Staff Engagement in the Access Center

Posted By: Daniel Gregg Industry,

Staff retention and engagement are critical, especially after Covid-era hiring freezes and subsequent labor shortages. This staffing phenomenon has increased the competition for access center employees, both locally and even nationally for access centers hiring outside their market.  System-level retention strategies – competitive pay and benefits, for example – are important, however, there is evidence that the most effective tactic is to focus on the employee’s relationship to his or her department and leadership.   

Just like the more technical aspects of leadership – hiring, payroll, performance evaluations, etc. –  qualitative leadership skills to nurture this local relationship are of equal import.  As a leader carves out time for the above-mentioned technical activities, one should also budget time for the qualitative aspects of building and maintaining relationships.  In an increasing hybrid- or remote-work model, all-inclusive strategies that encompass on-premises as well as work-from-home teams are important.

Leaders from the member health systems of the Patient Access Collaborative have espoused the following tactics as tried-and-true examples of ways to engage and retain their teams.

  1. Team chats; instant messaging rooms – There is a critical need for an “all-business” chat that incorporates all staff members to communicate important updates and critical issues.  This chat is usually limited for leaders to post so it can be maintained for business-related issues.  However, a “morning shine” daily update from one of the leaders goes a long way.  The message may contain important updates but also include supportive words (and even fun memes and GIFs) to get the day started. In addition to the leader’s channel, there can also be a “team celebration” chat that allows for all individuals to contribute.  Guardrails need to be set on what is appropriate to include in this chat but recognizing birthdays, life events, and work anniversaries in this chat as well as the ability for individuals to comment or react or give some good-natured ribbing lends to a fun team spirit.  Staff pod or skillset chats are also helpful, not only for support but team-building as well.
  2. “Get to Know Me” forms – There is not a “one-size-fits-all” formula for recognition and engagement.  People like to be celebrated in different ways and the ability to customize to the individual will likely have big gains in engagement and retention. By having a staff member complete a form indicating how they like to be celebrated (a kind word, handwritten note, small gift, food), the holiday(s) they celebrate, and whether they like to be publicly celebrated or not, leaders get to know their individual team members better.  One could take this a step further with leaders creating an employee relationship management (ERM) tool, to codify staff preferences. This resource mirrors a similar approach for patient engagement via a customer relationship management (CRM) tool.
  3. Plan the year – Get a calendar and list the planned engagement activities. Importantly, assign the responsible leader and/or team. Review the plan to ensure that activities are spread evenly throughout the year.   Do you do something special for the Super Bowl, March Madness, the Olympics or other sports championships? How about holidays? Review the employees’ “Get to Know Me” forms for holidays celebrated by the staff. Finally, take into account major initiatives and projects in which the staff may be involved. The successful implementation of a new telephony system, for example, may prompt a post-go-live celebration. 
  4. Budget – There are multiple free ways to celebrate staff members but, on occasion, group events with a moderate expense or gifts are appropriate.  If the health system does not include a budgetary employee recognition line item, work with leaders to budget a reasonable amount per person ($50 to $100 per staff is a range to strive for).  Also, time needs to be budgeted for leaders who are responsible for these engagement strategies and/or committee members who may be involved in these efforts.  
  5. Celebrate - Birthdays. Work anniversaries. Life events. Quality assurance and customer service scores. It’s important to celebrate individuals; staff feel supported when they are celebrated. As mentioned above, a leader’s time needs to be allocated for this and leaders need to be held accountable to follow expectations on how staff are celebrated.  Consistency is crucial to avoid perceptions of unfairness. Is it a personal card mailed to the employee’s home address?  Is it a monthly meal for those that are on-premises?  If remote/hybrid staff members are required to come onsite occasionally, can the individual be celebrated in-person?   
  6. All-hands events – Once commonplace, in-person staff events were shuttered during the pandemic. As health systems consider reconstituting these all-hands events, ensuring a strong attendance rate is vital. Key factors to improve attendance may include:
    1. Inclusion of family members in a friendly environment (picnic shelter at a centrally located park or a “Dave and Buster’s”-type location)
    2. Convenient time – after work, perhaps a Thursday or Friday.  If on a Friday and call volumes allow, recruit some voluntary time off staff to get started at the event a little early to increase excitement.
    3. Periodic events at a leader’s home – if there’s comfort with this, recognize high performers by having a smaller cohort of staff attend a prime event at a senior leader’s home.
    4. If budget allows, contribute some appetizers or main entrees while others bring store-bought sides.
  7. Virtual Bingo – One of the easiest and free events is virtual bingo, particularly helpful for hybrid teams.  There are numerous websites that can be used to create the cards and allow individuals to obtain a virtual card.  Step it up a bit and, instead of using numbers on the card, have your training team provide topics or trivia to populate the card.  The activity can double as an educational event as well as being fun and competitive. Once staff grow tired of Bingo, an alternative game is a virtual scavenger hunt.


There are many other ideas to consider. Patient Access Collaborative members have posted here.  What engagement and retention ideas have you implemented that work well?  Post in the comment section below - and happy engagement and retention!