LeadingAge Magazine · September-October 2019 • Volume 09 • Number 05

Building a Technology-Friendly Staff

September 17, 2019 | by David Tobenkin

A technology and data-driven organization must have employees who are comfortable with the technologies they use every day, and an IT staff skilled in bringing everyone up to speed.

With technology demands proliferating among older adult providers, one of the biggest variables is neither a provider’s hardware nor its software, but rather its “humanware”: the technology capabilities of its staff. A new application or management system will do little if it is not adequately implemented and socialized by core information technology (IT) staff, and used by non-IT staff. Thus, building a staff that is receptive to, and skilled in, the use of new technologies is key to optimizing IT progress.

Rising IT Expectations for General Staff

Manny Ocasio, chief human resources and compliance officer for Frederick, MD-based Asbury Communities, which has 4,200 residents served by 2,400 staff associates, says Asbury’s focus on enabling staff use of technology has steadily increased in recent years. This includes the adoption of a recent Asbury strategic plan that identified technology as a foundation to achieve the organization’s 3 key strategies.

“We are focused on becoming a data-driven organization, and to do that we need to extend the ability of staff to make decisions based on data,” Ocasio says. “For the past 5 years, and particularly over the past 3, in coordination with The Asbury Group Integrated Technologies, we have built operational and clinical dashboards that pull data from all of our systems and integrate them through Qlik [business intelligence software]. They provide an extraordinary amount of information that enables staff to better meet the goals we have established.”

The training Asbury employees receive depends a great deal upon their functions. Executives and managers, for example, receive training in Qlik, Ocasio says. In contrast, clinicians and operational staff are trained thoroughly on the importance and guidelines regarding how to use electronic health records (EHRs). “We provide didactic training for clinicians early and often on the use and importance of EHRs,” he says.

The Key Role of IT Staff

Jason Brunt, director of IT at Worcester, PA-based Meadowood Senior Living, says it is important that the core IT team treat non-IT staff with respect.

“Some habits die hard, but what really matters is how we treat the staff,” Brunt says. “People in the IT industry can come across as arrogant, tend to feel self-important, and are subsequently condescending in their interaction with staff. That attitude immediately sets a negative tone for the interaction between the technical staff and the rest of the community. As a result, we avoid using the term ‘user’ of software when interacting with non-IT staff, as that term reflects a preconceived notion that you are of lower value in your knowledge and role in the organization. Our team instead uses words like ‘staff member’ or ‘team member’ as much as possible.”

Such a good attitude toward those less proficient in software should be a general IT staff hiring prerequisite, says Brunt, a consultant whose company is e3 Technical Solutions.

Twenty-plus years ago, Asbury took a remarkable step by launching a subsidiary, The Asbury Group Integrated Technologies, to handle the IT functions of the organization and consult with other senior care providers that needed similar services. “Our goal is also to provide technical tools to enhance the current staff,” says Nick Patel, president of The Asbury Group IT.

“We avoid using the term ‘user’ of software when interacting with non-IT staff, as that term reflects a preconceived notion that you are of lower value in your knowledge and role in the organization. Our team instead uses words like ‘staff member’ or ‘team member’ as much as possible.”

HR Technology Deployment Techniques

Two years ago, Walnut Creek, CA-based Covia, which has 1,200 employees serving more than 2,000 community members, decided to invest in new HR technology solutions, including Jobvite as its applicant tracking system and ADP as its human resources management system (HRMS), scheduling, and payroll system.

Covia has carefully monitored adoption by employees, says Prab Brinton, vice president of human resources. “We target 100%, though we realistically know that number may be less than that,” she says. “We are 2 years into Jobvite and the adoption was slow, but we have picked up momentum. We are almost 12 months with ADP, and that adoption has been much better.”

Brinton believes that a more robust process for introducing ADP led to a more successful introduction of the new technology: ”We visited each community and met with each employee, showed them how to create their accounts within ADP, and showed them how to access and make changes to their information."

The move to a new technology platform in part reflects the need to adjust to a new, more technology-savvy generation of staff, Brinton adds: “The younger employees, the future workforce, grew up with this technological platform and have no problem with it."

Adopting the new technology has cut down the work for Covia’s HR staff by 50%, and has, ironically, even benefitted the staff least receptive to it, Brinton says. “Because we now don’t have to input and update every employee’s information, and instead just review information for accuracy, it allows us to spend more time helping those employees who are unwilling or unable to enter or adjust their records online.”

