This article is sponsored by SmartLinx Solutions. In this Voices interview, Senior Housing News sits down with SmartLinx CEO Marina Aslanyan to learn the meaning of “digital transformation” in senior care, insight into the new SmartLinx time clock innovation S.L.A.T.E and a salute to the senior housing industry which reacted valiantly to the pandemic — and is now in a better position for whatever comes next.
Senior Housing News: You’ve been CEO of SmartLinx since 2014. What parts of your career path do you draw from most frequently in this role?
Marina Aslanyan: I’d say I draw the most from my experience with Sparta Systems, where I served as Vice President of Professional Services. During my tenure there, I learned and expounded upon several things that helped groom me for this role and show me how to grow a company. For example, I saw the importance of understanding the monthly cadence that comes from running public companies. Although Sparta Systems was not a public company, it was managed by people who previously worked at public companies and followed this mentality, which I believe is critical.
I came across another formative experience when I worked in the consulting world, providing services to companies like Anderson Consulting and PwC. I learned structure, process, consistency and methodology, and was able to put my own stamp on each. I continue to manage everything utilizing those experiences.
Tell us about SmartLinx. What is its mission?
Aslanyan: Our mission is to transform the health care industry by improving health care workers’ performance and level of care through innovative workforce and human capital management solutions. Our tagline says it all: “SmartLinx cares for those who care.” It’s a very meaningful slogan in my opinion, because when people who provide care are themselves taken care of, they tend to provide better care.
Everything we do is really focused around providing better care to people who provide care for patients and residents every day.
Let’s talk digital transformation, as I know it’s important to SmartLinx. It’s one of those terms that seems easy to understand, but at the same time, it’s specialized. How does SmartLinx define it, and what does it look like for long-term care or post-acute care providers?
Aslanyan: The word “transformation” for me symbolizes something that changes over time, sometimes progressing more rapidly under certain circumstances than others. In the case of the pandemic, digital transformation has happened much faster and developed much more rapidly than what we’ve seen in the past.
Previously, we rarely heard the phrase “digital transformation.” Now, whether you talk to market analysts or senior care operators, everybody’s referring to that term. It’s interesting how the term’s context differs slightly depending on who you’re talking to and what you’re talking about, but the essence remains the same.
Across the board, technology serves as the focus of “digital transformation.” Senior care organizations, specifically, have lagged behind, both in technology selection and implementation. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Part of the reason senior care hesitated to adopt new technology is because operators want to implement proven technologies that don’t take a lot of time to get up and running and don’t take away time from their daily routine of providing care.
Instead of pursuing technology as a transformational vehicle, operators adopted a reactive approach and implemented one function at a time. They ended up relying on multiple disparate processes or systems to manage their everyday workforce operations. For example, they might use one platform to create and manage schedules, another to track time and another to handle payroll. All these processes require manual intervention, which introduces a lot of potential for human error.
In this new normal, that reactive approach won’t work. Organizations can no longer afford to wait to see what’s going to happen — especially if they have disparate systems and especially when so many organizations must support remote work. Remote workforces need tightly integrated technology that allows them to be nimble and adapt to changes, while giving staff immediate access to the data.
What COVID showed everyone is that to avert a future crisis, we need to be more innovative in how we deal with changing demands. That, ultimately, is digital transformation.
You talked about being creative. What are the top areas in which the pandemic exacerbated challenges for senior living?
Aslanyan: The one that comes top of mind is staffing. Prior to the pandemic, turnover in the senior care industry was already extremely high. We know that the annual turnover rate was about 120% as recently published in Health Affairs. This is a known fact for the industry.
In the pandemic, that problem is amplified. Some of the people providing care are also getting sick. Staffs are stretched thin because operators don’t have as many available staff members to draw up as they normally would.
The second challenge is disease prevention. How do you establish a new protocol to help you safely bring in, as needed, third-party agency staff to fill the gaps? These two staffing challenges converged: the existing challenge and the new one driven by disease prevention and monitoring technologies and protocols. And once again, the industry gravitated to technology to deal with these two challenges.
That led to an increased interest in using predictive analytics to better predict staffing needs. This scenario has become much more top of mind than ever before. We’ve witnessed much more reliance on support employees while also looking outside the immediate company to third-party providers.
The question becomes: How can the organization remain nimble and efficient? You just can’t do this without the right technology. Technology enables you to not only publish up-to-date schedules in real-time, but to also manage the workforce and help employees understand what’s happening and the role the third-party plays.
How does digital transformation answer that senior living staffing challenge in 2021?
