Six Tips for Supporting, Connecting WFH Employees

MHE PublicationMHE April 2020
Volume 30
Issue 4

How healthcare executives can manage employees who are working from home.

COVID-19 has launched a massive natural experiment in work-from-home (WFH) policies and practices for employers and employees. Obviously, people involved in the direct provision of medical care can’t work for home, but, just as obviously, many people involved in office-based functions can.  

Here are six tips for healthcare executives who are managing WFH employees: 

1. Communicate often and comprehensively

Mary Anne Jones, senior vice president of finance and operations at Priority Health, a health insurer in Grand Rapids, Michigan, encourages healthcare leaders to communicate frequently and comprehensively. Every day during the COVID-19 outbreak, Priority Health’s executive team has communicated with employees about topics that range from staffing news to best practices to protect against infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus to updates on resources available to WFH staff. Employees also receive information about compassionate and emergency paid-time-off opportunities.

Joe Tye, a former hospital administrator and founder and CEO of Value Coach, a consulting business, observes that healthcare workers are dedicated to their patients. One way to help remote workers feel connected, he says, is to share stories in a HIPAA-compliant manner on the organization’s intranet that illustrates how employees’ work affects patients. He offers the hypothetical example of a supply-chain clerk working from home who exceeded expectations to secure a shipment of surgical masks for the hospital. That effort might be acknowledged with a comment that “this shows how we are all caregivers and can all make a difference for the patient and for fellow caregivers,” says Tye.

2. Be flexible and provide support

Tina McKinney, regional vice president of human resources at Partners Healthcare in Boston, says WFH team members often need flexibility. Employees may need to start work early, before their children wake up, and then take a break to get their children involved in an at-home activity. McKinney says that Newton-Wellesley Hospital, one of the two hospitals where she heads up human resources for Partners, is extending the hospital’s employee assistance program to employees’ family members so they can get short-term counseling and other kinds of help. Employees have access to virtual spiritual care, where they can learn about yoga and meditation, for example. 

Related: 'The Clock Is Meaningless Now': Allegheny Health Network CEO Reports From the Front Lines of COVID-19

Being “too hunkered down” in the house can be bad for mental health, says Sherry Rohlfing, principal at DeltaSigma, a healthcare consulting firm in Littleton, Colorado. “Go outside. Social distancing doesn’t mean you’re stuck in the house,” says Rohlfing. 

3. Set up staff with the home-office tools they need

Jones says many of Priority Health’s employees aren’t used to working remotely. In response, the health insurer gives staff the equipment they need to furnish a home-office environment. Employees were allowed to take home their monitors, docking stations, and other computer equipment. Priority Health employees also receive tips on contacting IT services, setting up equipment, and accessing virtual tools, such as online meeting software. 

Craig Pirner, a managing director at The Advisory Board, advises hospitals to use virtual-meeting technology, such as Zoom or Cisco Webex. He encourages managers to use video whenever possible to help reduce social isolation. Nonverbal communication is missing during phone-based team meetings, he explains. 

4. Launch a virtual book club

Tye says that launching a virtual book club can be a good way to increase engagement among employees. “Choose a book, either fiction or nonfiction, that’s not directly work related and that inspires the heart and soul. A good start would be “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch, says Tye. One way to run the club is to schedule a weekly conference call with each person assigned to provide a recap and their observations about different chapters. After the book conversation, the call can be used to check in on team members.

5. Maintain focus on other problems to solve

COVID-19 has swept attention on other problems aside, but those problems are still there: keeping people with diabetes healthy, improving outcomes for hips and knees replacements, managing high drug costs. “It’s so easy for executives not to see what else is going on. The challenge is to understand there are other crises they’re going to have to deal with,” says Don Hall, who is a principal at Delta Sigma with Rohlfing and a member of the Managed Healthcare Executive® editorial advisory board.

6. Some fun is OK

COVID-19 is a serious public health crisis; you don’t want to make light of it. But that doesn’t mean that people can’t share some lighthearted moments. Managers should inject a little fun into their interactions with employees, says McKinney. Some employees at Newton-Wellesley Hospital have been sharing fun videos about what they’re doing with their kids or their dogs, says McKinney, and she is perfectly OK with that. 

Aine Cryts is a writer based in Boston.

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