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As health and human service agencies face constraints such as low wages and ever-increasing casework, agency leaders can prepare for the future of work by relooking at three factors.
US health and human services (H/HS) leaders know the challenges that their more than 2.5 million staff members face: low wages, high turnover, and growing caseloads.1 This helps explain why workforce and talent management are top concerns for agency leaders. Despite a keen awareness of these issues, only 15 percent of leaders say they have a well-defined strategy for workforce management.2 The future of work, characterized by a growing workforce ecosystem, increased mobility, demographic shifts, and technological advancements, is opening up new possibilities for addressing these lingering challenges.3 Looking to the future of work uncovers new ways of acquiring, developing, and managing the workforce, enabling H/HS agencies to focus on their core mission of serving citizens in need.
H/HS agencies can optimize their workforce for the future of work by reexamining three factors:
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We exist in a completely interconnected world, which opens up new options for where work gets done. This means that work is no longer confined to a physical office location. Leveraging a virtual workforce strategy allows states to more efficiently deliver services on multiple fronts: realizing cost savings from reduced physical office footprints, routing the right work to the right worker at the right time, and providing a better overall experience for customers and employees.
Advances in productivity, mobility, and collaboration tools, as well as the next wave of virtual presence technological innovation, have accelerated the ability to create a flexible workplace. One US state was able to implement a model that allowed up to 75 percent of its overall workforce to work from home. Underpinning the advancement of virtual work are strong employee engagement and a workplace culture that supports digital and agile ways of working. H/HS leaders at the forefront of fostering this culture are positioned to reap the benefits of a more engaged and productive workforce, thus attracting talent more effectively and reducing voluntary turnover rates.
The demographic drivers of the future of work are reshaping the H/HS workforce. The number of career changes in an average life is increasing, as the concept of having a job for life gives way to the next generation of workers eager to engage in new challenges and try new things. At the same time, the increasing lifespan of workers has spurred longer careers, as well as retirees reentering the workforce.4 This, coupled with the explosion of contingent work, means that H/HS leaders now have access to a more varied workforce ecosystem.
A number of states are already redefining the H/HS workforce ecosystem by rethinking what work can be done through various contingent arrangements. One H/HS agency formed an arrangement that allowed an outside contractor to complete customer registrations, enabling state staff to focus on determining eligibility for services. In other states, new models have emerged, such as partnerships with local universities to attract a workforce to process specialty appeals work without adding to the state’s permanent payroll. Taking advantage of these workforce segments has enhanced the ability of H/HS agencies to upskill the workforce and enables staff to do the kind of work that focuses on the core mission of the agency.
Government hiring is down across the board, and public sector workers make up the smallest portion of the workforce since 1967.5 With no sign that this trend will reverse soon, leaders must look to automation to help fill the talent gap currently found in many government agencies. With little to no human input, smart technology and process automation are capable of augmenting worker output by completing routine and repetitive tasks, allowing workers to focus on more complex tasks that require empathy or a personal touch.6
States are exploring a number of ways to incorporate automation into their existing processes. H/HS agencies are piloting ways to automate highly repetitive, labor-intensive tasks that do not require worker intervention. For example, one state agency found a way to automate adding newborn babies to an existing case, making the process four minutes faster per case. Four minutes may not seem like a lot, but consider this: If an eligibility specialist processes eight newborns on average in a week, it adds up to an extra half hour per worker per week.
The future of work is about expansion, stretching the thinking about where work can be done, who can do the work, and what tasks can be effectively supplemented with automation (figure 1). Emerging technologies and workforce options can enable agencies to attract talent and leverage new operating models to better serve citizens. The organizations most likely to succeed will understand the risks and rewards of testing new models and piloting technologies, while also understanding the importance of starting small, experimenting, and scaling quickly.