COVID-19 tests remote work capacity

When around 10,000 Advocate Aurora Health administrative employees had to abruptly transition to working remotely in March, the health system quickly realized that everyone’s situation was unique.

Some had to work around their children’s schedule, while some had to take care of family members. The independence of working from home and the ease of access suited some, but others missed interpersonal connection.

To ease the transition for working parents, the health system, which operates in Illinois and Wisconsin, offered a childcare subsidy of $125 per week for most of the summer. It recently reinstated the program as kids and their parents adjust to school amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Every team member is unique, each has different home circumstances,” said Kevin Brady, chief human resources officer at Advocate Aurora. “Children may be at school or not, or in a hybrid model; some have family members to take care of—each of those circumstances creates unique challenges. That’s why we put in place a family care reimbursement structure, to emphasize we are all in this together.”

Healthcare organizations are figuring out how to optimize the remote work dynamic as they weigh permanent work-from-home arrangements. While remote work has its advantages, healthcare companies have had to build a new culture, communication systems, collaborative environment and benefit design, among other hurdles.

“I am rethinking a lot of what I spent my career doing as a human resources professional because the world isn’t going back to what we knew it as,” said Robin Borg, chief people officer at Bind, a health insurance startup. “I am hearing that people have a hard time shutting off, for instance, so we are starting to put a lot of emphasis on performance versus hours you work. We are rethinking how we work and operate.”

When a national emergency declaration for COVID-19 was issued in March, it upended nearly every facet of life. “Nonessential” workers were sent home, testing how quickly employers and employees could adapt their IT infrastructure, communication strategies and ultimately, their resiliency.

Catholic Health Services of Long Island found out there weren’t enough laptops for 75% of its roughly 1,200 facilities management, billing, accounting and other back-office employees who were sent home. So they brought their desktops home and managers helped configure their home work space by supplying extra monitors and IT support, said Anthony Pellicano, chief human resources officer for the system.

“We had to get people laptops, ensure secure access, set up an online signature tool—all that happened within a couple of weeks,” he said. “A lot of jobs are sustainable in remote working conditions; in some cases productivity improves without the distractions at the office. It has been a big learning experience—I think remote working is here to stay.”

But some of the energy and camaraderie from in-person collaboration was missing, Pellicano noted. Catholic Health Services set out to “inject fun into the workplace” potentially through gaming or safely distanced retreats, he said.

Bind started hosting trivia and bingo games during the system’s “spirit week.” It set up Slack channels for working parents and other groups. The company revamped its onboarding process, increased the frequency of its all-company meetings and gave employees five additional mental health days, Borg said.

“When you move people to a remote situation and throw in the pandemic, it affects everybody, so we had to meet everyone where they were,” she said. “We use multiple mediums and other tools to keep people connected. It has seemed to bring about a pretty good evolution as we settle into our new rhythm.”

CCM Health, a medical center based in Montevideo, Minn., shares continual COVID-19 updates from management and caregivers; daily emails to all employees about census, staffing, access and other stats; bi-weekly organizational updates from the CEO; and marketing communications that include facility updates as well as monthly department meeting recordings.

“We feel the key is through extensive and continuous communication,” said Kelly Johnson, CCM’s human resources manager.

Even though CereCore, which supports providers’ IT needs, initially saw its business decline, it kept more staff on than needed to help people transition to the new working environment, said Curtis Watkins, CereCore’s CEO.

They doubled down on personal check-ins, but managers had to strike a balance between checking in periodically and not overwhelming employees, he said.

“From an HR perspective, we try to treat people with grace and understanding,” Watkins said. “We were careful not to overdo it because people don’t want to feel like they always have somebody over their shoulder. So we made it personal, asking about their family or kids and had to be clear that this is about staying connected, not micromanaging.”

Ultimately, COVID-19 accelerated the Nashville-based company’s move to more remote work. Watkins expects about an 80%-to-20% ratio of remote to in-person work over the long term, up from around 60% to 40%. It will likely downsize its real estate footprint by about a third, Watkins said.

“It has been an interesting journey, and it is something we will try to figure out and get better at,” he said, adding that the biggest long-term challenge is around the void of face-to-face interaction between its senior level administrative team. “We need to find ways to build that teamwork and trust.”

Advocate Aurora launched its first ever virtual professional development initiative. To Brady’s surprise, about 40% of its leadership team tuned in to some of the 30 sessions.

“It is part of how this whole process drove more innovation,” he said.

As healthcare organizations managed the initial logistical hurdles of transitioning their workforce, they also realized some benefits.

For one, embracing remote work expanded their talent pool.

“People don’t like commuting, and I don’t blame them,” Catholic Health Services’ Pellicano said. “It’s easier to find people now as we look at a broad swatch of the country. People appreciate the work-life balance, and there are downstream cost reductions from remote working.”

Many healthcare organizations are contemplating downsizing their office space as more people work from home. Space they ultimately hold onto will be adapted to facilitate teamwork, executives said.

COVID-19 has also been a big lesson in flexibility and empathy, Bind’s Borg said.

“I am spending more time helping leaders be more empathetic, knowing that every person has a unique circumstance,” she said, adding that they moved away from strict HR policy to a more open-ended approach to issues like hours worked. “If we communicate clearly and show empathy and give people an opportunity to set things up how they want it, that works so much better than giving them protocols to follow.”

The pandemic has also brought a bit of humanity back into the workplace, CHSLI’s Pellicano said.

“We lost about 11 employees and around 60 family members passed,” he said. “We need to keep that in sight, recognize those losses and what people have done for patients and their communities. Folks put their lives on the line and truly are heroes.”

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