Breaking Through the Cascade of Information With Atrium Health

 In Comms Heroes, Podcast

Healthcare is going through massive transformation right now. So, I am pleased to welcome Chris Berger, AVP of corporate communications at Atrium Health, which operates hospitals, urgent care centers, emergency departments, and medical practices in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

We’ll discuss: 

  • what Chris learned from his time at Wal-Mart, 
  • his omni-channel approach to internal communications to reach and engage “deskless” employees, 
  • how they launched their workforce communications platform (powered by SocialChorus), and 
  • his favorite cocktail.

“It’s one of the things that you think about what do you leave at an organization, what impact do you have? This was certainly one of those ones where, you know, no matter what happens in my career, I’ll be very proud of putting this tool in place here to make sure that we are truly communicating better with our internal teammates.”

—Chris Berger

We feature communications leaders every second and fourth Tuesday of the month. Don’t miss an episode of Culture, Comms, & Cocktails, brought to you by SocialChorus. Subscribe now wherever you listen to podcasts (Apple, Google Play, Stitcher, etc.)

Culture, Comms, & Cocktails Episode #18 Transcript

Chris Berger: Hey, it’s great to be here today. You know, this was the pinnacle of my career being on the podcast with you.

Chuck Gose: That means it’s all downhill from now, Chris? So just enjoy it. Be along for the ride. So grab a seat here at the Culture, Comms, & Cocktails lounge and let’s get started.

Before we get into your work at Atrium. I have a little bit of a more personal question for you, Chris. Since we first connected on LinkedIn and it was before you joined Atrium Health, you’re one of their more active corporate communications (corp comms) leaders on LinkedIn, at least from what I see in my network. You might be even the most active corp comm  leader there. It frustrates me because, so often corporate communications leaders want their employees to be advocates and share news, but they themselves aren’t actively sharing. So, is this intentional? What’s your motivation behind this?

Chris Berger: It’s very intentional. I have always thought LinkedIn is probably one of the best things for sharing professionally. I think all the recent surveys out there, it really backs this information up. So as I’ve gone through my career, I’ve noticed a lot of professional sharing happens on LinkedIn, and I just took it on to say, okay, wherever I work, I want to make sure that I’m an advocate as much as I want my team to be just like you said. We’re always trying to build brand advocates at whatever organization we work at. If I can be the chief advocate, that’s what I see my role as. As you know, leading communications is enabling that and helping others share the good news.

I’ve always been a fairly passionate individual wherever I work. I have to really buy into the mission and vision and all that. And then once that happens, I love to share the good news that’s happening and certainly have no end to the good news where I currently work at Atrium Health.

Chuck Gose: Oh, I applaud you on it. You’ve certainly set the tone and the example of how to be a good advocate on LinkedIn. Something else I’m curious about your background. On a previous episode of the podcast, I interviewed Kyla Turner from Love’s [Travel Stops] and she talked about some of the culture she brought to Love’s from her experience at Southwest Airlines, which is well known for their culture. And you used to work at Walmart prior to coming to Atrium Health. So what have you carried with you from your Walmart days into Atrium?

Chris Berger: I’m drawn to mission-driven organizations and at Walmart they have a very simple but clear vision and mission. It was “save people money so that they can live better.” Everybody sees it on the store, so save money, live better. That was actually from back when Sam Walton was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and I think it was ’92, and everything that they do flowed from that mission.

Last week, you probably saw it on LinkedIn, I visited the home office, and took a group from Atrium Health to go do some benchmarking and knowledge sharing with their EOC group. What was neat there was to kind of showcase exactly what I’ve been talking about.

When you go to the home office, you’re not seeing anything extravagant… There’s not many windows actually on the buildings at the home office. They’re very simple and plain… They’re working to do some things to help with recruiting and retention. But one of the things I admired was they really live that save money, live better. So anything they could do to pass the savings onto the customer, they were doing.

One of the things that shocked me in my first day I walked into this building of 6,000 technologists [was]  even things like taking out your own trash. They don’t have some consortium that comes around and takes your trash. You do that yourself, you vacuum your pod.

It was those types of things that really helped me really grasp hold of the mission. There’s some really cool things they have in place there. They have a thing called the 10 foot rule. I’ve tried to bring that here, because if you’re within 10 foot of someone, you should say hi to them. Too many times when you’re walking around an organization that is getting bigger or even small, you just ignore people. You’re on your duty. You have something to do, and you just walk past people and you never acknowledge that they’re there.

