Posted: 19 Nov. 2020 8 min. read

For better and worse, the pandemic has transformed the way health system and health plan employees work

By Jen Radin, principal, chief innovation officer, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Not long ago, my workdays were often spent on airplanes and in conference rooms all around the country. Since March, I’ve been spending my days on video conference calls while sitting on a rather uncomfortable chair in my semi-private (I have three kids) home office.

In the nine months since the COVID-19 pandemic began, video calls have been a lifeline connecting our homes and professional lives. However, we are beginning to see what can be lost when we can’t interact with colleagues and customers in person. The Deloitte Center for Health Solutions recently surveyed 100 employees from health systems and health plans and interviewed 13 chief human resources officers (CHROs) to find out how these organizations are keeping their virtual employees engaged, productive, and connected. We also wanted to know how the pandemic is likely to alter the way these employees work in the future.

Many CHROs have already concluded that the traditional office work environment might never return. Just 6% of surveyed employees said they wanted to return to the five-day-a-week onsite schedule. But rather than using technology to replicate the onsite environment, our research indicates leaders want to leverage technology to reimagine work, teams, and culture. 

Five things we’ve learned about virtual work  

A year ago, 85% of US employees said they never worked from home, and fewer than 3% said they worked from home one or two days a week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As of the end of June, more than 40% of the US workforce was working remotely.1 For many organizations, the transition from office work to home-office work was abrupt and immediate. Here’s what we’ve learned: 

  1. Maintaining culture is a top concern: For many people, the physical workplace is an important part of the culture. Prior to the pandemic, many of us worked in spaces that were designed to foster collaboration. Nearly 60% of surveyed employees say they have felt less connected to their co-workers since they began working remotely. When teams meet in person, for example, new perspectives and ideas are often generated organically. Maintaining a similar level of collaboration is more difficult when working full-time from home. Casual conversations, chance encounters, and serendipitous meetings that might have taken place in an elevator, around the coffee machine, or during a lunch break are difficult to replace. Staying personally connected with peers and teams is paramount. Lately, I’ve been hosting casual videoconference gatherings that include a topical trivia game (with digital prizes). To help us all get to know each other better, we’ve also held Jeopardy-themed team celebrations when people are promoted.
  2. The pros and cons of virtual work vary by generation: Our survey showed that younger generations feel more productive working from home than baby boomers. However, younger employees also want to feel connected and have in-person mentoring. Millennials and Generation X employees also tend to be more satisfied with the level of communication they receive from leadership when compared to boomers. It’s critical that everyone in the organization—regardless of their generation—is in a work environment that enables success. An environment that works for older employees might not be effective for younger workers. Organizations should consider using data analytics to assess ways to increase post-generational engagement, experience, and productivity in the new reality. The physical environment is everything, and employers should consider ways to help workers enjoy their home workspace. A home office subsidy, for example, could help employees create a more personalized work environment and could be used for anything from house plants to an under-the-desk stationary bicycle.
  3. Mental, physical, and spiritual well-being is critical: Every single morning (after I wake my kids) I hop on a stationary bike for an intense 30-minute ride. I do this for my mental well-being, but also because I know how important it is to keep my body and my lungs healthy during this health emergency. Health plan and health system CHROs say they are concerned about the mental, physical, and spiritual health of their employees and are exploring various benefits to help them manage responsibilities at home. This includes everything from childcare and eldercare support to helping workers stay healthy and avoid burnout. Exercise (and getting away from our computers) is important for our well-being and also for our physical health—with or without the threat of a pandemic lurking.
  4. It’s important to identify the best tools and technology for the circumstance: Early on in the pandemic, many of us saw video chats as invaluable (some people even attended virtual happy hours at the end of their virtual workday!). But video calls can be draining and all-consuming. Now that I’m no longer traveling for work, I don’t have as much downtime to reply to emails…I don’t usually get to them until after I have dinner with my family and put the kids to bed. While video calls are great, my team and I are trying to use more-traditional one-on-one phone calls, or even non-video conference calls for meetings when we don’t all need to be looking at the same document. This makes it easier to walk outside or make lunch for our kids while still contributing to the conservation. When we are single-tasking on a video call, our brains have to absorb what is being said while subconsciously decoding the expressions of the people on our screens. Team leaders should be intentional in choosing the best tools and technology for the specific meeting/circumstance.
  5. Past work rituals could make it easier to cope: For many of us, our daily commute (i.e., the distance between the bedroom and the laptop) takes just a few seconds. The ability to work from the comfort of home has caused many of us to become more casual. However, I’ve noticed recently that some of my colleagues are trying to bring back their professional selves by donning business attire or getting boardroom ready before calls. Bringing back a few work rituals from the past—and integrating them into the current work environment—can help make some people feel more productive and engaged. 

Since the spring, the line between work life and home life has blurred. Without the physical separation between work and the other parts of our lives, it can be difficult to know where our work life ends and where our personal life begins. Most of the CHROs we interviewed said they have noticed that many employees have trouble ending their workday. Being plugged in to work around the clock can lead to burnout, which has huge costs for employees and their organizations.2 The challenges of balancing work life and home life has forced some people to make difficult decisions about their careers. This phenomenon is falling disproportionately on women, and that worries me a lot because of the equity implications. As team leaders, we all need to empathize with our workforces as we all navigate this new work environment. Empathy can be as simple as asking, “how are you doing?” and “how can I help?”

The shift to virtual work has shown that productivity and performance can no longer be judged by the number of hours an employee spends in an office. Despite the challenges many of us face with virtual work, there are opportunities where health care organizations can innovate, find new ways of working, and place more emphasis on the mental, physical, and spiritual health of our employees (something is already core to their mission and purpose).

Endnotes:

1.  Stanford research provides a snapshot of a new working-from-home economy, Stanford News, June 29, 2020

2. Working from home poses serious dangers for employers and employees alike, FORTUNE, August 2, 2020

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Jennifer Radin

Jennifer Radin

National leader

JENNIFER RADIN, Deloitte Consulting LLP, is a principal and the chief innovation officer for Deloitte's Health Care practice. She also leads the Future of Work in Health Care signature issue. With more than 20 years of experience in life sciences and health care, Radin is a national speaker and key advisor to health care leaders, helping them transform their organizations to execute strategies for growth that improve clinical outcomes, enhance patient and family experiences, improve affordability and access, and increase caregiver engagement. She is based in New York.