How St. Luke's Health System CIO is fostering unity in remote work now and beyond the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has tested hospital and health systems' telehealth programs and capabilities, but the shift to remote work for staff has been a separate side of remote operations that St. Luke's Health System CIO Reid Stephan sees as an opportunity even after COVID-19. 

As vice president and CIO of the Boise, Idaho-based health system, Mr. Stephan oversees 450 IT staff members at St. Luke's. At the start of 2020, he began leading the centralization of the IT team into one physical location after members had been dispersed across seven different buildings for years. However, once the pandemic began to ramp up in early March, Mr. Stephan's priorities shifted as the majority of the health system's staff transitioned to remote work.

"This has been a really interesting shift in focus," Mr. Stephan told Becker's Hospital Review. "Early on, the focus was getting people in the office, creating the culture and the chance for teams that have worked in separate spaces to come together and have some of the natural organic conversation and synergy that comes from that."

St. Luke's zeroed in on two main priorities through the shift: providing for the increase in staff capacity and making the transition to remote work seamless for everyone involved, and creating a sense of unity in a virtual digital environment, according to Mr. Stephan. 

To foster an open and communicative atmosphere, Mr. Stephan leads a weekly meeting over Microsoft Teams with IT staff to address questions and offer updates on the system level response to COVID-19. He also started doing a weekly "bright spots" highlight, which allows different leaders in the department to submit a quick list of tasks that have been accomplished over the past week and give employees a chance to recognize what their peers are working on in a way that wasn't done before.

However, creating a sense of unity "has been and continues to be a challenge," Mr. Stephan said, adding that he is facing questions about how St. Luke's will mandate employees to return to the office and what the process will look like.

"We realize this experience has probably shifted the tectonic plates for us, and so the future will likely be kind of a hybrid model where there's a mix of work in the office to create that connection and that kind of cross-team unity but then also the ability to work remotely as well," he said. "I think it will give employees kind of the best of both worlds."

While the pandemic has served as the main driver behind St. Luke's shift to remote work, the operating model may stick around even once the virus clears as a solution to other challenges. Prior to COVID-19, the health system was troubleshooting ways to solve the new issue of parking space availability, which resulted from its new centralized office space for IT staff. Rather than succumbing to the expense of building a new parking garage, Mr. Stephan and his team realized the remote work hybrid model could solve the issue.

But choosing which employees will work from home and on what days will be more of an open and rotational process to ensure staff collaborate and interact widely. Mr. Stephan said that the system highly values relationships among its IT employees and has devised a concept dubbed "Going to Cambodia," based on Dr. Christopher Charles and his Iron Fish research project for Cambodia, which fosters the mindset that sitting in a conference room or on a conference call won't allow the employees to fully understand the end user or patient experience.

"That concept, by definition, requires that you physically be there, and it applies even just to inner departments, relationships and connections," Mr. Stephan said. "So we still want to provide for that because I'm a firm believer that relationship-based work foundation is critical to really doing meaningful value add, but also rewarding work together as a team."

The health system is looking into tools like Microsoft Shifts to automate remote work and in-office schedules as well as finding ways to bring permanent, remote work employees back into the office at some interval such as bi-weekly staff meetings. Establishing ways for teams to connect as remote workers – both during and post pandemic – whether through virtual weekly meetings or highlights similar to St. Luke's bright spots activity will remain one of Mr. Stephan's top priorities.

"Even when the day comes when the majority of us are sitting together in the office, I will still continue that pattern, just so that those folks who aren't there that day or maybe are the permanent kind of remote workers still feel that sense of connection and collaboration," he said. "As important as I knew that it was, the pandemic has reemphasized and magnified just how critically important communication is."

More articles on health IT:
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Indiana hospital to host COVID-19 information sessions on Zoom
YouTube's recommendation algorithm may exacerbate health disparities, expert suggests

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