The other thing that they had was called a sundown rule. Sundown rule basically said, “Look, if you get an email or you get something that you can finish by the end of the day, you should.”

I thought, wow, that’s a great concept because how many things do we have that sit in our email box or we’ve sent out that we’re waiting on someone to respond to, and not everything will you be able to actually do that day. But you could respond with an email that says, “Hey, I’m on top of this. Here’s what I think. I’ll be able to do it and get it back to you.” That’s something I’ve been trying to share more and more with my team and just making sure from a customer standpoint, they know what’s happening with work that’s sitting in their email or whatever.

Those two things really resonated with me. But yeah, there were so many great things about the culture there that really they’re just common sense things but they had an ability and an opportunity. What they did is they made these common sense business practices every day and what’s expected. That was one of the things I loved about when I was there at Walmart.

Chuck Gose: Well, I think it’s one thing that’s great any time you learn from another business and get your employees out, but I think sometimes what can happen that seems like it happens a lot in healthcare is they always just want to benchmark against other healthcare, and it gets to be a little bit of an echo chamber where you just see everybody acting the same. So I liked that you guys went to a retail environment or retail customer to see what they’re doing. No different than a manufacturer would learn a lot by coming into a healthcare company.

Chris Berger: Absolutely. When I joined Atrium Health almost three years ago, one of the things that I recognized was what healthcare is going through right now is becoming more and more customer-centric. Maybe they haven’t had to do that in the past, but what I would say retail went through like 10 years ago plus when you’re thinking about omni-channel, people want to… You know, their news or they want to interact, they want to buy things when they want it, how they want it, where they are.

Healthcare is the same way. That’s what’s happening right now. Unfortunately, healthcare is a little bit, I feel like, behind the game. But I love working at a forward-thinking company like Atrium Health where we’re trying to push the boundaries. You know, we’re looking at Amazons, we’re looking at the Walmarts, we’re looking at many different organizations out there that how are they reaching customers in a way that customers actually want to be interacted with right now. So, we’re kind of reframing how people think about healthcare, and that’s what we’re doing with our virtual care visits and lots of different things across the organization.

Chuck Gose: Now, we’ve mentioned Atrium Health many times so far, and some people may not be familiar with the organization. So talk about the size of the company, the mission, your team, so people get a feel for the organization.

Chris Berger: Our mission is I think a fantastic mission. I joined the organization right after they had rolled a new mission out. They went through a very purposeful process involving board members, involving others in the community, to come up with a new mission statement that everybody could grasp hold of and understand. It’s pretty simple. It’s to improve health, elevate hope, and advance healing for all.

That is one of the biggest driving points of what we talk about, and is a huge sense of pride for Atrium Health. Just from a size and scope perspective, it is mind-boggling a little bit when I think about it. We have about 70,000 teammates, 50 hospitals, 44 urgent care locations, 900-plus facilities where we’re helping people throughout the system, about 3,700 physicians, 17,000 nurses.

But I think the things that blow my mind is the one-day stats, and as I talk about what happens in one day at Atrium Health, we have about 38,000 patient interactions. That’s about one every two seconds. We have about 25,000 patient visits, almost 4,000 emergency room visits, and the list goes on.

We have 91 babies that are delivered every single day at Atrium Health, and then about 635 life saving surgeries happen. That’s the really cool part. One of the most amazing stats to me is every single day, we provide $5.6 million in free and uncompensated care. That adds up to about 2.03 billion with a B, yes, in free and uncompensated care. And that goes back again to our mission of for all. If you don’t have the ability to pay, we help people out. It doesn’t matter if you live under a bridge or you’re the president or CEO of a major large company. If you need life-saving care, we’re going to provide that.

Chuck Gose: Now, you talked about all those babies being delivered there every day, 91 babies a day. This year you’re going to launch your own baby, your own comms baby, a new internal comms platform called Teal Insider. What was the drive behind this? You talked about interacting with customers and learning from how customers are or what’s retail or other environments or treating customers. Is this about how employees are experiencing life at Atrium Health?

Chris Berger: It is. Really the emphasis behind this again is going back to that concept that I talked about, the omnichannel, is I think in communications, generally email is still king unfortunately. Then maybe the intranet and then some other forms of maybe collaboration like Yammer, like SharePoint, like all of these other things that are out there. And it gets messy in there. Really what we were looking for was a way to modernize how we were doing communications across our enterprise.

