When Dana Sellers started Encore Health Resources with Ivo Nelson in 2009, they did it without office space. Four years later, they have an office, but no one actually works there on a daily basis. There’s no receptionist or office manager. There isn’t a single office for any of Encore’s employees, not even Sellers, the CEO. Rare activity can sometimes be seen on a Friday in the form of meetings, classes, orientation or interviews.
Despite its lack of office space, the health care consulting company of 400 employees had $90 million in revenue last year. Sounds a little far-fetched, doesn’t it?
Success like that, according to Sellers, is more likely to occur when you have a razor-sharp focus on strategy — called “smart skinny data” at Encore — and you have to embrace the concept of a virtual office in order for it to become the optimal way to operate.
For Sellers, once she determined the focus, the solution was right behind.
“The biggest problem that our clients need to solve is how to get value out of their data and our answer is a solution that lets them do that in a smart skinny way,” Sellers says. “Really, there is no reason these days, with technology, that you have to have an office. I don’t have any phone number besides my cell phone number. Why should we be held back by big, bulky offices that tie us down to one place?”
Not every business is a good fit for a virtual office, Sellers admits. Companies that deal with a niche, requiring talent from all over the nation, indeed, the globe, have a good shot.
“For our business, it was the only way we could do it,” Sellers says. “It just doesn’t make sense to move everyone into Houston and then have them fly somewhere every week anyway.
“We tell them, ‘Look, you can stay where you want, as long as you are willing to get up and get to an airport and be at your client’s site at a reasonable hour on Monday morning, and as long as you understand you’re not going to get home until really, really late Thursday night. You still work on Fridays — just by conference call.’
“In my business, to be virtual, you have to make a conscious effort to understand how you are going to engage people.
“And I’m really proud that we have been named to Modern Healthcare’s list of best places to work in health care every year that we have been eligible — and we are a virtual company!”
Here’s how Sellers drives Encore Health Resources to develop integral data management systems — virtually — to move the industry forward.
Focus, and then proceed
Sellers and Nelson had a vision when they started Encore and knew that if it were to include helping clients get value out of their data, they had to have replicable tools and assets, as well as ways of being able to help them with that problem. But they didn’t know what it was going to be, and they couldn’t invent it in a conference room — they didn’t have one.
Just as records are to be broken, challenges are to be surmounted. And Sellers was familiar with the health care IT business, having previously worked with Nelson in launching Healthlink, a health care IT consulting company.
Data was being collected and crunched but the outcomes and efficiencies were less than optimal. A breakthrough eventually came and an ingenious solution was reached involving only the most relevant information — smart skinny data.
With the focus now in hand, Encore proceeded to figure out the details.
Sellers had been given advice from Rod Canion, co-founder of Compaq Computer Corp., to hire great people for Encore. With that in mind, Sellers recruited passionate, self-directed people — 60 percent who were clinicians and 75 percent having worked in the health care industry in the past.
These were the types who could flourish in a virtual office setting.
Decide if virtual is for you
Once Sellers had the breakthrough, she could move on with her virtual company plans. She had seen how well Healthlink had worked with its two major locations, Charlotte and Houston. And another plus — the savings in overhead was returned to clients.
“We had merged two companies; we agreed that we weren’t going to relocate people so we had some over there, and some people in Houston,” Sellers says. “We figured out, ‘Hey, that works out pretty well. We didn’t have to have everybody in one office.’ So we began the process then, and over time, we became more and more virtual.
“When we started Encore, we went all the way. We said, ‘Why do we need an office? For training, for recruiting, to do interviews and we need an office to meet.’ But other than that, we only needed an office originally for our bank of servers. Well, at Encore, we don’t own a server. We run Outlook on the cloud; we have an email service. All our IT services are done in the cloud, and we have a virtual P.O. box.”
But there has to be a structure capable of keeping the invisible seams of the organization together. One such method Sellers uses is a company “lockdown.”
Encore consultants keep an eye out for procedures and discoveries that clients are seeing that would be good to share companywide.
“Lockdowns are very intensive; we bring them to Houston, and they will work on a specific topic for a week,” Sellers says. “For example, the concept of smart skinny data — how do we leverage that concept for an Epic software implementation [software for health care, including offerings such as MyChart].”
