In this episode of The Workgrid, we are excited to delve deep with Alyssa Hagan, the Director of Communications and Content at Encompass Health.
This healthcare giant is based in Birmingham, Alabama, and is one of the largest providers of post-acute healthcare services within the United States. Encompass operates across over 160 hospitals and employs approximately 36,000 people, 78% of whom are deskless workers.
Alyssa is more than just a communications leader—she's a pioneer in the realm of digital transformation. She's been at the forefront of innovation, from launching and establishing a mobile app in 2015 to expertly steering SharePoint updates, all while achieving seamless collaborative relationships between IT and Communications to drive both solutions and employee engagement.
What You’ll learn:
The Importance of IT & Internal Communications Synergy: Learn why fostering a strong relationship between the Communications and IT departments is crucial for organizational success. As well, why it is critical to understand the ‘Why’ behind the ‘No.’
Launching a Mobile App in 2015: Get the behind-the-scenes story on how Alyssa led the charge on a groundbreaking mobile app, and what it took to make it a reality when it was still a novel concept with numerous hurdles.
Tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and the work you have been doing over the last few years.
I am the director of communications and content at Encompass Health, the largest provider of rehabilitation services in the United States. I oversee Communications which entails connecting over 36,000 employees across approximately 160 hospitals to our company strategy. So, that can be anything from executive communications to supporting quality initiatives, IT, regulatory changes, employee engagement, benefits enrollment, you know the drill.
My team’s goal is to make sure employees have access to the information they need to do their jobs and feel part of the broader culture. We do this through a variety of channels like an employee mobile app, an intranet, video, and of course email, just like everyone else.
I was lucky to meet you at an intranet conference around a year ago where I heard your story about launching a mobile solution when it was cutting edge. Can you talk a little bit about that work and how that program got started?
We started that project in 2015, and mobile apps were cutting edge. I think at the time we were one of the larger companies with the vendor we had selected.
We got the green light to explore a mobile app and our objective was communicating with our approximately 78% deskless workforce – think nurses, therapists, cooks, cleaners, the people who are not sitting in front of a computer all day, and if they are it’s a shared workspace – so that was our goal and our challenge. How do we reach those people with the information that they want, as well as when and where it’s helpful to them to receive it? We also wanted to include measurements. If we are putting in this time and effort, can we measure whether the employees are interacting? And then answering the what is in it for me question.
We were planning on, and still are to this day, using a BYOD (bring your own device) process. With over 30,000 employees the company couldn’t provide devices for them and honestly, what is a nurse going to do with a company provided phone? They just don’t need it. So, we wanted to make sure that people would buy into it and want to download the app to their device.
On a security side, we couldn’t connect to the company network or the intranet with our mobile app, so we needed a way to authenticate employees to not only allow them to access the information we were sharing but also the information they wanted like access to paycheck info or benefit elections.
To overcome this, we brought in IT reps from the very beginning. I asked a lot of questions, especially when we encountered “NOs” because I wanted to make a point to educate myself on the barriers IT was encountering and the systems they used. Often having to say things like “excuse my ignorance but...” or “can you please help me understand...” In fact, at one point our chief security officer told me “Alyssa, today it’s a no. But we are going to work toward getting you a yes.” That really stuck with me. If I keep asking questions the IT Team will either help me find the answer or I will understand the “no,” which is helpful on all accounts.
Another part of the process, and it is something silly, but it goes a long way is I baked cookies. I wanted to show appreciation to these people. They are doing a lot on many different projects and are being stretched in a lot of directions, this was such a huge effort and something that the company hadn’t done before. Something as simple as saying thank you and baking cookies was easy on my part and went a long way on theirs, I think.
I alluded to this with the BYOD process, but we knew that adoption would be a hill to climb. It’s something new, it’s asking people to download something to their personal device. It’s comments like “why would I want communications from my company there in addition to email?” and “I see those things on the intranet even if I don’t access it a lot.”
We worked through a regional approach to engage regional hospital leaders with boots on the ground. They also had skin in the game on this too because this was the first measurable communication tool they would have, and localized communication always comes up as an area for approval on our annual engagement surveys. We knew this would be a hurdle but also that if we got the buy-in and excitement from regional leaders that the employees would be excited to use it as well.
I love hearing about the “why before the no” and the story behind collaborating with the IT team. In a lot of digital transformation stories that really becomes a point of contention. But the point that I really don’t want to miss is the regional leaders helping to foster adoption. Tell me a bit more about that. Were they really helping to model it for the employees?