One of the things that we have been expanding our care across our geographic footprint last February, we actually changed our name from Carolinas Healthcare System to Atrium Health. That was a big deal. The reason we did that is because actually, the day after we announced that we announced that an organization, Navicent Health in Macon, Georgia, would be joining us. That happened at the beginning of this year.

So we knew that organizations outside of the Carolinas probably wouldn’t be so apt to want to join what was happening here at Atrium Health. So we changed from the Carolinas Healthcare System name to Atrium Health. With that, we also knew, as you heard, 50 hospitals. How do you reach that many teammates that are spread across a huge geographic area? How do you reach nurses when we know 40ish-percent of our workforce is not sitting behind a desk? They’re the “undesk worker.” How do you continue to communicate to them in a way that isn’t through email, isn’t through an internet, and why not communicate with them the way that they already interact?

I mean, we’re addicted to these devices, right? We’re addicted to the alert that comes across to let us know there’s a breaking news story or something. That’s how I was thinking about internal comms. I’m a firm believer in what’s external is internal and what’s internal is external. However, there are specific channels and ways to communicate to internal teammates that you want and you absolutely want to make sure that they are able to get those news possibly.

My goal was we would want, if we had a breaking news event, we want our teammates to know about that before the news media is able to push out their push notifications. I can’t tell you how many times we heard the newspaper broke this story, and I heard about it from the newspaper before I heard it from my own organization. Well, we sent out the email, you know, the typical hour or 30 minutes before. But guess what? They’re not connected to those things.

So we knew we had to break through that and actually reach teammates where they are, and this new app, that SocialChorus has been great about helping us through has been one of those fantastic tools that we just launched in August, and we’re already seeing fantastic results from.

Chuck Gose: Speaking of some of those results, what have some of the responses from employees? Either something anecdotal that you’ve heard from people and maybe even leaders. What are they thinking about? You mentioned all the other channels that have been out there for a while. What has been the response from having Teal Insider now available?

Chris Berger: Yeah. I think we’re just at the beginning, but what we have heard already is how excited people are to actually break through the cascade of information that typically happens. I think that has been one of the biggest challenges. You know, as communicators we’re always talking about the cascade and the change management that needs to happen with any big announcement.

The app provides that ability to go directly to the teammates because we know that the traditional “cascade” is broken. That doesn’t happen. We’re waiting. Even if we want it to perfectly happen, there’s always a gap somewhere in there that happens where a manager doesn’t share it with their group or their team or a supervisor forgets to bring it up in the meeting. Now, we can go directly to the teammate with that type of information or we could start at a certain level and give them exclusive content and then cascade it out during a certain time and do a push notification to let them know.

So the initial feedback has been fantastic because people are feeling more connected. They’re understanding the mission and vision. Just like you were talking about LinkedIn, posting things on LinkedIn, one of the big drivers of why we’re so invested into sharing both externally and internally is we have a huge sense of pride about the work that we’re doing. We’re saving lives all the time, and maybe teammates lose sight of that sometimes.

We have something that’s pretty cool at the beginning of most meetings here. We have something that’s called a connect to purpose. What happens during those connect to purpose? There’s something that’s shared. It can be a great patient story. It can be something that we’re doing, but most of the time it’s a very heartwarming understanding of why we do what we do at Atrium Health, and it usually revolves around the patient. Because that’s why we’re here to care for patients, save lives, and, again, go back to our mission statement of improving health, elevating hope, and advancing healing for all.

If we can connect people at the beginning of a meeting, even if it’s a meeting about finance or budgets or whatever, it actually re-centers us a little bit and helps us to really get back to why we exist. What’s happening is people are seeing those stories on Teal Insider and they’re able to share those readily at the beginning of meetings. Before they were kind of searching around trying to figure out. It doesn’t matter if you’re working here in Charlotte, North Carolina or if you’re happened to be at one of our locations around this area or down in Macon, Georgia. They can now look at these stories and share them, and there’s a huge sense of pride that comes from that.

Chuck Gose: Yeah, you bring up a great point and something that I’ve talked to a lot of communicators about. Not that all cascades are bad. Sometimes cascade is for a reason. You want to tell one group before another group, before another group. The problem is by the time that group starts getting toward the bottom, there’s almost too much content to share. They naturally filter out content. Either they understand or they are comfortable sharing and not other things.

