Managing and Retaining Employees During Periods of Disruptive Change

To thrive organizations must figure out how to build and maintain a strong culture in an increasingly remote workplace, and implement effective recruitment and retention strategies in an economy where there are fewer workers.

The COVID-19 pandemic created profound challenges for organizations as they adapted to serve customers and keep their businesses running amid a global health crisis that triggered shutdowns, closures and quarantines.

Virtually overnight, organizations of every type had to reinvent how workers did their jobs and how customers received goods, services, and support. Whether due to choice or necessity, some businesses set up employees to do their jobs remotely. Other organizations, particularly those whose workers were considered essential, had to change processes and procedures to ensure the safety of employees and customers as they came into physical contact with people in offices, stores, and other public venues.

Many organizations also faced another employee-related dilemma: a mass exodus that soon would be labeled The Great Resignation — which is now shifting to The Great Reshuffle and even The Great Retention — also causing further disruptions. A March 2022 Harvard Business Review article reported that 47 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs in 2021. The HBR report analyzed 10-plus years of labor data that suggests the 2021 Great Resignation was a response to 2020 when far fewer employees quit their jobs likely due to the uncertainty of the pandemic.

For human resources executives, The Great Resignation…The Great Reshuffle…The Great Retention – however you might wish to refer to it – along with the pandemic have prompted a reevaluation of their hiring, training, retention and employee communications policies.

Modivcare has been no different. What follows is a summary of the specific employee-related challenges the company faced during the pandemic and the lessons learned. We believe these lessons are important to remember not just during times of sudden and drastic change, but every day.

Stay focused on your purpose

During a time of crisis, it’s easy to lose sight of your organization’s fundamental purpose. Things may be moving so fast that you’re in survival mode. In the case of Modivcare, the purpose of our business is to help members “make connections to care.”

For our members, transportation or personal care in the home were not optional during the pandemic. If you were on dialysis, you had to get to the dialysis center. And because what our employees do makes them essential workers, Dan Greenleaf, our CEO, decided we were going to keep our offices and care centers open to ensure we could address the needs of our members, which were acute. Dan didn’t want to run the risk of service disruptions when members were so dependent on us for transportation and home care.

Starting at the beginning of this year, Modivcare transitioned to a model that allows for some people – including operational leaders and care center agents – to work from home (WFH). Our turnover numbers, which declined during the height of the pandemic, have continued to fall since we went to a partial WFH model, even in the care center. In contrast, according to a recent report, attrition rates for care centers that provide customer care and support have exceeded 87% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than double the historical agent attrition rate of 30%-40%.

We’ve had success in retaining employees by providing the WFH option. Most importantly, though, we think our employees identify with our purpose and recognize what we do for our members is critical. They’ve stayed focused on our purpose. We have visual reminders of our purpose all around our offices. For example, thanks to a partnership we have with Access Gallery, artists with disabilities have designed pieces that embody Modivcare’s purpose, vision, and services for underserved communities that are installed in our offices in Denver.

Set expectations for employees

The Great Reshuffle has caused many organizations to rethink their relationships with employees. In many cases, this has led to workers being offered more flexible work hours and conditions, as well as other benefits designed to improve job satisfaction. These are both positive developments and things we have done at Modivcare.

But we also have learned that it is important for an organization to protect its right to set expectations for employees. These might be as straightforward as requiring employees to be vaccinated or establishing a code of behavior in the workplace. While these types of expectations may drive away some employees who prefer more latitude, organizations involved in healthcare should and must hold workers to a high standard, even during a disruptive event. They have an obligation, after all, to meet the needs of people who are counting on them for life-or-death services.

Be a trusted source of information

Though it’s always important for organizations to communicate frequently and transparently with employees, this need becomes even more urgent during a pandemic or any type of disruptive event.

When circumstances are changing rapidly – as happened on an almost daily basis in the early months of 2020 – employees not only are anxious, but they also eagerly seek information and assurance. If organizations don’t position themselves to their employees as trusted sources of information, many workers will turn instead to news feeds and social media for guidance and direction.

By frequently communicating a clear and consistent viewpoint during periods of uncertainty, organizations can serve as an informational “North Star” to employees. This can both allay the concerns of workers and allow them to provide useful information to other people in their lives (such as family members and friends outside the workplace) who also may be impacted by whatever changes are underway. Providing employees with a steady flow of reliable information can ease anxiety in employees and the affected people in their lives because they aren’t left to wonder what’s happening.

Conclusion

The pandemic has had a permanent impact on the workplace, yet organizations still are in catch-up mode as they try to adapt strategically and operationally. To thrive going forward, organizations must figure out how to 1) build and maintain a strong culture in an increasingly remote workplace, and 2) implement effective recruitment and retention strategies in an economy where there are fewer workers.

A strong focus on purpose, a clear set of expectations, and being a trusted source of information for employees will go a long way toward helping organizations achieve these goals.

Grover Wray is chief human resources offficer of Modivcare, a technology-enabled healthcare services company headquartered in Denver.