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The senior living industry has a voice. You can hear it on Bridge the Gap podcast!

251: Chris Nall

The evolution of technology for seniors is also impacting labor efficiencies. Join Chris Nall, Chief Technology Officer at Atria Senior Living, as he breaks down the impacts plus discusses voice technology.

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Lucas 00:35

Welcome to Bridge to Gap podcast, the Senior Living podcast with Josh and Lucas. A great topic on and a great guest. We wanna welcome Chris Nall. He’s a Chief Technology Officer at Atria Senior Living. Welcome to the program.

Chris 00:49

Thank you Lucas. Excited to be here.

Lucas 00:51

Very excited that you’re on. You know, technology in senior living has actually had sweeping changes, particularly over the past couple of years. Some of that has been based out of just necessity as the challenges that the world faced through dealing with COVID. And I’ve been in this industry a long time. Chris, you’ve probably seen it too, is that you know, there has been a discussion where, you know, senior living operators are slow to adopt new technology. And I would say that today there have been drastic changes. There’s been an evolution. We’re gonna be talking through how that evolution has taken place. We’re gonna pick your brain on some of the impacts of voice technology and how this is helping with workforce and labor efficiencies. Chris, you obviously are deeply ingrained in the tech field. Tell us why you’re not in Silicon Valley and instead you’re at Atria Senior Living.

Chris 1:47

Yeah, thank you, Lucas. A little bit of background at Atria Senior Living, we are 400 community strong management company, about 45,000 residents at our communities today. All but 29 of ’em in the US and Louisville’s actually kind of a big hub on aging tech. I’ve been, you know, born and raised here in Louisville, Kentucky. Spent some of my time with a couple Fortune Five companies and, and really tried to bring a lot of like my industrial and consumer background into senior tech. And specifically, you know, what excites me about it is, you know, COVID, while it presented a lot of like health and care challenges, you know, leading up to COVID, we’re already starting to fill a labor crunch, starting to look at technology to, you know, supplement where we can’t get labor. And I think what we’ve come to the realization is, you know, the labor, some of the tasks and functionality that the employees pre 2020 used to do, they’re not gonna do that. You know, we can’t hire people to do that. We wanna hire caregivers, we wanna hire great culinary. So some of the various pieces of technology that my team’s introducing is being accelerated to fill that labor gap, but also to ensure we have the best experiences in a particular Atria community anywhere in, you know, Canada or even the US.

Josh 3:08

Well, so Chris, that is a lot to unpack because technology touches so much. And as you touched on enabling some efficiencies on the staffing side. And then I know there’s a big discussion, a very broad discussion about the technology that the actual seniors are using themselves within the community. Can you give us a little bit of a macro perspective for our listeners and for our audience on kind of the evolution of that and how, maybe give us examples specifically how your team is kind of leading the charge on this.

Chris 3:44

So I think prior to the pandemic, there was always emergency costs, you know, hardware, software keeping, keeping our seniors safe. There was engagement information, whether it’s bulletin boards, printouts to keep people engaged in activities. And then we had a lot of various care systems. One thing within Atria, we’ve had for several years a family app, you know, iOS based, that would keep families up to date on all the activities of community, all the culinary activities. What we’ve really looked to do is to expand that out and meet the resident where they like to be met. Whether it’s as you can see in the background, I got an Amazon Alexa. We’re using that same information for several of our communities to pipe that down to their room. We know a lot of the seniors in our communities, only about 20, 30% have a smart device. In five years that’s gonna jump dramatically as more and more people moved to independent living, assisted living. So what we’re really focused on now is, you know, not only putting the infrastructure in place to handle iOT devices, smart devices like an Alexa device, but also upgrade the, you know, existing technology to more voice base. So example, I’ll give you a pull cords. You go in any senior living community, you know, you see pull cords, very medical based. We don’t want that look, get a lot of our communities. We want it, you know, it’s your new home away from home. We’re taking, you know, stronger care of mom and dad. So we’ve actually rolled out wearables to a handful of communities that are two-way voice communication. So if you know mom or dad were to need any of our care staff, it’s just a wristwatch away to get that particular personalized care.

