Case Study No. 110: Baystate Health Systems

Communications Strategy Reaches Spectrum of Employees Baystate Health Systems, Inc. had just devised a markedly different way for employees to report and keep track of their sick and vacation days, and needed to communicate the changes to its approximately 5,000 employees. The primary challenge several years ago for the Springfield, Mass., healthcare concern was how to communicate the details of their new "Earned Time Program" to employees of differing educational, linguistic, professional and ethnic backgrounds scattered around at several locations in a timely, efficient and empowering manner. "The most important aspect was for employees not to see [the new initiative] as taking things away from them," said Anne-Marie Szymt, director of human resources and operations. The answer was an integrated communications strategy which ultimately used several different communications tools, including a manager's guide, a video, flyers, worksheets, computer disks and an interactive computer program. Perhaps the most inventive of the tools created was the interactive program, which consisted of two "Earned Time Machines." These computers featured an interactive bilingual touchscreen activated-program that would allow employees to call up information pertaining to their own record so they could model their future use of planned paid time away from work, such as vacations and other family business, and experiment with various what-if scenarios. The computer contained a database that was periodically updated with actual employee accrual information, so that the program would yield accurate results to the employee using it. To create interest among employees, the "Earned Time Machines" were constructed in a colorful, custom-built housing that resembled a car and were installed in the cafeteria on two different Baystate campuses for employees to use. The car metaphor was intended to reinforce the idea that employees were in the driver's seat, so to speak, in planning out and managing their personal time. "The main difference between the traditional program, which was an organization-controlled accrual process, and the Earned Time program was that under the new program, the responsibility and control of saving and using days is now on the employee," said Szymt. The Problem: Convey a complicated human resources initiative to almost 5,000 employees of differing educational and cultural backgrounds, in different locations. Approach: Hospital created and used materials in a variety of formats, including an eye-catching easy to use interactive computer modeling program. Results: Significant reductions in sick hours paid and unplanned absences; $500,000 in savings annually. But before any of the materials were rolled out, focus groups involving employees were convened in early 1994, to see if the materials under development were effectively conveying a clear and informative message. "We invited primarily rank and file employees who would be affected by the new program," said Laurence Flaccus, director of strategic communications and marketing. "We tried to get a real mix, a cross-section of employees." Managers reviewed the support materials being developed, while employees reacted to worksheets that had been developed to help them calculate how to account for their days under the new program. A 30-minute video, produced in-house, conveyed what the new program was about. It was designed for managers to show at staff meetings. The video also featured Baystate's CEO Mark Tolosky, who delivered comments on the program, a move that helps to "tie the program right in to the top-line values of [Baystate's] healthcare system." Additionally, the video was shown on a closed-circuit TV for employees. Flaccus and staff initially presented the final materials to a group of 400-500 managers, and gave them a sample presentation "we hoped they would give to their staff," said Flaccus. The managers' materials included a guide, and a set of overheads they could use in their presentation. Following that presentation, the Earned Time Machine was rolled out at an invitation-only event on the Baystate campus; staffers who had been involved with the planning of the Earned Time Machine were invited. In June of 1994, the machines were installed in the cafeteria and also were staffed by managers from the human resource department as well as from the communications area. The machines were built on wheels, and were easily moved to a few locations off campus. "Someone was there with the machine, so if a user needed assistance, that person would step in and help," said Szmyt. The computer program was designed to be user-friendly through the use of simple instructions activated by touching buttons on the screen. When the user was finished, he could receive a printout of the desired information. More than 1,500 employees, or about one third of the total number of employees, used the machine during its tenure. Overall, the communications department had a budget of $45,000 to spend on its communications strategy, or about $10 per target employee. The most expensive item in the budget was the Earned Time Machine, which cost $20,000, followed by 8,000 six-color flyers ($8,000), 600 copies of the manager's guide ($6,000), 150 copies of the videotape ($5,000), miscellaneous expenses ($2,250) 150 computer manager's disks ($1,000), 8,000 attendance flyers ($1,000), and another $1,750 for flyers and 5,000 worksheets. All of the materials were produced in house, with the exception of the printing of the multi-colored flyer. The in-house staff of designers, writers, computer programmers and others spent approximately 2,000 hours on the project. Following the implementation of the communications plan, which won a gold Touchstone award from the American Society for Healthcare Marketing & Public Relations in the audiovisual category, managers tracked results. In June 1995, the hospital recorded a 30% reduction in the number of sick hours paid, and a reduction in unplanned absences of 29%. Both reductions meant savings to Baystate of more than half a million dollars. With regard to the program's most expensive item, the Earned Time Machines, managers said that it helped bring awareness of the Earned Time Program to almost 100% of employees. "We found a high degree of interest even among people who we would not think of as computer literate," said Flaccus. "They came to see the machine, and felt less threatened to use it than to ask questions [of management]. I was surprised." (Laurence Flaccus, Anne-Marie Szmyt, Baystate Health Systems, 413/784-4287)

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