We had 5 or 6 hospital regions at the time, so we worked with their regional leaders and then got the buy-in from them to roll out one region at a time. A key piece there is it was just me rolling this out at the time, so the idea of rolling it out to 36,000 people all at once and trying to troubleshoot that by myself was not an option. We knew it would be beneficial to me on the rollout side of things, but also if we were rolling it out to 15-20 hospitals in a region, I could educate a smaller group than hundreds at once. That smaller group in turn were more engaged because they felt more comfortable asking questions in trainings that we had and could make their own. Then as we moved forward with the roll-out more questions and conversations were prompted based on the experience of the other regions. That is a huge thing that we do as a company anyway – roll things out piloted, and then earn trust and gain best practices, and then utilize those standards across all of our hospitals. We didn’t make it any different, that’s what our leaders were already used to, and so that helped us a lot.
Once they were engaged we gave them tools, printable posters to put up in the hospitals promoting app launch parties etc. Our app is called “The Hive” and it’s meant to be a play on people buzzing with activity, just like the hospitals, and so we used that to our advantage. Our hospitals love cheesy activities, it just gets people engaged, so we gave them ideas like handing out lip balm and saying “thanks for downloading The Hive, you’re the balm,” you know, things like that, alongside providing tools to be effective communicators like trainings on how to set up communication plans. At the end of the day, while our human resource directors were responsible for getting this off the ground in the hospitals, they are not communicators at heart. They have to wear that hat as “the people” people in those hospitals, but we wanted to make sure that they had the tools that they needed to roll that out and get employees excited about it.
I’d like to dig into some of the building relationships pieces you mentioned. Tell me more about that aspect of building relationships with IT.
Asking questions is really the biggest piece of advice I can give whether you are working with IT or any other group. Never take no for an answer until you get to the point where no is the only answer, and you understand the why behind it, and you are polite, respectful, and trying to understand where they are coming from and the challenges that they have.
Take the security team for example, at the end of the day they are trying to mitigate threats on our organization, and especially healthcare, there are so many ransomware issues and things going on in the industry. While I am trying to open the network to something new, if I can understand where they are coming from that builds respect with those leaders. That security team reviews every single request. They want to make sure we are not being opened to any threats or risks and if someone tells me the vendor I have selected cannot be supported by our existing protocols, then I ask questions to see if there are work arounds. I have recently had to deal with this as we try to change our mobile app vendor.
It is also important to scratch their back too. As Communications, we support all aspects of the business to ensure employees have what they need to act or change behaviors that various departments are asking of them. One of those departments is IT, so I make sure IT knows what I can do to support their challenges and initiatives, and make sure they know that we find that important and valuable for sharing with employees. When they come to us for messaging support my team jumps into action right away. It’s the golden rule we’ve learned since kindergarten, treat others the way you want to be treated.
What are some of the things you wish you knew when you were starting out?
Just how long it takes for something to come to fruition. Not just the building of something, because the building is really phase two or three, but putting in the research. It can take time but is so worthwhile. Efforts can fall flat if you don’t know what your stakeholders and employees need. You can build something, but if nobody is going to use it, it is a waste of time and money.
I’d like to start with the research part of that, because again going off of what I just said, before we could even touch our SharePoint intranet we had to make sure that our stakeholders bought into. I made sure we did some initial research with them, asking questions and saying “Hey! We are interested in changing the homepage.” We wanted to start with just the homepage because the whole intranet was just so much bigger. I went to our Chief Medical Officer, SVP in Operations, leaders in Nursing, Therapy, Compliance, HR, IT, all the people who had vested interest in the homepage or key pieces of the homepage I knew they wouldn’t want to go away. I sat down with all of them at once so that they would all understand the others and said, “We’re doing this. What do you need out of this homepage?” I wanted them to tell me what was important to them.
I also did focus groups with people in the field and asked them certain questions like:
What do you go to the intranet for?
What are you accessing?
Are you scrolling?
Are you looking for learning and development?
From there we were able to build a mockup of what the homepage would look like. I went back to the stakeholders with the mockup and showed them based on their feedback and employee feedback, because ultimately it is about what works for the employees. I was able to show them where things were going. They didn’t have any concerns because they were along for the entire journey, had a clear understanding that their stuff might get moved, but felt confident that it would still be on the homepage (and might actually be better.) That process takes time, but it is a key piece.
We were going to have a vendor pull everything together, design it for us, but we parted. It mutually was not going to work, the way they needed to do things and the way that our IT team needed things. We were trying to both support an on-premises and cloud environment, which is a challenge, but the landscape we had to walk through. With that in mind, we had to go back and tweak things and have our internal team pull it together. It’s taken a lot longer than I hoped. It’s taken about 20 months to change the homepage of the intranet, but we’re doing it right. We’ve encountered some issues along the way with Microsoft Services and Support, with SharePoint limitations, but I think we’re in a really good place and should hopefully be launching by the end of the year. Two years later.
