different personalities and objectives.” So it must develop a culture that works for the company — its demographic and the type of employee it wants to attract.

For Point B, choice is key to its culture. “Our employees have the power to choose how much time they take off; they have influence over staffing decisions; can choose unique, tailored career paths; and much more. We want our people in the driver’s seat of their own career,” Sirott shares. “And they own their schedule based on client needs — an unheard-of perk in the industry. This flexibility gives our consultants the time to incorporate work into life, instead of the other way around.”

Emphasizing that it doesn’t matter what “everyone does,” Sirott believes healthy cultures may even inspire decisions and actions that challenge the status quo. This includes being willing to sacrifice “business as usual.” For example, she says, “Our associates have the choice to decline an engagement that doesn’t appeal to them. When they exercise this choice, the firm sometimes loses money. Why would we do this? When we tell our people that ‘choice’ is one of our values, we walk the talk. We want people to be doing the work they’re passionate about, and that shows up in their productivity and the client outcomes they deliver. It’s a sacrifice worth making in order to have the company we want. And, by the way, we’ve seen these types of short-term sacrifices often result in long-term gains.” Being true to one’s authentic culture, she adds, “makes it easier for the truly great people in your industry to find you.”

Noting a trend toward more elaborate and unusual perks, and observing, “Companies try to be like Google,” Gredler says, “Beer kegs and free lunches are fun, but it’s important to realize that, while perks are great, they are not what determine culture.” She believes culture comes from trust, a shared vision and mutual appreciation, and has found that only when the perks come from a sense of appreciation do they support the culture. And she notes, “Appreciation is the greatest perk of all, and it costs absolutely nothing.”

Culture underlies the overall workplace environment, impacting employees’ physical, mental and emotional health. In terms of the latter two, a workplace can serve some of the same functions as a family, Gredler observes. “Trust is vitally important, and the sense that the team and manager are looking out for you.” Respect and appreciation not only create an emotionally healthy environment, but a more productive one, she points out; on the other hand, a fearful or distrustful environment hinders success for both employees and the company. Observing, “Leadership is the key,” Gredler believes good leaders are those who build a culture in which employees are empowered, feel appreciated, share a vision, and feel their work is meaningful.

A Feel-Good Habitat

“There are huge changes in terms of attracting talent,” says Adam Goodman, president of Goodmans Interior Structures, the third generation to lead the family business. “We’re helping companies express their unique culture and purpose and character in the design of their space.” In fact, Goodman notes he has hired a person to focus full-time on working with clients to understand their unique character and purpose, and translate it into the physical space.

Says Goodman, “It’s important to be supportive of who the individual people are and how they work and what they need to do their work.” Comparing current trends in design plan to the old-style, dehumanizing banks of cubicles, he relates, “You feel a different energy, because the space is designed for humans, not to fit boxes into a space.” In fact, he notes that people feel before they think. “When you walk in to a workplace, you intuitively evaluate the organization’s culture, purpose, attitudes and beliefs before you even have a chance to intellectually process the data.”

Workers have begun to bring a consumer mindset to their employment decisions, and this compels them to pick and choose where they work based on factors like their changing moods, their specific tasks, the need for collaboration, the need for technology, their preference for privacy or their yearning to be inspired.

“We encourage customers to think of their office as a ‘habitat.’ The word implies that the environment has an impact on its occupants,” Goodman explains. “If a company wants to create an intentional culture, we work with them to create the habitat that supports that culture.

“The physical workplace is an important culture-shaping tool that companies can’t afford to ignore; just as a penguin can’t survive in a lion’s habitat, the wrong workplace habitat will dampen leadership’s efforts to foster the right culture,” Goodman notes.

Design of furniture is also evolving. Addressing the growing awareness that “sitting is the new smoking,” technology is going far beyond the simple concept of ergonomics. Observing, “Not all sitting is created equally,” Goodman describes dynamic chairs that promote active movement, changing posture and direction. “But even sitting in those chairs all day isn’t good.”

Standing desks are an option that has been around for decades. Other variations on the desk include a cycle desk that incorporates a reclining bicycle and a treadmill desk that works up to a brisk walk. Goodman shares that he finds a perfect use for the treadmill desk is with conference calls. A shared unit, not a primary desk, it has a dedicated computer to which users log in.

But the latest advance comes from Stir — a kinetic desk that raises from sitting height to standing height. “You set goals for how much you want to stand — per day, per week, per session. It knows when you’re there, and it tracks your time so that if you travel it will prompt you as to how many more hours you have left to stand,” Goodman relates. It will pulse slightly to alert the user, then rise to the predetermined height for the set period of time. And it will learn its user’s preferences as to what time of day the user prefers to do sitting or standing work.

Goodman says he is now showing the Stir Kinetic Desk to insurance carriers, talking to them about giving an incentive of some kind to people who use the desk. It is recognized that standing improves health over static sitting, but “just because you lead a person to a standing-height desk doesn’t mean he will stand,” Goodman observes. The difference with the kinetic desk is “it is guaranteed adoption.”

