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Staying Put

What businesses are doing to keep their diverse employees from leaving the job—and Southwest Florida



Hiring good employees is one thing. But keeping them? That can prove to be more complicated, especially in Southwest Florida, where companies often recruit new employees of different backgrounds, ages and origins. For those culturally diverse employees, working to build new lives and forge new relationships in the Sunshine State can sometimes prove challenging. If that struggle for social integration overwhelms them, it might just be enough for them to decide they’ve made a mistake—either with their job, with Southwest Florida, or both.
But what if there were a way to fix that voluntary turnover? And what if it were as simple as helping people connect with their community, and with the pastimes and passions they need to thrive outside the workplace?

Those are the questions a new initiative led by Lee Health and joined by several other major local employers seeks to answer.

The Idea: About 18 months ago, Yemisi Oloruntola-Coates (right) had an idea, one that had developed after discussions with employees in the Lee Health system.

 “I said, ‘I wonder if I could measure community engagement and social integration,’” recalls Oloruntola-Coates, the system director of diversity and patient care civil rights at Lee Health.

This wasn’t such a wild notion. Around this same time, Oloruntola-Coates read a business article spotlighting the challenges of maintaining diverse employees in the workplace, particularly those who had moved from big to small cities. The employees Oloruntola-Coates had spoken with at Lee Health could be categorized in the same way: Their backgrounds and ages varied, and they hailed from different parts of the country. In many cases, they had also relocated to Lee County from major metropolitan areas.

Yet despite their differences, Oloruntola-Coates heard a common refrain. They all wanted to find a way to get involved in their local community, whether that was through social activities, a house of worship or volunteerism.

“That really gives them some purpose outside of work,” she says.

Oloruntola-Coates theorized that social integration in their community could foster a deeper professional engagement to Lee Health, and that the more integrated someone was, the less likely they would be to leave their job or the area.

There was ample anecdotal evidence to support her idea. Oloruntola-Coates notes that for single people, coming to a new area means having to rebuild your entire social structure, and if you add in the challenges of being a member of a diverse population, those challenges increase. In larger cities, it’s often easier to find and connect with members of your own group, she adds.

“Here you kind of have to find it. It’s not so accessible,” she says. “My concern was whether that impacts their employee engagement.”

Married people face challenges, too, Oloruntola-Coates says. She mentions a phenomenon called a “trailing spouse,” in which one spouse fails to adapt to his or her new community. That failure can begin to weigh on the marriage, and take a toll on other areas, such as work engagement.

“Then you make a decision, ‘you know what, we tried it, this is maybe not the best thing, maybe we need to go back to where we came from,’” she explains. “So you lose really great talent.” 

Oloruntola-Coates, who is Nigerian, can speak to this disconnected feeling firsthand. She moved to Lee County from New York City. In addition to having to learn how to drive a car—something she’d never needed to do before—she also had to seek out the familiar services that had been read- ily available in the big city. At first, she wasn’t sure she’d made the right choice in her move and considered returning to New York City.

“I wasn’t happy. I didn’t feel as satisfied,” Oloruntola-Coates says. “I didn’t see myself living long-term here.”

But after a time, she started working at Lee Health. Her new job required her to be more involved directly in the community and social integration naturally followed from that. Now, 10 years later, she has a very different view of Lee County.

“This is my home,” she says.

The Research: Oloruntola-Coates turned to a team of researchers at Miami University of Ohio for assistance with her theory. The researchers, members of a human capital analytics class headed by Miami University professor Joshua Schwarz, analyzed the results of a spring 2016 survey of Lee Health employees. For that, Oloruntola-Coates used an existing Lee Health employee engagement survey and added in some new, social integration- specific questions.

The more-than 500 survey respondents were of diverse backgrounds and ages, hailed from somewhere other than Lee County, and had worked at Lee Health for less than five years.
The analysis showed a clear link between social integration and work engagement, including turnover likelihood. For every one-point increase in social integration, the results showed that work engagement increased by 31 percent. And for every one-point increase in social integration, turnover intention decreased by 32 percent.