We’re reducing the burden on those supervisors and managers by going straight to the employees and letting them communicate the important things that are relevant to the team. Not everything goes to the team. So I think that’s a thing for those managers.

Chris Berger: That’s right. We’ve set up specific channels, which was on the benefits of Teal Insider that we share things just for leaders that says, Hey, this week, when you’re in your huddles share this. It’s a channel called Leaders Know This and basically, it’s share this information with your team, and then there’s three things. We try not to populate it with more than three things. That way it’s simple. It’s very clear. It’s a couple of bullet points that talk about what we’re asking them to share.

It could be around benefits, it could be around some breaking news that we have, but it is important information that we want the leaders to share. But then that same week, we’ll release that same information to teammates. So if we want to make sure everybody has this information so they’re hearing it from multiple sources, because we all know it takes several times for someone to remember whatever information we’re trying to disseminate. The more that we can do that, the better.

Chuck Gose: I know you’re still relatively new until the launch, but have you heard from employees who are seeing the content that they really liked to see? But I’m also curious too, has there been any content bubble up that you guys have discovered that you wouldn’t have known about without Teal Insider of employee sharing things in?

Chris Berger: Yeah, there has been. There’s been a couple opportunities where people have suggested content. I think what’s really exciting is as we do the roadshow, as we share more information with leaders, we have the ability now to get their input and to see how it gets their mind, going up like, “Oh, you mean that I could send out a video each week to my team?” As like a hospital president who has thousands of employees at that location, what better way to keep his whole team motivated?

We know there’s no way a hospital president is going to be able to meet one-on-one with every single teammate. But if he’s able to post a video that talks to very authentically, it’s not like some highly scripted you have to go into production and all this kind of stuff. Just film it on your iPhone and load it. It’s a very authentic way of communicating, and all of a sudden the leader is getting a natural connection with that individual teammate down at the front line that he would never have before.

That’s the type of stuff we’re hearing more and more requests all the time. Can you send me up a special channel that I can communicate out to my team? Can you create some specific, exclusive content channel that we can communicate to this specific group? That’s the beauty I think of the targeting and on the back end of it, the metrics.

I mean I’m a very metric-driven person. So when I’m looking at the metrics and I want to see, okay, who am I reaching? How is this going? Who’s opening it up? How many people signed up? All those types of things. I can give them that report once we have that group signed.

Chuck Gose: What I love hearing is the platform. A lot of companies all over the world use it. But there’s always sometimes these little unique cases or use cases that customers come up with ways to, whether it’s content treatment or whether it’s getting people to sign up or like you said, the exclusive stuff. Are there any kind of unique use cases that you guys are using with Teal Insider?

Chris Berger: Yeah, I think so. Recently, we actually, we had a leadership certificate program that we are offering to our vice presidents and above. The leadership team, as we all know, so goes that group, so goes the organization. We really wanted to get them all together and talk about where are we going as an organization, make sure that everybody hears from our president, CEO, Gene Woods.

He has done a fantastic job. He was the one that led the new mission and vision and really heard straight from him kind of where we’re going as an organization. Where is healthcare going and then how do we fit into that picture? A lot of people talk about the consolidation of healthcare that is happening. More and more organizations, you know, the healthcare is getting bigger.

It’s not for size sake, it’s to be able to deliver care better throughout a larger geography, and high quality care done well is very attractive. So one of the things that we were doing was gathering this group together to help explain, to make sure that they understood the why. You know, there’s the book Start With Why, really huge believer in that.

It’s like, why don’t we get the groups together and put them through what we call the leadership certificate program? Let them know where we’re headed as an organization. That way, they feel comfortable leading us through the change. Healthcare is just going through massive, massive transformation right now and we’re not any different than that. So we announced that we’re hopeful that Wake Forest Baptist will be opening up its second school of medicine here in Charlotte. We’re the largest city that doesn’t have it.

How does that fit into our larger picture? You know, that could create some angst with leaders of: where do I fit into that? So basically gathering this group together, we were able to preload exclusive content of things that we wanted them to do as pre-work before showing up. So while we sent an email out to make sure that they all knew what was happening, everything was directed information wise to the app.

It was go download the app and you will find exclusive content that’s posted here. You will need to do this to have to be part of this conversation. One, it drove adoption of the tool, which I love as you know, we’re rolling out a new tool. But two, what it did is it made them engage with the tool truly so they could see the capabilities.