Programs Promote Wellness & Health

“The trend in wellness and preventive care is huge,” says Frances Ducar, president of Healthcare Solutions Centers, crediting the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

And David W. Allazetta, CEO of UnitedHealthcare of Arizona, observes, “More employers are recognizing they can support their employees’ desire to improve their health, and by doing so can create a happier, healthier workforce while reducing costs for employees and the company.” In this regard, he has found that employers are searching for ways to decrease the trend of rising healthcare costs. Because lifestyle choices and management of chronic conditions have had a major impact on these rising costs, employers are recognizing the importance of consumer decision-making. “Employers are increasingly turning to innovative programs, such as the use of incentives, to engage their employees in making healthy lifestyle and medical care decisions,” he says, naming premium reduction, direct financial contributions to health savings accounts, gym reimbursements and merchant gift cards as among options for financial incentives.

Employers are also using wellness programs to raise awareness, educate and support people in making good lifestyle choices, according to Jeff Stelnik, senior VP of strategy, sales and marketing for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona. The more highly visible they are, the more likely they are to be successful. Importantly, he notes that support by senior management is also a critical factor in the success of wellness programs. “Year-round programming and activities, incentives and strong communications also play a role in a wellness program’s success,” he says, sharing that BCBSAZ offers quarterly health challenges with prizes and employee recognition through internal communications programs.

Noting that wellness programs require commitment from everyone — “especially the employees” — to have a lasting effect, Stelnik says BSBSAZ consults with employers to design their medical benefits and wellness programs. “It’s important that they are integrated.”

Chris P. Scherzer, benefits practice leader of Brown & Brown Insurance of AZ, reports his company has expanded and shifted its focus on employee health from a traditional view of health and wellness to one of health risk management, launching a proprietary wellness program that has moved from merely offering activities to implementing results-oriented programs. “We developed our wellness program four years ago because of the increasing interest from our clients and the continued frustration of working ‘inside the box’ of the many wellness vendors,” he says, noting Brown & Brown has hired a wellness consultant whose full-time focus is the wellness initiatives of its clients. “This is a unique and valuable tool in the brokerage world. We are very proud of our in-house wellness program and the results our clients enjoy as a result of their participation.”

Key to the success of wellness programs are risk assessments and biometric screenings, which also seem to induce the greatest participation among employees. Explains Allazetta, “Not only does it inform them about their current health status, but it starts them on the right track to a healthier lifestyle and keeps them motivated throughout the year by rewarding them for taking action in improving their health.”

The impact is also seen on the bottom line. Reporting on the results of Brown & Brown’s integrated program, Scherzer says, “Employees and their dependents are becoming engaged and making better decisions, with the result being significantly lower healthcare costs.” But it may not happen overnight, he notes. “Our strategy is a three- to five-year approach taking a client from a participation-based program to an outcomes-based program.” It’s important to take into account the fact that every company has a different idea of what wellness means and a unique culture to support it. “There may be some that stay participation-based with premium differentials or some that move to an outcomes-based program at year three. Corporate Wellness is a tool for carrier rate negotiation, healthcare cost savings, enhancement of an employee benefits package and an approach to recruit and retain happy, healthy, productive employees.”

Ducar, whose Healthcare Solutions Centers provides onsite clinics to businesses, is finding more and more companies are going to self-funded programs to cover healthcare premiums for employees — it’s not just for companies with a thousand employees any more, but even for companies of 250.This trend raises the interest in onsite clinics because, she points out, businesses are taking the risk on themselves to cover the healthcare costs.

HSC also provides near-site clinics, allowing clients to share the healthcare clinic. And for clients like Earnhardt, which has multiple sites, HSC schedules its clinics on a rotating basis at the various locations. Offering convenience as well as comprehensive care that includes lab work and telemedicine, onsite clinics have become a practicable option for businesses of 200 or more employees. And, in addition to helping the individual, HSC’s feedback to the company shows where it’s saving money and includes biometrics to indicate what programs may need to be changed or added.

A newcomer in healthcare benefits is Phoenix Children’s Care Network, generating such attention as the first-of-its-kind pediatric clinically integrated organization that pediatric systems around the country have been visiting to learn how it has aligned all the component resources and gained traction in the community. Chad Johnson, PCCN’s senior VP and executive director and instrumental in its development, explains it is designed to be a “plug-and-play” pediatric partner to any product or adult system. The network encompasses Phoenix Children’s Hospital inpatient, outpatient and urgent care sites; surgery centers; and close to 90 independent pediatric practices across the region. “We bring care together in a completely different way than people are used to,” Johnson says, noting that the delivery system is the key piece “that needs to be in every employer’s benefits plan.”

PCCN has partnered with Arizona Care Network, an adult-focused CIO led by physicians and owned by Dignity Health and Tenet/Abrazo, to be its exclusive pediatric care provider. “Our alignment with ACN creates a truly integrated network with nearly 600 sites of service located throughout greater Phoenix, ensuring primary and specialty care is available when and where Arizonans need it most,” Johnson says. According to Johnson, PCCN is also working at building partnerships with employers directly as well as with commercial and state agencies, all major payers, and other adult networks, to provide comprensive, high-quality, truly coordinated, affordable care.

In today’s business world, healthcare cost continues to be a concern. Successful businesses are addressing this by vastly expanding the concept of health to more greatly engage the individual and create an environment that enables the employee’s success.

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