The unexpected consequences of remote work: 3 health system CIOs on new challenges and what lies ahead

The ability to work remotely during the early days of the pandemic had clear advantages for health system administrative and IT teams.

But there were also unforeseen consequences as time wore on and more technology companies have decided to make remote work permanent. Now health system CIOs are working with their executive teams to develop a more permanent philosophy and plan for remote work, which in many cases will likely include a hybrid model.

Here, three CIOs outline the benefits and drawbacks of remote work and where their policies are headed.

Joel Vengco. Senior Vice President and Chief Information and Digital Officer of Baystate Health (Springfield, Mass.): Having led a global team during my tenure at GE Healthcare, I have seen how effective remote work and remote team management can be. I've always been a believer in the value of remote work, most especially because it creates flexibility for one's workforce. It creates a culture of trust. It also enables an organization to cast a wider net when acquiring talent, and in certain areas that may be impacted by more attractive neighboring cities, an organization's ability to support remote work can be beneficial. While we did enable remote work in IT at my health system, only a very small handful actually worked remotely.

With the pandemic, not only were we able scale our infrastructure and policies to support one-third of our workforce of 13,000 for remote work, our administration realized that remote work can indeed be beneficial. We saw productivity levels remain the same if not improve; we found that over 50 percent of staff liked working from home, and the remaining would consider a balance of remote and in-office; we also saw that providing the appropriate tools and training were critical and collaboration tools proliferated to benefit real-time work efforts.

Because of the realization by many organizations that 'remote work' is workable, I believe retaining our staff is now an even larger risk. Just in the past two months, I have had a number of employees take new positions with headquarters in other regions or states who are now posting 'location anywhere.' While it may be difficult to create the culture you want rapidly, it is possible to create the desired culture even with remote workers. There of course is a need to be able to create space for the remote workforce to be physical from time to time. That hybrid capability is important. If one can create a mix of remote and in-office work options, it can be beneficial for both the organization and the staff. It can also help defend against recruitment of your staff from your organization as well as enable one to recruit talent that is difficult to find in one's region.

Reid Stephan. Vice President and CIO of St. Luke's Health System (Boise, Idaho): The most common question I have been asked by staff members over the last few months is when there will be a mandate to return to the office. My answer is that there will not be one, because there was never a mandate to work remotely. As part of the critical infrastructure sector, any of our staff have been able to come into the office at any time during the COVID-19 pandemic if they chose. Due to the nature of the work of some staff members, they have needed to continue coming into the office each day. There are also staff members who can do their work remotely, and with leader support, many of them are doing so during the pandemic.

COVID-19 has provided a lens to examine scenarios with a new perspective, and remote work is one such example. This is a topic that has generated significant discussion over the last few months, and there have been public stories of challenges companies have faced in directing employees to return to the office. Clearly there needs to be a more nuanced approach than just a binary option to work remote or work in the office.

For my department, there will not be a mandate to return to the office on a certain date, not only because it is not necessary, but also because it would not be the right response. What I envision going forward is a blend of in-office and remote work that will happen naturally. It has already started to occur in small measure, and I would predict that post-vaccine it will occur in large measure. A blended model appeals to me because it provides the best of both worlds. It offers the opportunity for staff to enjoy the benefits of working remotely where it makes business sense and has leader support, while still providing for an in-office experience that is critical to creating and maintaining culture and fostering the organic and serendipitous collaboration that occurs in such an environment.

Andrew Rosenberg, MD. CIO of Michigan Medicine (Ann Arbor): Remote work and telehealth are probably the most immediate opportunities to work and collaborate differently. Our challenge is as much to support these new methods and find ways to identify and no longer support (pay) for methods and means we no longer need. One of the previous methods we have to address in healthcare is how we continue to use physical assets such as clinic waiting rooms, administrative offices and employee parking lots where we should look to newer industries especially in technology sectors where remote work is the norm. We are proving that we can sustain and do work from home and other locations geographically separate from our care, education and research centers. The one question then is do people want to sustain working remotely or not.

The people who become managers, directors and executives are traditionally developed in work environments where everyone is in the same physical space and you can directly observe how emerging leaders manage their work and teams. How do you do that in a remote space? How do you manage this in a blended workforce with some people from home and some people working in the office? Consulting firms have been doing this for decades, but most healthcare organizations have not.

I read an argument from a big tech CEO saying the worst thing you can do is go hybrid or have a blended workforce because you get the worst of both worlds. I’m feeling quite torn currently about this since I can see this CEO’s point of view, but I still want to try to create some form of hybrid/blended work model. Some functions will stay remote while others come back to the office for explicit collaborative work. I also think we have to feed our social needs. We are doing well now because we have the resources to work remotely, but we will miss being around other people.


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