Optum wanted to inspire its Gen Z employees. Here's what they did

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Carlos Tyler might strike most as an unusual choice to speak at a conference hosted for 20-somethings who work at Optum.

Tyler is the operations director at D.C.-area company called Clean Decisions, a labor service provider that is for and operated by people who were formerly incarcerated. He spent time himself in jail as a youth—including in solitary confinement.

What was the message he delivered the some 340 young people in the insurance industry? That healthcare, and navigating it effectively, matters as much to him and his two-year-old son as it does to the Millennials and Gen Zers listening to him speak.

That message was well received, if the standing ovation and a lineup of employees seeking to buy a collection of poetry written by incarcerated youth after his speech were any indication.

They were at IGNITION, a brand new training course aimed at the newest members of Optum's workforce. Hosted at a hotel in D.C., the employees came together for several days of brainstorming breakouts, speeches and networking opportunities.

The aim for the first-time conference was to both get their creative juices flowing on tough issues—potentially finding cost-effective and innovative healthcare solutions—and to boost recruitment and retention. 

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Hearing stories like Tyler's is critical for those who work at the company and are charged with creating solutions that work for a diverse membership, Graham McLaughlin, vice president of social responsibility at Optum, told FierceHealthcare. Navigating the healthcare system as a single father or as a black man is an experience that many of the workers will never have.

“We want everyone being like, ‘We’re creating a health system that works for everyone,’” McLaughlin said. “And if you’re going to say ‘everyone,’ then you have to think about who those people are.” 

Introducing the newer workers to these experiences was a key focus at the conference.

A focus on empathy 

One of the critical threads for the conference was building empathy, both for members and for co-workers.

For example, the attendees participated in lengthy sessions that challenged them to develop solutions to better meet the needs of a transgender patient or an immigrant from Somalia. 

Participants attend a session at Optum's IGNITION conference
Participants attend a session at Optum's IGNITION conference. (Optum)

Over the course of about four hours, they broke out into smaller teams to flesh out the “personas” of their target audience and then devise the tools to best reach them. The solutions were then presented to their peers in the room, who stepped into the shoes of family members, providers and front-line clinical staff to offer critique. 

Tim Thomason, digital product and program lead at UnitedHealth Group’s Office of Engagement, Inclusion and Diversity, who has both participated in and led such training sessions, said the model encourages “a sense of belonging” in the teams. 

“The communities that we serve, they’re already diverse and they’re already expecting inclusive experiences, so we have to meet that need,” he said. “Our workforce has to reflect that.” 

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The IGNITION attendees were also forced out of their comfort zone in terms of the teams they spent much of their time with at the conference. Each person was given a light-up wristband at a kickoff session that flashed a variety of colors, determining groupings for some of the activities. 

Ultimately, the company wants to expose younger employees to the full breadth of diversity both within Optum as a company and in UnitedHealth Group’s membership and push them to bring those perspectives to their work, Rick Target, vice president of talent at Optum, told FierceHealthcare.  This way, the participants couldn’t stick with the same people they already knew from their own departments, Target said.

“They need to tap into the network that they create today to bring in all those mindsets to drive a successful business," he said. “We want the value they get from this—the relationships, the connections, whether it’s with their peers or with leadership here—we want that to kind of keep going."

Investment from the top 

Central to getting IGNITION off the ground for the first time this year was buy-in from Optum’s executives, several of whom made an appearance to speak directly with the attendees. 

Kylene Brew, associate director at OptumRx and a conference participant, said she attended a breakfast with about 10 others and Sheryl Skolnick, Ph.D., Optum’s executive vice president for strategic relationships. 

Optum's Sheryl Skolnick
Sheryl Skolnick (Optum)

Brew said that was a valuable opportunity to ask direct questions from a senior leader she might not ever have met otherwise. Skolnick also spoke in a larger session that was essentially a “healthcare 101” for workers who may not have a strong background in the industry. 

“I think it’s really cool to see that investment that’s being made,” Brew said. “It makes me take that investment more seriously.” 

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It’s hard to pin down a tangible return on investment from the conference. Optum’s idea, though, is that steps like IGNITION will promote recruitment and retention. 

All of those in attendance began working at Optum in 2019 and attending highlighted the opportunity for mobility within the company. Millennial workers are well-known for being transient, and the goal is that seeing the diverse roles available within Optum will keep them on longer. 

“They want to be mobile, they want to move a lot,” he said. “We’re a big complex business—they can do that within our company.” 

Plus, any ideas for new solutions or programs that are born at the conference can be brought back to their teams at Optum and potentially grown into something the company launches.  

Brew said it may bring a jolt of fresh energy into her regular work. 

“What I'm doing here is directly relevant to what I'm doing on a day to day basis,” she said. “I’m able to take these learnings and ideally … take it back to my team and be able to say, ‘OK, who are we missing here?’” 

That is exactly what officials say they are hoping for.