Michael J. Dowling: Embracing a hybrid workplace for non-clinical staff

As a baby boomer who worked as a manual laborer for many years before taking on a job in which I work 16-hour days, I admit that I have struggled adapting to the remote-work environment that COVID-19 forced upon us.

Call me "old school," but I like to walk down the hall and talk to people face to face, read paper documents, and share a meal with people at diners and restaurants. I never heard of "Zoom" or "Teams" until March 2020, but I now spend more time on those platforms than I do talking on the phone.

While I certainly long for those pre-pandemic workdays, I'm also a realist. The future of work will never be the same, at least in my lifetime. 

As New York State's largest healthcare provider and private employer with a workforce of 77,000, Northwell Health has tens of thousands of caregivers and other front-line staff who have endured two years of hell caring for over 300,000 COVID-19 patients — more than any other health system in the country. My biggest priority has been on ensuring that our health care heroes get the resources and support they need to stay healthy and avoid burnout.

But we also have about 8,000 shared services team members, many of whom were forced to start working remotely when the pandemic struck in March 2020. The exodus left largely unused many of the more than 200 offices occupying three million-plus square feet of space at 78 locations. This shifting work model has impacted dozens — if not hundreds — of different non-clinical job roles within human resources, finance, legal, managed care, procurement, marketing and communications, risk management and numerous other support services that are vital to the effective day-to-day operation of our health system, but do not necessarily require people to be in the office five days a week.

When we began to emerge from the worst of the pandemic last year, Northwell began embracing a hybrid model in which at least half of a department's administrative staff work remotely on any given day. Recognizing the importance of preserving, promoting and enhancing organizational culture, employee wellness and high performance, we have been bringing teams together at least a couple of days a week, either in their home offices or at what we call "Workwell Signature Hubs." We established 10 of them at convenient locations throughout Northwell's service area in New York City, Long Island and Westchester County.

In addition to workstations and conference rooms, the technology-rich hubs feature customized rooms to promote innovation and collaboration, as well as multi-purpose space, café work zones and cafeterias, and even meditation rooms, ping-pong and billiards tables that can be used when team members need a break.

We developed our "Workwell" hybrid model after surveying and holding focus groups with impacted employees and their managers. Recognizing the challenges of managing staff in this new environment, we worked closely with our shared services leaders to analyze their situation, assess the risk and opportunities of having at least 50 percent of their team members continue to work remotely, and then develop customized, flexible solutions for each of their departments.

By March 8, all managers will be executing plans to transition their teams to a full hybrid work environment. To celebrate the occasion, we'll be hosting a series of events to promote fitness, good nutrition and other wellness-related initiatives that had been an integral part of our employee engagement efforts before the pandemic. Moving forward, we'll also be focusing on enhancing collaboration, networking, learning and development, and culture — areas where many companies clearly struggled over the past two years.

Post-pandemic, the hybrid approach appears to be favored by most American workers. According to a recent Gallup poll, about 60 percent of the approximately 60 million full-time US workers who report that they can perform their current jobs remotely from home want a blend of one-to-four days a week in the office, with most preferring two-to-three days a week.

Aside from maintaining high performance and morale among support services staff, which was reaffirmed with an 87th percentile engagement score in our most recent employee satisfaction survey conducted last year, our Workwell model has enabled us to maintain strong staff retention and secure new talent in niche job roles, while staying competitive with the flexibility other industries are offering. Given the intense competition for talent nationally, it's imperative that health care employers become more flexible to attract the best and brightest.

Based on an assessment by Darleen DeRosa, coauthor of the 2021 book Leading At A Distance, and a consultant with Spencer Stuart, an executive search and leadership consulting firm, our hybrid work approach is a "holistic" strategy that makes sense. "Centered on employee insights, Northwell has built a multi-faceted workforce strategy that includes leadership development, reimagining the role of the office and shared spaces to propel innovation and collaboration, as well as processes that support employee flexibility," she said.

To optimize and efficiently utilize the real estate we now occupy, we are converting some of the offices set aside for support services into clinical space, which will enable us to see additional patients, reducing wait times and improving patient satisfaction. In fact, over the next three years, we've already identified opportunities to repurpose about 500,000 square feet of space currently occupied by shared services staff, helping us to achieve our financial goals; we'll also be able to reduce expenses by letting some of our leased office space expire. 

More than anything, the pandemic forced all healthcare organizations — and most businesses — to adapt on the fly, and quickly come up with innovative solutions that enabled us to meet unprecedented surges in patient volumes while trying to keep employees safe. All healthcare leaders, including conventional leaders like me, must recognize the realities of today's workplace and not force their non-clinical staff back into a five-day-a-week office environment, to where many have no desire to return — and may leave the organization if they're given no choice.

The key is developing strategies and best practices best suited for each of your organizations that will continue to build trust with support staff, preserve and shape organizational culture, enhance effectiveness and maintain accountability.

Michael J. Dowling is president and CEO of Northwell Health, New York State's largest healthcare provider and private employer.


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