The time frame isn’t totally unforeseen. I think there are many people who begin that journey thinking it’s going to be a lot faster but due to complexity, want, and vision, they realize it’s going to be a lot longer. Going into it you brought people in early on. People need to be heard and I think that gets missed quite often.
It’s definitely something that needs to be incorporated early, because if not, you can build something awesome and beautiful, but at the end of the day your leaders or employees don’t get it or aren’t interested, it’s dead in the water.
How are you planning on measuring success of the upgrade, the implementation, both now and future state?
Our goal is to finally have actual measurement of the homepage. We’ve been sitting on a really ancient SharePoint environment and every time IT would turn on the analytics it would just break everything, so it’s been rough. To have actual measurement of the page, the engagement with our communications, where our employees are clicking, interactions with our applications, we are excited about that in general. It is very basic but as I talk to other people in the industry, I find that a lot of others don’t have that either. We are looking at setting up a good baseline here which is great.
We’ll do a survey with staff around 4-6 months to understand where things are going, is there anything missing, whatever it may be, and then make necessary tweaks from there.
I’d have to go back to what we started our conversation with. I’d highly recommend a mobile app, especially if you have a dispersed or deskless workforce. Nearly everyone has a smart phone, we spend hours on it every day, so it’s a great way to meet people where they are, so long as your messaging and features provide value to them. That is the key piece there. The goal is not to just dump your intranet onto their mobile devices. Some people say, “my intranet is mobile,” but that is overwhelming. If you can pare it down, get the key pieces employees need whether it is viewing paychecks or scheduling PTO or shift swaps, those are such great tools that people just want quick access to. It’s important to make sure the strategy and direction are based on what they really need and not just you as the communicator/employer/company.
I was muted when you said do not just drop the intranet into a mobile app and I wanted to yell “hallelujah” because I have seen several intranet implementations over the years, and you do see that. It misses the mark on answering the question “what does that employee persona really need?” What are some of the strategies you use to define the requirements for the tools you are going to use?
I would say two things. First, on the mobile app side, we did a design strategy session with some of those key stakeholders when we were getting our app going and deciding which features to use. We knew we wanted a communication feed, which is why the Communications team oversaw this project, but we had other stakeholders from HR, Clinical, and Compliance, who wanted other features in there. So, the design strategy session entailed everybody throwing the features they wanted out there and then we broke off into small groups to create a persona of our various employees. We had a group that had the “Nancy Nurse” persona or “Calvin Cook” - whatever the persona may be, we had to think through a few key points.
What information does this person need to do their job?
When can they access the information?
Where can they access the information?
Everyone presented that to the entire group and then we looked back at our features list and voted on the top three features we’d want as ourselves, then as our personas. It was great to have everyone see in front of them our personal priorities versus the employee persona priorities and figure out where we could meet in the middle. It was important to keep in mind not every single feature needs to launch with this app. We wanted to create an MVP (Minimum Viable Product). If it was too much, we knew people would be overwhelmed and would not download it. You can’t be everything to every person. So, we made sure based on those leaders, and based on that exercise, we could say this is a happy medium for where we are going.
I would say second, ask employees for what they need. This could be for any tool that you are trying to research. You could do a channel or tool audit about things you currently have and work in some things you are considering to see how they might be perceived. A simple survey. We do a channel and communication audit every year now. We used to do it every few years, but everything moves so fast. We get a good response. We just want to measure how effective are the tools we have and ask the types of questions like “if we had a mobile app would you use it?” to help understand the features and tools our employees would use. Then the employees feel bought into it if you launch a mobile app following that.
Finally, give yourself grace. You are never going to be able to make everyone happy. Having a general direction that the majority is bought into will really take you far.
What are some trends in digital workplace solutions that you are most excited about?
If you asked me this question two years ago my answer would be different, but today I would say an omni-channel platform. There are few companies out there that are dedicated to comms specifically and they are doing their best to make it easier for communicators to publish content across various channels and also enhance the employees' experience. I think that’s a key piece, we’ve talked about that, make sure the employees get what they need!
We are working on moving to one of these platforms if all the stars align. I am confident that it will streamline how our team works. It will make things more efficient because we can publish from one platform instead of three or four, we can have various endpoints that platform points to, whether it’s SharePoint or our mobile app or Oracle. That allows employees to digest information that works best for them. More employee-centric comms and that type of model is a big deal in the work environment. What do they need? Where do they want to access information?
Any key takeaways you want leave digital workplace leaders with?
Don’t take no for an answer until you’ve exhausted all your options. It may take extra time, or extra dollars, but if you believe in the potential impact or ROI your initiative or technology is going to provide it is worth it.