During the actual event… So let me back up. When they were doing the exclusive content, there were several videos that we used. One was a TED Talk that we wanted them to view about change. Another one was just things that they would need to know before showing up and had a couple of questions that we wanted them to be thinking about.

It also had a message from our chief strategy officer as well as our chief learning officers. So there was lots of information that they could only get. We didn’t embed it into the email. It was exclusive and they had to do that. But then during the actual event, we had them all pull out their phone and answer a couple of questions during the event that we then took and embed the rest of the program into. So now, we have all that information as well.

So it’s great. It’s not just like this anecdotal here’s what we heard at the meeting. We actually have everything captured where here’s while they were answering that question. You could see throughout the day the questions that we are asking where, where it seemed a little bit more pessimistic and maybe… I don’t want to say negative, but unsure.

Throughout the day, the more questions we asked, you could see the excitement start to build and then we you could see the hopefulness and felt like people were marching in the same direction. So that was really cool to see along the continuum of that day of how the app actually was helping with the change management and helping get leaders over maybe something that that was sticking in their mind.

Chuck Gose: Well, what’s great, what I took away from that was you made it a need to have tool pretty quick just for them.

Chris Berger: Hundred percent.

Chuck Gose: You kind of forced them in there and like you said, they were now familiar with what Teal Insider was. They could speak to it if an employee asks questions about it or employees saw them participating in there. I always make recommendations to communicators that… Yeah, it’s one thing to have your CEO or other leaders publish in there. But imagine if I’m an employee that I’ve shared a photo and I see my CEO liked it, or I see my CEO or my VP comment in there, what that kind of does to an employees morale is amazing. But you can only get that by them participating in it.

Chris Berger: That’s exactly right. It’s really been exciting to watch the continued evolution of how we communicate and leaders are now starting to catch the vision and come to us and say, I want this, I want this. That was our biggest fear. Like we invest a decent amount of money into a tool that nobody used, and we’re seeing the opposite happen.

I think we’re seeing the desire actually more than we can fulfill right now. So we’re prioritizing, okay, this group needs this immediately, you know? How does that work? So it has been really exciting to see. It’s one of the things that you think about what do you leave at an organization, what impact do you have? This was certainly one of those ones where, you know, no matter what happens in my career, I’ll be very proud of putting this tool in place here to make sure that we are truly communicating better with our internal teammates.

Chuck Gose: You and your team should be very proud of what you’ve created. We’ve talked about some of the culture that you brought from Walmart and what the culture is like there at Atrium. We talked about the communication activities there, and the podcast is called Culture, Comms, & Cocktails. So Chris, what is your favorite cocktail?

Chris Berger: Wow, there’s so many. I joke about my brother. He used to live in England and he got me hooked on single malt scotch. But having said that, I have… Because of one of my teammates that was on my team has really gotten me going on old-fashioned. So I am a big fan right now of old-fashioned, and there’s a local shop that does some handcrafted bitters that are just unbelievable. So I’m definitely on the old-fashion bandwagon.

Chuck Gose: Well, Sonia Fiorenza who was also on the podcast and myself are also big fans of old-fashioned, so I agree with you on that one, and really good-old fashioned is tough to beat. Chris, I want to thank you for being on the podcast. You do not have permission to take your foot off the gas on your LinkedIn publishing now.

I’ve set the expectation that I want to keep seeing content. I hope that other people are like, “What is Chris sharing on LinkedIn? Maybe I should go check and see,” that then they will start sharing more, because you’re right, it is about pride and that’s in this conversation, Chris. I see that and I’ve heard that in your voice of how proud you are of the organization, your team and what you guys have done.

Chris Berger: Yeah. I’d be remiss if I went without saying that I have an amazing team backing all of this up. The brand journalism that goes behind those posts, that is something that we’ve built here and allows me to be able to share the easy story. So without them doing that work, I wouldn’t have anything to share. So amazing team that I love, love, love working with each and every day.

Chuck Gose: Well, Chris, thanks for your time and thanks for sharing the stories.

Chris Berger: Thank you.

Chuck Gose: If you enjoyed what you heard from this episode and want to check out others, find Culture, Comms, & Cocktails on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you like to listen. And when you do, hit that subscribe button so you don’t miss any future episodes. This has been Culture, Comms, & Cocktails, internal comms served straight up. Thanks for listening.

 

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