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5 Drivers To Build An Engaged Senior Living Workforce

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Amidst workforce shortages, senior living providers continue to lose quality candidates to higher paying jobs in healthcare, hospitality, and food service. As competition with these markets increases, employee engagement must be front and center in recruitment and retention efforts.

An engaged employee is someone who is involved and enthusiastic about their work—exceeding expectations and even promoting their organization. Management consulting company Gallup Inc. regularly conducts cross-industry surveys of employee engagement to put crucial elements of workplace culture in perspective. The organization reports that higher levels of engagement track with positive outcomes including reduced absenteeism, lower turnover, and increased productivity.

To support better engagement, and thus attract and retain the highest quality employees, senior living providers need to focus on the physical environment—specifically what the spaces within their communities convey about their culture. Then they need to determine how they can better align these areas to foster engagement, which is where designers can help.

To demystify this design challenge, EUA frames programming discussions and design decisions around five drivers of an engaged workplace: safety and security, brand and identity, well-being, knowledge sharing, and trust and empowerment.

These five drivers, developed from extensive literature review, client surveys, strategy sessions, and pilot projects, don’t provide a prescriptive set of solutions. Rather, they set up the expectation that we can reinforce organizational culture and prioritize employee engagement through thoughtful design decisions.

Here, we dive further into the five drivers and some strategies for addressing them.

  1. Safety and security

Safety and security measures address employees’ most basic physical and psychological needs and are the foundation upon which all other drivers are built. Simply put, organizations must create basic order and predictability in physical environments.

This starts the minute employees enter the building, as how they approach and enter a workplace sets a clear tone that affects the rest of their workday. For example, are employees entering through a well-lit, welcoming, and staffed main entry that residents and visitors also use? Or are they walking past dumpsters and dodging loading dock traffic to get to a dimly lit side entrance?

Personal and emotional security are also important to address. Providers should acknowledge the diverse backgrounds and life experiences of employees when discussing big-picture solutions. At a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Madison, Wis., a project on the boards includes a reservable mothers’ room. The space is equipped with comfortable seating, a sink, and refrigerated storage for new mothers returning to work to utilize as needed.

Such spaces are becoming more commonplace. But where such accommodations don’t exist, mothers might experience physical discomfort or even anxiety in finding a private location to pump for their infants—or they might just quit. Small investments in spaces like this can have a much bigger payoff in creating a safe, inclusive culture.

  1. Brand and identity

Senior living providers should evaluate if they are effectively communicating their brand through every facet of the organization. This includes physical spaces, operations, and people. They also need to know if that brand is resonating with employees and potential candidates.

Moreso than previous generations, Gen Z and millennial jobseekers are prioritizing purpose alongside pay and benefits in choosing their workplace. A campus in Tulsa, Okla., recently rebranded with an undercurrent of “neighbor helping neighbor,” a refrain that speaks to the bond between residents and employees at the community.

To reinforce this messaging, the community solicits photos of its “neighbors” from their childhood, graduations, weddings, and other milestones to display prominently on shelves in the new community life center. These pictures are visible reminders of the organization’s culture that employees see every day and help reinforce the idea of serving and connecting with residents in meaningful ways.

  1. Well-being

Well-being has many meanings but generally suggests positive emotions and moods stemming from a wide range of underlying components of a full life.

In the framework of workplace culture, employees want to feel valued as a whole person beyond the confines of their role or title at work. A very simple acknowledgement of employee well-being is providing and encouraging use of quality outdoor space or locating employee lounges or amenities to allow for access to natural light and views.

Too often, employee spaces are relegated to the basement or a windowless corridor, which sends an often unintentional signal to employees that their experience—and, by extension, their well-being—isn’t valuable to their employer.

  1. Knowledge sharing

Understanding how information flows between employees day-to-day says a lot about an organization’s culture, whether that information flows from the top down or is multidirectional. Through open and clear communication, senior living providers can build strong teams, breed confidence, and foster innovation. This is especially important as the industry faces high turnover, looming retirements, and constantly changing health guidelines.

The designs of entry sequences are opportunities to make a clear and immediate statement about knowledge sharing at a community. Strategies include: prioritizing open reception desks with low counter; clear fixed and digital signage and message boards; and the use of transparent materials. Using these tools, designers can visually and psychologically signal openness of the flow of information from “behind the scenes” to frontline employees, residents, and visitors.

As communities look to refresh their lobbies and common spaces, including high-top tables is a great strategy to encourage team huddle meetings, which can feel less intimidating (but equally as informative) to some employees compared to meetings held in a hidden-away conference room.

  1. Trust and empowerment

Employees at all levels of an organization require some amount of agency over their careers and a balance of direction and autonomy befitting of their roles. With this driver, training team members, management, and leadership to buy in to a culture of trust is just as important as providing them the spaces to do so.

A key spatial component to trust and empowerment is choice of workspace to the extent practical for a given role. While personal care assistance occurs wherever residents are located, other tasks like focused administrative, planning, or charting tasks allow for more flexibility in where that work is done.

Senior living buildings should support individual and group work in multiple venues, empowering employees to have control over their environment and therefore boosting their confidence and satisfaction.

Depending on the formality and sensitivity of group meetings, teams can choose to gather in conference rooms, private dining rooms, fast-casual bistro dining areas, or other active and well-appointed spaces.

Where do we go from here?

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to designing to build staff engagement. Many of the underlying concepts of these five drivers overlap. Depending on a senior living community’s culture and target candidates, some organizations may focus more heavily on certain drivers than others.

Ultimately, designers must be proactive champions of employee engagement throughout programming and concept design, aligning a community’s culture, mission, and values with its space. When we do this, we create places employees are proud to call their workplace.

Jennifer Sodo, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is the senior living market leader at EUA (Milwaukee). She can be reached at Dan Schindhelm, AIA, is a project manager and associate at EUA (Madison, Wis.). He can be reached at

Jennifer Sodo , AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Senior Living Market Leader

Jennifer is a Senior Living Market Leader in our Living Environment Studio in the Milwaukee office. Her inspiration for design stems from people and their stories.

Dan Schindhelm, AIA
Project Manager

Dan is a Project Manager for EUA in the Living Environments Studio in the Madison office. His role allows him to take part in a collaborative way, working with the Living Studio to schedule, budget and design requirements. Dan enjoys taking part in outdoor activities with his wife and two young children.

Environments for Aging

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Trinity Woods club house with bookshelves, fireplace and pool table.