Blog Post
Healthforce Center at UCSF group photo.

Seven Lessons on Cultivating Connections and Staff Engagement

September 20, 2021

By Renae Waneka, Senior Manager, People & Programs at Healthforce Center

With September comes a return to classes at UC San Francisco, and a new cycle of learning begins. Healthforce Center uses a dashboard of metrics to support and evaluate its internal learning and development. This year, I expected our staff engagement scores to be negatively affected by the difficulties of life during a pandemic. But the scores were so high I was astonished. Learning can come with happy surprises!

What makes Healthforce Center such a great place to work? How do we meet the challenges of full-time remote work? A strong theme that emerged from the staff survey pointed to cultivating connections among staff, and ensuring those connections could thrive given the transition to remote work. Harvard Business Review reported that “high belonging was linked to a whopping 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days.”

Here’s how we do it:

  1. Build structures for people to connect casually during their work. When we converted to fully remote work at the start of the pandemic, we implemented a weekly video huddle with rotating facilitators. Discussion questions help us get to know each other better: What are you proud of this week? What did you binge watch, read, or listen to recently? What’s your favorite restaurant now? The spontaneous conversations help people connect on a personal level, which fosters a sense of belonging and enhances teamwork. 
  2. Offer extra-curricular opportunities to connect. Healthforce Center also has a social committee, “Fun U,” to organize activities such as trivia, virtual lunches, a book group, and a movie group. It has been an asset for our staff to connect with each other around topics other than work.
  3. Recognize your staff’s efforts and hard work. We spotlight staff’s accomplishments and accolades in an internal newsletter and through our e-card recognition program. We make sure to nominate our staff for UCSF’s awards program that offers financial incentives.
  4. Encourage staff to share their opinions. Engage with staff, listen and acknowledge when people express concerns, and give feedback about their workplace experience. By encouraging feedback from staff and reporting back on suggestions, management can build a sense of trust. One team member commented, “I feel like I can share a different opinion, and I won’t be judged for it. That helps me feel engaged and included.”
  5. Provide learning opportunities for staff growth and development. Team members appreciate learning opportunities that leverage their strengths and interests. These examples show how these opportunities may also align with organizational goals:
    • A financial analyst flexes new skills and interests to work on healthcare workforce research projects. 
    • A leadership development associate with an interest in marketing and communications has an opportunity to use those skills across programs. 
  6. Mix and match to stretch and grow staff talent. Healthforce Center has steadily moved from a compartmentalized department model toward a more intermingled model. Collaboration among a variety of people and projects enables ideas and skill sets to emerge. By leveraging our people and giving them development opportunities on a variety of different projects that cross into various services we provide, we can be more nimble and more strategic about staffing as we consider individual strengths and interests alongside our organizational needs and objectives.
  7. Foster a sense of belonging among staff. We have people who are silly, others who are morbid. Some are vegan, others live on sour gummy candies (or would like to). Our staff report very high levels of inclusion and belonging as measured by UCSF’s index. Accepting people for who they are and what they bring to the team is key to the culture at Healthforce Center. One team member commented, “I can show up how I am, voice my opinions and people listen, tell my jokes (and people laugh at them!), and cry with my supervisor when I’m having a hard day, and this is all okay. It’s like a family.”

Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised about the positive survey results. After all, Healthforce Center has deep knowledge and experience in leadership development that indicates the concepts above are best practices. We teach people to connect with themselves, others, and processes that help them understand the health care environment so that they can be the most successful and engaged versions of themselves. 

Are you interested in leadership development for you or your team?  Check out our standing programs to see if they work for you, or contact us to explore customizing a program. 

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About Renae

Renae Waneka, MPH, is senior manager for people and programs at Healthforce Center. She has spent a decade changing things for the good of the people — through leadership development, research on the nursing labor market, championing equity efforts, investing in our people, and sparking laughter.