Illustration by Hello Many

Employees at Sutter Physician Services, an affiliate of Sutter Health, say that it’s a great place to work—and high ratings from its employee experience surveys support that view. “We have an patient-centered environment where the work that we do feels meaningful because it’s about helping patients and their families,” says Derek Marshall, VP of Patient Services. “We connect being part of the healing process with our day-to-day operations. It’s a unique environment because the patients also inspire our staff and make it a great place to work.”

In fact, the health care administrative services company’s workplace has been recognized by Sacramento Area Human Resources Association with an Workplace Excellence Leader Award, and most recently, IQPC’s Call Center Excellence Award for Creating a Culture.

But things weren’t always so positive. In 2006, a blunt discussion about the work experience at the annual leadership retreat revealed the need for a culture makeover, Marshall says. SPS brought in culture and leadership experts Denison Consulting to assess the environment. It was an eye-opening exercise, he recalls, and the catalyst for change.

“We embarked on an aggressive plan to change the culture,” he says. “We were very deliberate about how we committed funds to it to support a work plan, and how we would continue to focus on it and measure it. It was a major leadership initiative.”

It took some time at the beginning to build trust among the staff. During that first year, “we got a little traction, but not much because there was still skepticism. We had to demonstrate our commitment to change,” Marshall says. “It wasn’t until we made it part of our day-to-day operations and showed that we were acting on what we were hearing that people believed we were serious about change. We identified issues, were very transparent about what they were, we committed to resolving them and we worked together as a team to get them fixed. We just had to do that again and again so that it became part of the culture.”

SPS takes the pulse of its culture throughout the year with regular team surveys and an annual culture survey. On a daily basis, leaders hold huddles with their teams to get feedback about issues that may be affecting performance, what causes the issues and how to improve. “Then we take that feedback and turn it into actions. It’s a real-time daily approach,” he says.

Staff also provide feedback about other workplace issues. SPS has an engagement committee that continually asks employees how to better support the way they want to work. For instance, the company recently redesigned its break rooms to create a variety of environments based on employee feedback. Some are designed to be quiet, relaxing spaces, while others are set up for activity and engagement, where staff can play video games or ping-pong.

Once employees saw that the leadership team was committed to changing the culture, the initiative began to quickly pick up momentum. “Five years later, we now sit in the 97th percentile in all of the areas we wanted to improve,” Marshall says. “The lesson is, you’ve got to focus on it and work on it. It doesn’t just happen.”