Chris 5:26

Also a big jump forward and that piece of technology is real time tracking for safety and exposure tracking. We were able to really leverage that during COVID, but you know, in the past we would’ve gotten a lot of pushback because no one likes being tracked. They don’t like being tracked on their phone. But it was really an excellent adoption on, you know, not only the safety, but the exposure and all around that, that care aspect that allowed us to, you know, roll out wearables to a community that may not have, you know, ever entertained that prior to the pandemic. From an Alexa show rollout, you know, that’s one that we’ve been fortunate to have a very detailed CRM. We have a lot of information about our residents. What we’re trying to do is curate it to, you know, the events that are kind of rotating through the screen behind me. These same events, we’re also introducing digital signage that has the same information throughout the community. Previously we’d have to pay, you know, several hundred dollars a month for printouts. We’d have to have labor to walk those to the rooms, and we’d see 10 to 15% adoption of those activities. We’re seeing, you know, 30 – 40% increased participation just by moving to more of a digital medium, in that type of activity in the past. You maybe had a care provider or a you know, a culinary person print off menus, handing ’em out. We don’t have to do that anymore. They’re the same system that they’re electronically writing the menus, creating activities where we’re pulling all that information and really pushing it out to multiple different digital communication methods. I think your other question too is, you know, the infrastructure to power this, I think everybody’s comfortable.

Chris 7:07

You know, everybody has high speed wireless. Every piece of technology got quick adoption during COVID, we’re actually consciously going in and starting to put more full building WiFi, more in room WiFi, you know, the senior of, you know, 2005, 2015, you know, they didn’t, you know, they didn’t expect to have in room WiFi. They didn’t expect to, you know, have all this streaming. You know, that’s taking this quantum leap. So we are putting quite a lot of investment as a company into, you know, preparing us for the next 10 to 15 years. From an infrastructure perspective.

Josh 7:39

Well, you know, these great opportunities, these great improvements, I know they can potentially present some challenges in, you know, probably some of the obvious ones that our listeners face and we hear talked about as we have really a broad group of listeners across the continuum that represent different community sizes, everything from primary markets to tertiary markets to big organizations, to very small, independently owned operating groups, and then they cover the spectrum of the continuum. So a lot of different strategies, and I know sometimes implementation and even understanding what technologies are right for you. And you guys obviously led by you and your team have the benefit of having, you know, a great infrastructure and a lot of people to help with that. But are there any pointers just not even dealing with picking the right technology, but when you do determine to implement technology, have you, have you guys had any success strategies to ensure that it’s implemented well at the local community level?

Chris 8:51

For that in particular, it’s the ultimate challenge of adoption and support for CTO, like, no matter any piece of technology, and I think going into 2022+ is designing for autonomous support. So, what that means is, you know, I mentioned some numbers, 400 communities, 15,000 employees, they’re not, it’s a piece of technology breaks down. They’re not gonna, you know, report it in a timely manner that we would prefer as the CTO of the company. So what we’ve built as we roll these out is, you know, autonomous alerts that a device is offline, automation with my help desk team to attend to that. And you know, where we’ve been able to introduce automation for a restart is, you know, kind of the rinse and repeat style. We’ve gone, whether it be digital signage, whether it be Amazon, Alexa, just cuz we know that the staff isn’t gonna report it, you know, for a while and for good reason. We’ve got 3000 open jobs right now in the company. Their busy, they’ve got a lot on their plate. I can’t expect them to do it. But what I wanna make sure is once we put that investment in a community, like we know, you know, from Louisville, Kentucky that a particular, you know, piece of technology is down. We’ve got, we’re actively engaged behind the scenes and we’re bringing it back up without them reporting it. And I think that’s a shift in traditional it where we, you know, we’re expecting users to report issues. We’re expected users to bring it back online with what’s out there now from an IOC perspective, we have the ability to police that. I can tell you right now where in our Cathedral Hill location in San Francisco, we have an offline device and it triggers a notification to our local team there.

