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At Atria Senior Living, employees get pampered, too

Olivia Just, Darien News-Review
Updated 12:00 am, Monday, September 19, 2011

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  • Donna Gasper serves lunch Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011 at Atria Senior Living in Darien.  Atria Darien was named the top workplace among mid-size companies. Photo: Autumn Driscoll / Connecticut Post

    Donna Gasper serves lunch Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011 at Atria Senior Living in Darien. Atria Darien was named the top workplace among mid-size companies.

    Photo: Autumn Driscoll

 

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In practice, the Atria Senior Living Group in Darien runs a bit like a hotel. There's the receptionist seated at the front desk around the clock, the chef and kitchen staff preparing daily meals, housekeeping staff that maintains the general tidiness of the place and even a whole department geared toward entertainment.

The retirement and assisted-living services provider offers all of this and more to the residents who inhabit the apartments and living spaces, making it a business that aims to make people feel at home.

"It's different from working in any other environment because we're open 24/7 and we're all working toward the same end, which is to create an environment where our residents can have a safe and healthy lifestyle," Wendy Winnick-Baskin, senior executive director of Atria Darien, said. "That requires a certain kind of atmosphere and a certain kind of person."

The offices share the same two-story building with the apartments of the residents themselves, creating an environment where residents and employees can form bonds on a daily basis. Staff members often bring their dogs into work, throw monthly birthday parties and employee dinners for the holidays, and share stories from their families and personal lives.

"We all finish each other's sentences," JoAnn Panella, community sales director, said of the staff.

Atria Darien topped the list of the best mid-sized companies in Fairfield, Litchfield and New Haven counties, according to the survey conducted by Workplace Dynamics. Another Atria facility, with a slightly larger staff, is located in Stamford.

The range of employees at Atria also means a variety of different schedules and tasks; the nursing staff, which includes the resident services director and certified nursing assistants, will often work up to 10 hours, while the reception desk at the facility is manned 24 hours a day. The sales staff is responsible for marketing and touring new clients, and members of the Engaged Life department provide activities for the residents, such as art classes, exercise and field trips. There's even a driver who takes residents to and from their apartments.

New employees to the company go through an extensive orientation program, meeting all the department heads and spending several days training with the company as a whole, not just in their specialized department, so the company gets to know the employee on many levels.

"We want them to understand that we care about them as a person, not just as an employee," Winnick-Baskin said.

Most of the new employees come to Atria Darien by word of mouth, and they have very little turnover.

"When you're doing this kind of work, it's very rewarding," Panella said. "It goes beyond just going to work, it adds meaning to your life. To know that you're not only earning money but that you've helped someone, it's very satisfying."

When a number of employees were detained in Haiti following last year's earthquake, the company stepped in with financial help. Using Atria Cares, the employee-funded nonprofit that provides grants to hourly employees who have temporarily fallen on hard times, Atria's support center reached out to the Darien facility and granted those employees money to help provide for any income lost during that time.

"They understand that you have to care about your employees as much as you care about your clients," Winnick-Baskin said. "Atria really understands that you have to live what you preach."

Alongside the typical benefits package and 401(k) plan, Atria also offers its employees extra benefits through the Atria Rewards program, which recognizes long-term hourly employees and gives monetary awards for achieving high levels of customer satisfaction. Another annual program offers four-year college scholarships to dependents of Atria employees.

The varied team of workers at Atria have been pulled from a variety of backgrounds.

"Here, we have a tremendous diversity of people on the staff," Panella said. "Everybody has brought so much to the table in their area of expertise and it's gelled into a great team."

Once a month, Atria holds a town-hall style meeting with the whole staff, from the nurses to the bookkeepers to the chefs. For lunch, all employees eat a meal from the same kitchen as the residents, free of charge, every day.

"Our chefs make phenomenal food for our residents every day and we are able to choose from their menu," Panella said. "The `bad' benefits of that are that there's always cookies and cake."

Panella, who came to the Darien senior living facility before Atria took it over in 2007, left a 23-year career in the corporate technology world to work in assisted living. She took an interest in the field when her own parents moved into a residence home, and, when an opportunity arose to change careers, she took it.

"It was like a godsend," Panella said. "It was the best decision I ever made to switch careers."

Of her current workplace, Panella said Atria allows its employees enough autonomy to shoulder responsibility without the burden of being constantly monitored. But, it's the atmosphere and co-workers that really set the place apart.

"It's the personality of the place, it's the spirit of the team," Panella said. "It's a supportive environment and a beautiful place to be. We work in an aesthetically pleasing environment and we have a very warm, helpful team. We can see what we're doing to help people every day and you get such satisfaction from those relationships."