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3 actions to ensure health organizations head back to work successfully

By Sridhar Karimanal

Ensuring safety for healthcare industry employees as they head back to the workplace, as well as others who may interact with them in the workplace, is a paramount consideration for organizations. A report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in early November—which found going into the office to work doubles your chances of catching COVID—confirms this need.

Continuing uncertainty—around identifying and quantifying the impacts, when healthcare teams can bring employees back into the office, and exactly what the future work environment will look like—is causing leaders to look to next year, and be ready to follow a playbook with a complex combination of scenarios to be prepared for any number of paths they must ultimately take.

Many health organizations are also realizing that the work environment to which they will return will not be the “old normal,” but instead an intentional journey to ‘next normal.’ What this next normal will look like is not exactly clear, but planning for it and embedding flexibility, resiliency, and agility into the culture of health organizations is imperative.

Technology’s transformation as we journey into the ‘next normal’ has leapfrogged by years over the past few months. Studies and estimates show consumer dependence on technology for digital commerce, telehealth services, and remote working has moved ahead by up to eight years over the past eight months. Unless you plan for the long-term, your health organization runs the risk of defaulting back to the old normal, which could set you back by many years and significantly behind your competition.

This new reality is having huge implications on every aspect of the healthcare industry’s value chain. Healthcare providers report a tectonic shift to how care is delivered remotely and implications on patient health outcomes as a result of adoption of telehealth services. Pharmaceutical organizations are reengineering their processes to conduct virtual clinical trials to accelerate drug development. Healthcare organizations that prepare to meet consumers where they are in the next normal will do well. Those that do not, will be years behind and very likely will never catch up.

How exactly can health and life sciences organizations prepare for the next normal, when so much uncertainty makes the task seem daunting? Knowing where you want to get to in the longer-term, and taking a stepwise approach to getting there, can move your organization in the right direction. Here are three critical steps to getting it right in the short-term while directionally aligning to long-term.

Key #1: Mobilize a multidisciplinary back to work task force team within your health organization

Managing and executing your Back to Work Plan requires an “all hands on deck” approach. Your task force should serve as both your strategic hub and operational command center for all your Back to Work efforts—it allows you to lead through collaboration, transparency, and swift decision-making, taking into consideration a number of factors.

To be successful, this team will need to forge a strong collaboration across internal functional teams to make sure they are able to serve the employees, customers, suppliers and other external stakeholders without skipping a beat. Every part of the health organization necessary to get employees back into the office in any form—IT, Human Resources, Operations, Corporate Communications, Facilities, and other teams—needs to be part of the task force with clear definition of roles and responsibilities. There’s no right or wrong answer as to who leads the task force. However, it is critical that everyone involved be clear on the role they will play when a certain scenario unfolds.

Return to work task force model for the Health & Life Sciences industry

Key #2: Develop a back to work playbook and scenario planning for key personas

With the cross-functional task force in place, engage in comprehensive scenario planning that seeks to:

Assess important workplace and organizational dimensions such as strategy, programmatic, people and culture, policies and procedures, technology, and operations (e.g., facilities, space, and safety).

Dynamically understand and develop a playbook evaluating how health employees should respond with clarity when each scenario plays out.

Adopt a human-centric change management approach to scenario planning by considering both a broad and diverse set of employees, external entities, and key challenges a company is expected to face.

Health organizations should ensure business continuity plan, risk management plans, probabilistic assessment of outcomes associated with various scenario pathways, and how change impacts will be managed accordingly.

Develop wargaming exercises and simulation drills to combat worst-case scenarios.

These capabilities allow organizations to think best- and worst-case scenario and what steps and decisions task force teams should take when certain scenarios get activated in the real world.

Key #3: Focus on employee experience by managing change fatigue and burnout

For health employees, safety when returning to the office is a foremost concern. According to Eagle Hill’s recently fielded “Return to Work” national survey, while nearly a quarter (71%) of employees think their employer will be well-prepared to safely bring people back to work, out of all options provided, employees are most worried about potential exposure to COVID-19 when returning to the workplace. Another Eagle hill study found that 45% of U.S. employees say they are burnt out, with 1 in 4 indicating that the cause is attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tactically, back to work planning is clearly a top-of-the-list need, and employees’ perspectives on what will make them feel safe are non-negotiable. While employee confidence in their employers to get it right has become a table-stake, it also puts the onus on healthcare leaders to step up to the plate and have a clearly laid-out change management and communication plan customized to various personas. Having an actionable roadmap that connects short-term return to work tactical plan aligned to long-term future of work will help reduce employees’ change fatigue and burn-out.

The future of work is holistic

The health organizations that are starting to emerge successfully from the current disruptions are the ones that have differentiated workplace strategy by taking into consideration the digital business model, reimagined customer experiences, and employee experience.

When reimaging the future of work for your health organization, healthcare leaders should adopt a holistic integrated approach that examines how each option (e.g., full-time remote, hybrid, or onsite) will impact your operating model and culture, how it will impact your operational activities, and whether your support functions are equipped to navigate to the “next-normal.”

In summary, it is clear that going back to work will be different when the pandemic eases. But “different” does not have to be a negative—building a future-ready health organization by adopting a human-centric approach with an actionable roadmap plan adaptable to changing conditions will differentiate the health organizations that will emerge as winners.