Insuring Company Culture

Written by: Brady Drake
Kelsey Roth, VP of Human Resources and Dan Conrad, President and CEO

Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota combatting The Great Resignation by putting communication first.

With a combined workforce of over 2,500 people between Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota (BCBSND) and its affiliated companies, keeping turnover low since the onset of the pandemic has been a major priority for BCBSND.

That isn’t to say that they’ve walked through “The Great Resignation” completely unscathed. According to VP of Human Resources Kelsey Roth and President and CEO Dan Conrad, BCBSND has seen an uptick in employee retirement since the onset of the pandemic as well as an estimated increase in turnover rate of about 2-5%. However, turnover has been “less than expected.”

“We focus a lot on retention,” Conrad said. “And throughout the pandemic, we really tried to focus on employee wellbeing and making sure that our employees have been well taken care of. So, I would say our turnover has been a lot less than expected.”

However, that doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges along the way. According to Conrad and Roth, they, like the rest of the world, faced numerous obstacles during these unprecedented times. The pandemic hit during Conrad’s first few months as the company’s CEO and he was faced with more challenges than a new role would usually bring. Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota had very limited remote work experience because of their industry’s security requirements and they had to navigate the sudden change as an extremely large organization.

“There were a lot of challenges right away,” Conrad said. “We didn’t really know the right thing to do because we had no direction, none of us had lived through a pandemic before. We were really trying to make decisions that were right on behalf of our employees.”

In making those decisions, BCBSND was proactive in getting its workforce remote, acting earlier than many other businesses.

“I’m sure not everyone had every piece of equipment or technology that they needed immediately,” Roth said. “However getting them home was of higher importance.”

Did You Know?

Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota insures and/or administers claims for over 310,000 people in North Dakota. That’s over 40 percent of the state’s population!

Working From Home

As many people around the world know, remote work presents a specific set of challenges. Those extroverts out there are left without much of the face-to-face interactions they enjoy. In the same light, those in office activities that help maintain company culture are certainly gone. Over the last two years, everyone’s mental health took a toll at some point or another.

So, what did BCBSND do to keep things rolling?

According to Conrad, they began with an emphasis on open and honest communication. The BCBSND leadership team made sure that everyone understood that things were fluid and subject to change as everyone tried to figure out the best way to go about things.

“I think maybe there were moments where we were communicating too much and stressing folks out,” Conrad said. “And then there were maybe moments where we weren’t communicating enough. It probably took a couple of months to find that right blend. But we had to because communication was really important in keeping things running and keeping that corporate culture cohesive. However, through what we’ve learned about communication, our business is stronger today than it was before COVID.”

In maintaining the company culture, Roth and Conrad relied heavily on the leaders of individual teams. They went this route because they knew that these leaders would be more tuned in to what the people they work with on a day-to-day basis needed. Some groups chose to have virtual happy hours, others chose distanced outdoor walks over the lunch hour and everyone in the company received a care package, which included things like blankets and coffee mugs. This, of course, was accompanied by frequent check-ins and an increase in communication.

What’s more, all of this had to happen while BCBSND was experiencing rapid change in the industry. Nobody knew what insurance would cover regarding COVID, but BCBSND had to figure it out and prepare their budget projections for this as well.

“I think our corporate culture was strengthened during the process,” Conrad said. “We came together as a team in this moment of crisis. When I was appointed CEO, we had a lot of new leaders in the organization. And I think the crisis allowed us to really get to know each other because we were all going through that crisis together. Because of that, I think people feel more connected to each other and more connected to the company.”

Returning From Home

Although it may have been a relief or goal to return to the office, BCBSND still faced obstacles. There were three or four instances where a return date was set for employees, only to have that date pushed back due to things like an increase in positive cases locally.

“I know for the employees who were really excited to come back to the office, that was challenging for them,” Roth said. “Those people were really hanging onto that date because they were looking forward to having some social interaction and their routine back.”

Even when they were back in the office, there was the question about what to do with the vaccination mandates. Ultimately, BCBSND opted to incentivize employees with a $500 bonus for getting vaccinated.

What else has BCBSND done to combat “The Great Resignation”?

A lot actually. Below is a bullet-pointed list of a few things they have tried over the last couple of years.

• A renewed focus on mental health – In an added attempt to combat the strain of the pandemic, BCBSND pressed hard to destigmatize mental health issues and has placed a renewed importance on mental and physical health. This included making sure employees are aware of resources available for those facing mental health issues as well as things like relationship issues, insomnia and addiction.

• Training for leaders at the company – These focus on things like how to lead in a crisis. Speakers were even occasionally brought in to help.

• Extra time off – Employees were given extra time away for anything COVID-related. They could use it when they were sick, they could use it to get tested, they could use it to get a family member tested, they could use it for a child sick with COVID, etc.

• New committees – During the pandemic, BCBSND created a diversity committee and an employee experience committee in order to improve, well, employee experience!

Implemented the “wellbeing” account – Instead of reimbursing employees for frequent trips to their favorite health clubs, BCBSND decided to give employees a little bit more flexibility. Now, every employee gets a certain amount of money to spend on whatever health-related thing they would like. If they want to buy a kayak, they can buy a kayak. If they want to buy golf clubs, they can buy golf clubs.

• No meeting guidelines – In order to encourage team bonding. BCBSND implemented a no meeting guideline over lunch or on Friday afternoons.

• An increased focus on career development – BCBSND offers tuition reimbursement for employees who go back to school. They also offer reimbursements for conferences, licensure and continuing education. Internally, BCBSND also offers extensive training programs for those entering/preparing for leadership.

“Ultimately, we want to really try to make this as good a place to work as we can,” Roth said.

Learn more at

Did You Know?

In an attempt to comply to the current administration’s vaccination mandate for large employers, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota began offering employees $500 for simply getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

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Brady is the Editorial Director at Spotlight Media in Fargo, ND.