How 2 health systems are bringing their remote employees back to work

As progress continues with COVID-19 vaccinations, health system executives are thinking about how they will bring remote employees back to the office after the pandemic. 

There is much to consider. What are employees' preferences? How will their organizations maintain a safe environment? How will the office setting be redesigned? 

Two health systems told Becker's their approach in determining guidelines has been methodical and fluid.

Assessing employees' preferences 

At Baptist Health, a nine-hospital system based in Louisville, Ky., more than 2,000 out of more than 22,000 total employees are remote. Some of the areas that continue working remotely include finance, human resources, IT, marketing and legal, as well as various administrative and operations functions.

Allina Health, a 29,000-employee system based in Minneapolis, has 4,000 remote workers. Most are housed out of the main system office and are in areas such as revenue cycle, IT, finance, supply chain and patient scheduling. 

Baptist Health CEO Gerard Colman said his organization has asked employees who are remote whether they want to stay remote, and some have indicated they do. 

"I think if we can stay remote and people like that, we want to accommodate that. But we also want to support employees who want to be back in the office," he said. 

Allina Health surveyed its workers last summer and in December, and another survey is planned this spring. Questions addressed worker satisfaction or dissatisfaction with working from home, and to what extent either choice is an ideal option. 

Many remote employees indicated in December that they preferred working from home, while others expressed a desire for more in-person connection, said Christine Webster Moore, senior vice president and chief human resources officer of Allina Health. 

Strategies for return to office 

The feedback at both health systems is factoring into their strategies for bringing remote workers back to the office. But leaders are also discussing the state of COVID-19 in their markets, CDC recommendations, and the needs of the community.

For example, Baptist Health leaders are talking about safety guidelines, in terms of social distancing and cleaning surfaces, that would be required to reopen.

Mr. Colman said the discussions are meant to reduce the anxiety of people coming back to the office.

"We want to communicate and reassure our employees that do come back to an office setting that it is a safe place to come back to, and it is a place that's welcoming," he said. "That's why we're taking our time. We're being thoughtful; we're revising our policies and identifying what that new office looks like. For instance, if an office previously had 50 people in it [before the pandemic], that office has to be reduced dramatically [in terms of] the number of employees coming back to it until [state and federal safety] regulations change."

Baptist Health is also considering some employees' desire for a hybrid approach, where they would come back to an office setting two days during the workweek and work remotely the other three.

Employees are "thinking about a balance. We're trying to design those offices in that way to allow cleaning between uses. I think people are more cautious now about cleaning and a safe environment," said Mr. Colman. 

He said Baptist Health's timeline for when remote employees will return to the office will be determined by when immunity is built up and people can stop wearing masks indoors.

Allina Health's strategy is also adapting according to the pandemic. 

The health system has tried to offer guidance that allows people to plan and have some certainty, said Ms. Moore. This includes aligning planning guidance to the school calendar so workers with children can make plans for schooling and child care.

"We've said everybody for the most part is remote through the end of June, and we're evaluating where we are now with respect to vaccination levels, COVID-19 in our market and where we are with our space and community planning efforts," she said. 

Allina Health said it expects to revise guidance in the next few weeks and is considering a return to the office at the end of summer, loosely aligning with the school calendar. 

No matter when health systems allow remote workers to return to the office, Mr. Colman recommends that health systems continue the intensity they've had around employee education online. This means allowing workers to complete their required employee education from home on their devices.

Mr. Colman said he believes there should always be a Zoom option for large meetings to save people time traveling to the meeting location. 


More articles on leadership and management:
Biden to commemorate COVID-19 anniversary during first prime-time address
Former Kentucky hospital CEO Hank Wagner dead at 78; 'put Jewish Hospital on the world map'
Mercy Health-Youngstown to open COVID-19 memorial 

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