Sometimes vendors and third parties can help with monitoring. “We review feedback from users, such as ‘I don’t know how to get my benefits information,’ with ADP to see whether the system is broken, or if the employee did something wrong, or if a manager failed to report a problem,” Brinton says. She relies on a HRMS analyst “who knows the system inside and out” to provide insight into problems and suggest potential solutions.

External vendors can also provide analysis of deployment results measured against benchmarks in order to optimize new technologies, says Brinton.

The Technology-Friendly Mindset and Recruiting

When it comes to technology-friendly staffing, it is as much the attitude toward technology as the technology itself that can make the difference. Focusing on those skills can help solve challenges, Brunt says, adding that a receptive attitude toward IT needs to start at the top, as was the case at Meadowood when he started consulting there a year ago.

“When I brought certain IT issues at Meadowood to light with [Meadowood CFO Steve Wisniewski], he was readily willing to accept the reality of the situation and the changes that needed to be made,” Brunt says. “Most of the time technology is seen as an administrative burden rather than the tools that run the organization.”

Providers should understand the technical competence of existing staff and new hires, Brunt says. “It is important to first put in place an employee training program, and secondly, to administer a technical competency test at the time of the interview, as well as for existing staff. For new hires, the interviewee needs to have a basic minimum IT competency.”

Beyond skills and training in IT, there is a mindset that all employees must have to optimally implement technology, Ocasio says.

“Three years ago we identified a need to ensure that our workforce is more adaptable to change and more welcoming to innovation,” says Ocasio. “We have aligned our workforce recruitment and engagement strategy with Reality-Based Leadership, an organization that emphasizes accountability. People who are accountable are more adaptive to change, including technology. We are trying to double the amount of highly accountable staff and we hope to see progress in October when we measure staff accountability again.”

Technology itself can help find technology-friendly staff, Patel says. Asbury is currently examining how to integrate current HR platforms and functions in a way that would allow them to automate certain resume screening functions.

“People who are accountable are more adaptive to change, including technology. We are trying to double the amount of highly accountable staff and we hope to see progress […] when we measure staff accountability again.”

The Challenge of Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity, which presents the challenge of defending against an ever-evolving set of threats, can be among the most challenging areas for staff. Patel says part of developing a technology-friendly staff is designing cyber-secure, streamlined IT systems.

“We have focused on reducing the complexity of the network to decrease entry points that can be attacked, and [we] heavily guard remaining entry points,” Patel says. “We also moved applications and data to the cloud, where it is has additional guards put in place by the vendors. The Asbury Group Integrated Technologies has a dedicated cybersecurity team and we benchmark our efforts with outside audits.”

Privacy and cybersecurity training are also key, Ocasio notes. “Many of the new forms of technology involve increased patient monitoring and thus it is paramount that staff be trained on a yearly basis related to privacy and information security,” says Ocasio. “That includes training on using electronic tools, such as encrypted emails, to ensure protected information can only be accessed by those who are authorized.”

Brunt says the effectiveness of organizational cybersecurity efforts largely reflects the general IT competence and receptive attitude of those employees. “If the staff has been properly trained, conforming to those practices should easily follow,” Brunt says. “It also depends on the value the staff places on the safety and upkeep of their system. That is why I place such importance on personality above technical competency in my hiring practices.”

Virtual Reality Boosts Understanding of Residents’ Experiences

Advanced technology, such as virtual reality, can be used to help the staff of long-term care and older adult communities understand the needs of their members.

Los Angeles-based Embodied Labs uses an immersive training platform to allow staff to understand how older adults’ medical conditions can affect their perceptions and abilities to communicate.

"Through our platform, learners experience the world of older adults living with a particular disease or condition by engaging with a narrative of that person’s life, including their disease symptoms,” says Embodied Labs co-founder Erin Washington. “Instead of viewing an online module or a PowerPoint presentation, a user puts on a virtual reality (VR) headset and is instantly immersed in the world of the person they are embodying.”

Embodied Labs helps users understand situations such as:

  • How frustrating it is to eat dinner or fill out a form when you live with macular degeneration.
  • What it is like to take a test when you are unable to hear the directions because of your hearing loss.
  • What it might be like to experience your final hours in hospice with your family by your side.

The company launched in 2016, and has over 100 subscribers, including life plan communities, assisted living providers, hospices, home health agencies, hospitals, government agencies, universities, and nonprofits focused on aging services, says Washington.

David Tobenkin is a freelance writer based in the greater Washington, DC area.