Chris 10:36

The other we’ve started invest in, and it’s been almost two years now where we have a lot of tech in a community, and when I say a lot of tech, we’ve got wearables, Alexas, we’ve automation with the lights, blinds and thermostats. We actually have a role called a Digital Innovation Director. And they are the, they live, well, they don’t live with the community, they work a lot of hours there, but they are the, not only the conduit for my team to support some of the higher tech communities, they’re also helping the resident learn their iPhone, learn their Android, learn how to use an iPad, learn how to use the Alexas, because we’ve seen that as an investment not only into our communities from a support perspective, but the residents, you know, they’re curious. We actually will have these individuals create engagement activities where it’s, you know, bring your iPhone for an hour and I’m gonna teach you these tips and tricks and you know, in the past you would maybe have an engagement activity around needle point or cooking, similar concept with tech at a community where we want the residents to fully embrace it. And we actually at this particular community, you know, saw a jump, like 10% usage to 50% usage just by having a, you know, consistent approach to educating residents on how to best use their IOT devices and their smart departments.

11:54

You know, Lucas, let’s take just a couple moments to talk about the challenges facing our industry and the communities and the providers. Everything from the pandemic inflation and who knows what else that may arise. To meet the demands placed on your business in these turbulent times, you’ve gotta be agile and ready to make changes at a moment’s notice. Conversion Logics provides digital marketing services and lead generation software to the senior living industry leaders. They constantly monitor your campaigns to maximize your investment and enable you to pivot as the market dictates. We want to thank Conversion Logics for being a great sponsor and supporter of Bridge the Gap. Now back to the program.

Josh 12:40

Wow. So it’s a huge topic and you know, I know, Lucas ,you probably experienced this a lot dealing with the building renovations and upgrades in communities, but I know you touched on the aspect of going back into existing community inventory and making the whole place with strong WiFi because it’s really shifting demands. You know, the generation we’ve been serving didn’t really expect that, maybe even have a strong demand for that, but now it’s, as we’re transitioning to serving a different generation, it’s kind of an expectation, right?

Chris 13:20

And I mean our business is a bit unique cuz we are that, we’ve got two thirds independent living, assisted living where you have the care and then the memory care. So I get a lot of my inspiration from the hospitality industry. I, you know, do a lot of secret shopping of, you know, some of the hotel amenities and, you know, how are they leveraging, you know, needs tracking by a you know, in that case it’s typically a tourist, but we’ve got the same challenges of how can we electronically get a maintenance request? How can we electronically get a concierge request? We’ve actually also, you know, we’ve, you know, 400 communities, we’ve got 400 restaurants essentially. So how are we, you know, being smarter with point of sale system to track consumption and curate our menus where it, you know, it engages the resident and I think it’s a competitive industry. Cause you know, people wanna age, you know, in a community, they wanna enjoy that culinary experience, the community experience and you know, we’ve gotta really step it up from the paper based systems that you would put an order form in, somebody would pick it up and present that information back to the employees to run a more electronic environment. I think a shift from, you know, years ago where, you know, the assumption is people like the meals you were picking, what we have now is we have the ability to see what they ordered that day and then, you know, the next month change up the menu to, you know, delight the residents and you know, keep ’em living and loving, living in a interesting living community.

Josh 14:49

You know, one thing I’m curious of, and I don’t know if you know the answer to this question, but just a curiosity of mine is when you look at the bottom line of, let’s just say any community’s budget, you know, I know we’ve talked about and it’s probably easy to see how technology can help in task and engagement and efficiency of task related duties for team members. But I’m wondering if, you know, the cost associated with perhaps the infrastructure to run that, the technology itself and all that goes into that. Is it you’re just kind of shifting cost from labor burden to technology burden? Or do you see that there’s actually some gains in, you know, economic efficiency, financial efficiency on the bottom line? Or is it kind of a trade?

Chris 15:47

I think there’s the labor replacement, but it’s still, you know, it, you’re replacing a $15 an hour job over 40 hours a week. Like we’ve been able to see it, the introduction of like an Alexa or a digital sign can drastically offset, you know, not only the labor, but the print costs are pretty significant. People do like paper still. But if you go to a high end hotel, you go into a low end hotel, you don’t get the paper printouts you used to do, you don’t get the newspapers. It’s all delivered electronically. And that’s how we’re building out our benefit case. The other thing we are building out is that kind of engagement to show, hey, we’re driving engagement. That engagement should tie into a longer stay at one of our communities. And then, you know, that longer stay, it doesn’t take, you know, more than a couple months of a few people to drastically like offset some of the technology that we’ve invested. On the flip side, on the infrastructure, you know, those are just the table stakes that we’re seeing with any new build that, you know, people are expecting to come in and you know, have full building WiFi, stream their devices. You know, when I go visit communities that don’t have that, you know, they’ll be very quick to tell me and, you know, which local ones have these amenities that they are losing business to. So that, that helps us build out like a, you know, an infrastructure investment benefit case from Atria’s perspective. 