To any organization—be it a large one like Lee Health, which employs more than 12,000 people, or a small one—the need to hold onto good talent is “crucially important” in the changing workplace, Oloruntola-Coates explains.

“It’s a global community. People aren’t wedded to their communities anymore, because they can move because of work,” she says. “How do you retain a global workforce that’s so mobile? We have to diversify and be creative in how we develop and retain our employees.”

As it turned out, Oloruntola-Coates wasn’t the only one asking these questions.

Michelle Zech (left), human resources business partner at Lee Health, was also con- fronting similar concerns in her work. In conversations with other local organizations, Zech found that work engagement and staff retention were issues that many Southwest Florida employers were facing.

That’s when another idea began to form, and step two of the project was launched: Lee Health decided to partner with other major organizations to hold a community resource fair, one that would easily give employees a chance to discover social engagement opportunities outside of work.

The Bonita Springs Chamber of Commerce stepped up to help organize the event, which is being called “Rooted in Southwest Florida,” and will be held from 4-7 p.m. on April 26 at the Southwest Florida Performing Arts Center in Bonita Springs.

The chamber has reached out to local nonprofits, houses of worship, sporting groups, children’s activity providers and other community groups to bring together an event that will give attendees a chance to discover a wealth of diverse engagement opportunities in Southwest Florida, Zech explains. 

“It really is an opportunity to see what’s available in the community in one spot,” she says.

Among those organizations participating in the fair are the Lee County School District, Chico’s, Hertz, Arthrex and Gartner. Angela Pruitt, chief human resources officer at Lee County Public Schools, says she is thrilled to see the effort come to fruition.

Although the district has not conducted an official survey like Lee Health’s to determine if there’s a link between social integration and work engagement, it is something that its employee exit survey touches on, Pruitt notes. In reviewing those exit surveys, Pruitt says that social integration and work engagement are often tied together.

Pruitt adds that in some ways, helping school district employees foster community relationships may be even more vital than it is in other professional fields, since teachers spend their days in the classroom, away from their adult colleagues. That can become a bit isolating, she says.

The district is also keen to understand the special concerns of diverse employees. In spring 2016, the district recruited more than 20 teachers from Puerto Rico. In conversations with those teachers a year later, Pruitt says that those who had made local connections enjoyed a much higher level of work satisfaction than those who had not yet found their community niche.

The Connection: Those familiar with Lee Health know that the system already offers its employees opportunities for community involvement through a Heart Walk team at the American Heart Association’s Lee Heart Walk and organized group volunteer opportunities with the United Way. But as Zech points out, it is often more meaningful for a person to discover his or her own passion, rather than being directed to one by their employer.
“It’s trying to find what fits the person,” she says, “and not one thing fits all.” After the resource fair is complete, Lee Health will evaluate whether it has been a success and what next steps to take. Attendees will be surveyed again after the event. The biggest questions to answer, Oloruntola-Coates says, will be whether the fair improved employee feelings about their community, inspired them to become involved and how that involvement has increased their level of work engagement.

But for one Lee Health employee, the effort has already had results.

Kevin Rosser (right), an executive recruiter at Lee Health, served as a “case study” for the initiative. He relocated to Lee County from Houston in 2015, in part because his wife’s family lives in Fort Myers.

Rosser isn’t shy about admitting he wasn’t enthusiastic about the move. Prior to living in Houston, he’d lived in other major metropolitan areas, such as New York City and Philadelphia. Fort Myers lacked many of the activities and socialization opportunities he had come to love.

“I was missing that big city feel,” he says.

In response, his wife encouraged him to get involved in the community. Through Oloruntola-Coates, Rosser learned of the nonprofit Quality Life Center of Southwest Florida. Lovingly called “the Q” by its supporters and attendees, the Fort Myers organization provides programs and services for at- risk youth. Rosser started volunteering with the Q’s teen mentor program over a year ago.

That connection is what finally changed his perspective on the area.

“I’m starting to love it here. The Quality Life Center that I’m involved with, the kids that I mentor, you’d have to pry my hands away from this area,” Rosser says. “That’s the reason that I’m anchored here now, I feel.” 

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