The lockdown group, which meets in a room for a week, includes people who understand the tools Encore has, who understand smart skinny data and who understand Epic implementation methodology.
“They will work morning to night; they will have a great time; they will laugh; they will work really hard; they will have fun,” Sellers says. “And when they get done, we will have an electronic document that is amazing, that tells a client, ‘Without slowing down an Epic implementation, here’s how you make sure you get the right data captured so that when you get done, you’re going to have all the quality data in the right format so that you can do all the reporting that you need, to make sure that you are capturing the right insurance reimbursement.’”
Be conscious that you are virtual
Without a doubt, within a sizeable company, virtual or not, there will be times when discussions have to be held with a large number of employees. Encore developed a learning portal on its website to offer several options to help deal with the situation.
“You don’t have to send out an email to all 400 people, but you can participate in a community and their wikis [websites that allow collaborative editing of content by their users],” Sellers says. “There are various ways of enhanced sharing of information that we have worked very hard to do well in a virtual environment.”
When Sellers realized there needed to be a process to keep employees up to date on new tools and methods, monthly “lunch and learns” were instituted. These are videoconferences with educational topics, which are recorded so they may be accessed on the Encore portal. For instance, a consultant on the road can stay up-to-date with training topics while relaxing in his or her hotel room.
It’s also important to involve the entire company in training exercises. Every 18 months or so, Sellers holds a retreat that includes team building and training exercises.
“That retreat is really important in a virtual world because it is where you come together and actually get to spend time with people,” she says.
The personal connection is also important to retain when there are grievances or problems. Sellers developed a virtual “open door” policy that may rival those of her non-virtual peers.
“We are very, very conscious that we are virtual, so we make sure we do a lot of things to keep people engaged,” she says.
“The policy is this: We will make certain that you are face-to-face, personally, with that person, whoever you reach out to, within two business days somewhere in the United States. We don’t guarantee where. You may have to fly to them, or maybe they will fly to you. We will figure it out. There won’t be any retribution; we don’t guarantee you’ll get the answer you want, but we will take your issue seriously and we will look into it, and we will follow up.”
- Focus on your goal and figure out how to proceed.
- Decide if a virtual office is for you.
- Be aware that you are virtual, and it takes effort.
The Sellers File
Name: Dana Sellers
Company: Encore Health Resources
Born: Austin, Texas
Education: University of Texas at Austin. I studied chemical engineering. I wandered into health care accidentally and I’ve been here ever since.
What was your first job?
I did an internship at IBM manufacturing typewriters.
Who do you admire in business?
There are a lot of people I admire. I probably would say I admire Ivo Nelson, whom I have worked for much of my career. I am blessed to have worked with so many great people, but if I had to pick one I would probably say Ivo.
What is the best advice you ever received?
When we were starting up the company that later became Healthlink, Rod Canion, co-founder of Compaq Computer Corp., said ‘First of all, you need to always, always deliver great quality to your clients. Secondly, you need to hire great people. And third, you need to create a company where they can raise their hands and ask for help.’ So, I have always tried to live by those three pieces of advice.
The first piece Rod said about always delivering quality, we phrase that as 100 percent reference ability. We have a set of core values, and one of those core values we call 100 percent reference ability. Our goal is we know we will stub our toe, we know we will make mistakes, but our goal is that every client is reference-able at the end of the day. We will do whatever it takes to make them happy. We know it is a lot easier to make them happy if they stay happy from the beginning, or if consultants can raise their hand and said, ‘Hey, I think I need help,’ than if we wait until the end and find out that the client is not happy. So we want to create an environment where any consultant at any time can just raise his or her hand and ask for help and is not punished for that. We have a whole quality program that is built to support that kind of attitude.
What is your definition of business success?
There are lots of elements there. Obviously you have to meet the expectations of your shareholders. You’ve got to create a great place for the people who work for you and you have to meet the needs of your clients. I think that when I retire someday, I would like to look back and know that Encore made a difference in health care. To me, that would have been a real success. I think health care has huge challenges ahead of it right now. No one company is going to solve all those challenges, but to me, I would like to feel that Encore has been a huge success if when I retire, I can look back and say Encore played a role in helping make a difference.