Aslanyan: When I think about 2021 and digital transformation, I think about what operators faced in the short term in 2021 and what problems could be preventable with technology. COVID made them realize that there needs to be general changes made at the operational level.
From a long-term perspective, I think operators must understand they need to be constantly prepared for unprecedented challenges like the ones they experienced during the pandemic. These challenges came fast and furious and I’d say, as a whole, the industry and the world were not prepared. COVID-19 showed everyone the costs of being caught off guard, especially when caring for the most vulnerable population. Being unprepared for these challenges is not an option for long-term viability.
Tell us about S.L.A.T.E., the new innovation from SmartLinx: SmartLinx Advanced Timeclock for Employees. How does it help operators and why are you and the team excited about it?
Aslanyan: The team and I are really excited about and proud of S.L.A.T.E., a next-gen timeclock that we started to develop before the pandemic. We were already leveraging the latest technology and working hard to be the first to market with a lot of bells and whistles: like facial recognition, multi-factor authentications, et cetera.
We were in the process of building out the clock when the pandemic hit. We quickly pivoted to change capabilities and add new ones that addressed the market’s most pressing needs. We decided to make the whole clock in experience completely touchless. S.L.A.T.E. combines the latest innovation in touchless technology with the integrated time tracking and employee scheduling to help our customers safeguard their facilities and enhance workforce operations.
The touchless time clock now makes the process of punching in and out six times faster than the traditional clock, because staff is no longer punching in access codes and waiting for approval. This cuts down on long lines during shift change and promotes social distancing. Our excitement comes from converging two goals into one: increased efficiency and preventing the spread of disease. We’re really proud to offer such a vital tool to our customers who are fighting to protect our most vulnerable population and their staff in this trying situation.
Many of today’s employees want to work for a company that they feel understands them and treats them as something more than just a worker. How does digital transformation help reinforce for the employee that the employer is meeting those expectations?
Aslanyan: As the industry matures and the world evolves, we rely on our smart devices to communicate with one another. We make fewer phone calls and rely more on messaging and other communication channels to solve problems and schedule people. What I can tell you, especially with firsthand experience in this market, is that in the past, everything in the technology world focused on satisfying the needs of the employer.
We’re now seeing a big transformation where focus is not just on the employer, but also on the employee. Employees always want to feel they’re a part of the organization that’s doing important work as opposed to being an individual service provider.
It’s very difficult to develop this culture in health care because in most cases, you’re working with hourly employees who don’t have the same connection points to their employer as salaried professionals. They don’t have corporate emails. Their sense of belonging can differ substantially from what we typically expect between employee and employer.
These factors create a sense of disconnect and reduce employee satisfaction with their workplace because there’s much less predictability. The question remains: How do we shift the focus from employers to employees?
We do this with the right technology — technology that can transform the employee experience like our smartphone application SmartLinx Go. Staff members can use the app in multiple ways, from looking up new schedules, accepting or swapping shifts, requesting PTO and downloading paystubs.
Because we realize most caregivers work more than one job and different shifts, we strive to increase the predictability or stability of their work life. The more we do that, the more we increase employer-employee communication, the better they’ll feel about their employer.
2020 was a brutal year, but there is reason for hope in 2021. What makes you hopeful for senior living in 2021?
Aslanyan: I interact closely with facility operators every day. While the pandemic was heart-wrenching in many ways, it also made us realize that in difficult situations, we do come together. Everybody took the steps they could help. It was amazing to see how everyone across the continuum of care came together to provide the best possible care they could during that time.
The ability of facilities to mobilize quickly and adapt was nothing short of remarkable. They did a fantastic job. Yes, they were unprepared just like the rest of the world, and yet they understood the necessity and jumped in with both feet. In many instances, they did control their destiny by quickly implementing new practices, procedures and protocols.
The silver lining here is that many tools and technologies were adopted to help facilities stay compliant, give better care and prevent the spread. It sort of leapfrogged the industry at a speed that wouldn’t have been expected otherwise. Their “business as usual” is now defined by coexisting with the technology. They now understand better than ever how SmartLinx and technologies like SmartLinx Go and SLATE can help them survive, prevail and get better in these situations.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SmartLinx is in the business of optimizing human potential in senior housing through a single, unified workforce management suite, handling scheduling, payroll, compliance and much more. To learn how SmartLinx is changing senior living, visit SmartLinx.com.
The Voices Series is a sponsored content program featuring leading executives discussing trends, topics and more — shaping their industry in a question-and-answer format. For more information on Voices, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.