Chris 17:09

The other one I didn’t talk about is, you know, we’re actually testing out RFIDs and our wearables for unlocking doors to rooms. Sounds really trivial. You go to any hotel, you always have an RFID lock, but it’s something that has not been heavily invested in. We’ve got it in about a dozen communities and we’re seeing that that cost benefit is offsetting re-keying a building. It’s also a sales point of protecting mom and dad cuz we know who has that key card coming in and outta the room. Where in the past it was definitely a manual process, you know, checking down camera footage if you ever had a security incident for us to see.

Josh 17:45

Well I think  you bring up some really good points that, you know, a lot of the technology that we’re implementing in senior living right now, while it may feel a little bit cutting edge to senior living, you look at other industry verticals, like hospitality and so forth, and it’s stuff that you and I are accustomed to. So this new generation of seniors that are beginning to age into our communities, that’s what they’ve been accustomed to. And so, you know, the expectations are much higher on a lot of fronts, including the technology front. And wow, what, you know, again, great opportunities present great challenges in our industry and I know many of our listeners, Lucas, are definitely gonna want more of this conversation. We’re just kind of scratching at the surface.

Lucas 18:43

Totally. Absolutely. And I, you know, one of the big takeaways for me out of this, I’m interested in this new kind of Atria geek squad that you have at the communities, that you’ve got people helping with technology. I have to admit, I had not heard of that position before. I thought I’ve heard about all the new positions, but that’s a new one to me. I’m very interested to see how that evolves over time.

Chris 19:07

It’s definitely one, Lucas. It’s not only, you know, a big benefit on, you know, my arms and legs in the community, but also the feedback on adoption. You know there are incubators of what are people asking you for, we should be thinking about cuz we’re not, you know, in the communities every day. The other benefit of that, it’s part of our sales process. You know, you move in, you’ve got your local IT support, you’ve got your culinary support, you’ve got activities, and it just helps us definitely differentiate at our higher tech communities that we’ve introduced in the last few years.

Lucas 19:42

Well, and I’ve I’m in these types of communities every single week of my life and I imagine this also takes some of the stress and strain off of the Maintenance Director, Facilities Maintenance Director, the Executive Director, because I’ve walked the corridors before of these communities and I have lost count how many times a resident has asked the Maintenance Director to help them with their iPhone or, you know, asking for the Executive Director to help them with their smart TV. And I mean, the list goes on and on and on. So I imagine that this position really helps out to take that burden and that load.

Chris 20:22

Very much. And it’s a great position. You know, the hiring persona of that position is, you’ve got your curious individual that worked at a Genius Bar at Apple or you know, worked at a help desk, but then they have a passion for helping seniors. They’ve got, you know, parents or a close relative in a senior living community and their whole attitude is how do I make this simpler? How I also come up with new ideas where we can get more adoption, get them more comfortable with the technology, and at the end of the day, like, use it to stay connected, use it to, you know, the machine behind me. You know, we will help them program that to call their kids. We’re unique that we have, you know, worked with a company called AVA Health that helped us and Amazon to get this to a state where it’s self supported locally, but at the same time it’s fleet managed myself, my parents are they’re not in a senior living community, but they’re very familiar with the technology, but it also, I’ve got the ability to like call their devices. I think that’s important for our particular clientele. Keeping them connected, making it simple for them to connect to it, it’s been definitely a hit with the communities that we’ve been able to roll these out in.

Lucas 21:34

That’s a great point to end on. Chris Nall with Atria Senior Living, awesome conversation. Thank you so much for spending time with us today.

Chris 21:43

Yeah, thank you, Lucas. Thank you, Josh. Enjoyed it.

Lucas 21:46

And for all of our listeners if you want more information about this, we’ll make sure we connect with Chris in the show notes. You can go to btgvoice.com, access all of our content, check us out on LinkedIn, follow us, like us, engage with us there. And thanks for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.

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251: Chris Nall