Allina Health CIO reports high engagement among remote workers, no hurry to bring them back to the office

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When Allina Health shifted its staff to remote operations at the start of the pandemic, CIO Jonathan Shoemaker did not anticipate the possibility that working from home could become permanent for the Minneapolis-based health system.

About a quarter of Allina Health's staff, or 6,000 employees, are currently working from home, a sharp increase from the small percentage of permanent remote workers before the COVID-19 pandemic. Initiatives including rolling out Microsoft Office 365 tools such as Teams and upgrading its cloud computing storage have helped the health system's employees maintain administrative functions and perform their jobs "equally as well or maybe even in some cases better," according to Mr. Shoemaker. 

Employee productivity levels and continued engagement via digital communication channels have prompted Allina Health to consider making remote work permanent, even after the pandemic. The health system does not intend to bring any of its administrative functions or staff back to its corporate facilities until 2021 and is also examining ways to reconfigure its group work spaces – currently used for offices and cubicles – as areas for events, targeted meetings and work planning sessions.

"We've pretty much come to the conclusion that it wouldn't make sense to ask people to start driving back into an office, given what we've been able to accomplish by having staff working remotely," Mr. Shoemaker said. "We're seeing that our ability to support them as well as employee engagement is high, and we believe that productivity of folks is also high, so I think we have a permanent change."

The high levels of engagement, Mr. Shoemaker said, stem from various initiatives Allina Health has rolled out during the pandemic, including adjusting its executive group meeting schedule for meetings to occur every other week rather than the previous quarterly basis and implementing daily meeting structures for departments to convene virtually. Use of video for conferencing is also highly encouraged so individuals can see each other.

The ease of initiating meetings has also been a silver lining of remote work, Mr. Shoemaker said. Instead of having to book a room and organize an in-person meeting for 200 people, creating a virtual event creates an easier and more flexible connection for all those participating. This model also supports Allina Health's town halls with executives, allowing them to talk to staff on a much more frequent basis via a virtual setting.

"We're actually able to create a lot more frequent all-hands meetings and get feedback," Mr. Shoemaker said. "Actually, strange as it sounds, I'm getting direct anecdotal feedback from staff that they feel almost to the point of being more in touch or more engaged through our ability to have more frequency of contact."

While high engagement levels from employees and sustained and improved productivity are critical factors in Allina Health's considerations of permanent remote work options, safety also plays an important part in the health system's strategy. In the tech space, companies such as Google and Facebook have extended their work-from-home policies until mid-2021, and Twitter is allowing employees to work remotely indefinitely, according to CBS News. Like these tech companies, healthcare must also be seen as being on "the safer side" of operations, according to Mr. Shoemaker.

"Healthcare groups probably aren't going to be pushing to get people back. I've talked to CIOs in other industries and they're thinking they have to get people back sooner to manage staff, but I think healthcare is going to be somewhat in that space like Google and Amazon," he said. "There is no intention to get people back in the office if they don't have to."

Similar to remote work, Allina Health plans to continue pushing forward its remote strategy for providers and patients through telemedicine. With the help of its rapid Microsoft Teams rollout during the start of the pandemic, many of Allina Health's ambulatory provider groups have been delivering care remotely to patients, and visits ballooned from around 50 to 100 per week to a few thousand each day during the first three months of COVID-19.

While some of those providers are now returning back to offices for in-person visits, Mr. Shoemaker said he predicts there will be a permanent change in how healthcare will be delivered: "Clinicians being able to provide remote care has set a bar that we think we can push toward where it would be easy to conceive a point in time some day, and not too distant in the future, where maybe half your care could be provided remotely versus assuming that a small percentage would be."

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