How COVID-19 Brought the Healthcare Industry Closer to the Future of Work
Heading into 2020, many leaders seemed to have a firm grasp on what the future of work would mean for their organization in the months and years ahead. In fact, many—particularly in technologically advanced fields such as healthcare—might have argued that, at least in some respects, that “future” was already here.
But the world of work was thrown into a tailspin when COVID-19 forced states to shut down and many businesses to close their doors—many of which are still closed, and many employees are still out of work or working from their homes nearly five months after cases initially began their rapid rise in the U.S.
Of course, this scene played out quite differently in hospitals and other care settings, many of which have remained operational (and overwhelmed) throughout this same time period.
As many—if not all of us—have been forced to manage through times of great uncertainty in some way, healthcare leaders and care providers were (and still are) navigating a new normal while at the same time managing teams on the front lines caring for critically ill patients, and facing significant financial, logistical, and other workforce management challenges.
Healthcare organizations were forced to work across their own environments—each one highly unique—to reengineer many operational processes, from personnel staffing and scheduling to benefit payment and resource planning—and each change had to be thoroughly communicated. We saw leaders rapidly deploy and execute changes in the way work was to be done: Where some organizations set up satellite testing sites (in a matter of days); others reevaluated staffing models and introduced new labor pools to better manage the surge; and still others coordinated in-house child care for nursing staff, secured nearby housing for clinicians who didn’t feel comfortable going home and exposing their families, or launched virtual platforms and mobile self-service and self-scheduling capabilities to limit staff exposure.
In ways large and small, hospitals across the country have shown they can adapt their processes to deliver on their mission of providing care to the patients in their communities against all obstacles.
Agile Leadership Furthers Digital Maturity—Even Amid Crisis
In many cases, you might say that “planning” for the future of work was temporarily paused as leaders in all regions took action to address more immediate needs. But action is loud, and whether planned or not, our industry is now closer than ever to the future of work predicted by many because of those actions.
Consider this late-2019 survey by The Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated, which asked nurses, HR executives, and hospital IT staff to characterize the future of work. All groups believed their industry’s future would be characterized by “improved efficiency”—particularly driven by automation and greater workforce productivity—as well as greater use of technology and initiatives promoting employee well-being and work-life balance.
This “future” doesn’t seem too far off from where we are today, does it?
Faced with a global health crisis, change had to occur swiftly, adoption had to be widespread, and, most importantly, new innovations had to be effective. Those who could act with agility—i.e., leaders who had a strong technology foundation and the ability to extend or deploy new technology and processes at just the right time—were able to make rapid decisions and drive forward organizational improvements amid a most challenging landscape.
But What Is at the Center of All this Innovation?
What is the impetus behind these operational changes, which are being driven at a speed that far outpaces traditional advancement in our industry? The answer is straightforward: It’s the need to protect people and to safeguard their well-being.
Healthcare is all about people: staff, patients, and the population at large. And staff safety is significant. Not only for themselves, but also for their families and loved ones. If staff don’t feel protected, many will choose not to work. Certainly, with nursing expertise in high demand, absenteeism must be prevented at all costs. Not through harsh policies, though. Staff must feel engaged and empowered by their organization and its leaders. The workforce is the unique differentiator of any organization; people are precious and must be treated and led this way.
Therefore, to drive the future of our work further, organizations must take immediate steps to care for and satisfy staff. Leadership can start by physically protecting them from workplace risks; increasing their decision-making authority; combating fatigue by managing workload, assigning work equitably, and encouraging schedule flexibility; and automating tasks and activities that distract from their mission to care for patients. Desire for the latter is reinforced by the same survey referenced above. The Workforce Institute found that:
- 95 percent of nurses want to work for an organization that is actively thinking about the digital experience it offers employees.
- 58 percent of healthcare workers value an employer that empowers staff to do their best work by equipping them with the necessary tools and technologies.
- 50 percent of healthcare workers believe the employee experience is directly impacted by an organization’s investment in new technology.
Both managers and employees are looking to leverage digital tools to make their work more efficient—offering things such as access to schedules and shift swaps on mobile devices signifies to staff that leadership cares for them and the way they work.
Hospitals must invest in the employee experience and address these critical areas in order to retain high-performing staff and succeed in recruiting skilled individuals. Doing so is essential, given the uncertainty of tomorrow’s labor market.
How Do We Perpetuate this Forward Momentum?
The pandemic has ignited a collaborative approach to patient care, as more hospitals and health systems are teaming up to efficiently distribute resources and prepare for patient surges. It is important during times like these that healthcare organizations continue to work together and learn from one another. This is a critical step in advancing the whole industry forward to fully embrace the future of work and implement a seamless journey for all patients.
Nanne Finis, RN, MS, is chief nurse executive at Kronos Incorporated, and an advisory board member for The Workforce Institute at Kronos.