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Fostering a sense of connection with your practice's remote workforce

MGMA Stat - April 15, 2021

Compensation & Benefits

Staffing Models

Business Operations Technology

Christian Green MA

The Medical Group Management Association’s most recent MGMA Stat poll asked healthcare leaders, “What percentage of your workforce works remotely at least 50% of the time?”
  • About 1 in 5 healthcare leaders (20%) said more than 25% of their workforce is remote at least half of the time.
  • More than one-third (37%) said only 1% to 25% of workers are remote at least half the time.
  • 44% said no workers are remote at least half the time.

Additionally, 15% of healthcare leaders said they are planning to increase their remote workforce in 2021, while 85% said they are not.
The poll was conducted April 13, 2021, with 827 applicable responses.

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A component of the new normal: Virtual work

Whether medical practices have had to focus on addressing cybersecurity with remote staff, designing long-term practice recovery plans or reassessing space needs in preparation for staff and providers fully returning, they have been steadfast in meeting the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. During the past year, many practice leaders explored flexible work options for staff and providers, including setting up work-from-home policies.
 
Deciding whether to continue offering remote-work opportunities to providers and staff is a challenge in an industry in which the traditional, in-person provider-patient interaction has been essential. Non-patient-facing positions, such as medical billers, coders and other administrative positions, often have the option of working remotely, but there are many factors to evaluate, the most important of which is trust.

As David Chou, chief information officer, Harris Health System, Houston, told Becker’s Health IT, regarding his organization’s philosophy on teleworking: “We trust our employees and measure them based on their work output versus the need to see them physically. If leaders feel the need to see the employee in person to manage the work effort, then, in my opinion, the leader should not have hired the employee.”1

For some groups, this philosophy carries over to their entire organization, as they consider remote medicine and a virtual workplace. “This work is part of our digital transformation and strategy of having 'flexible walls' for our patients, improving patient satisfaction, providing quality outcomes while lowering cost, and addressing provider burnout,” Raymond Lowe, senior vice president and chief information officer, AltaMed, Los Angeles, told Becker’s of the clinic’s focus on remote work.2

There are many potential advantages to work-from-home arrangements:
  • Reducing overhead costs
  • Retaining skilled employees and attracting a larger talent pool
  • Improving performance and productivity, which may result in more engaged workforces
  • Providing alternative and sometimes more convenient care options for patients.

Collaboration and communication are often the cornerstone to ensuring that employees flourish in this environment.

Engagement starts with collaboration and communication

Many managers worry that remote work leads to individuals feeling isolated and less likely to communicate. To help allay these concerns, Microsoft conducted an informal study earlier this year that addressed how collaboration has changed for the organization’s employees since the start of the pandemic. Some key data points emerged around collaboration and communication:
  • 70% of employees across various teams, including engineering, product and business, had more meetings.
  • 22% had more shorter meetings (under 30 minutes) and 11% has fewer longer meetings (more than 60 minutes).
  • One-on-one meetings increased 18%, and check-ins and team social meetings increased 10%.
  • There was a 72% increase in instant messages, the highest percentage of which occurred between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.
 
“These data support existing research that regular touchpoints and rituals in times of instability or big change can help teams foster a sense of connection, safety and fun,” said Jared Spataro, corporate vice president, Microsoft 365, of the surge in communication. “And we take them as a sign that our team is committing to persistent change. … By scheduling these recurring meetings our colleagues have taken a big step toward creating new norms to guide us long term.”3

Along those lines, scheduled and impromptu meetings and the use of communication channels, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams, can help further engage employees. In addition, staff can be acknowledged by their peers through employee recognition platforms. They can also stay connected through organization-wide happy hours, lunches and even team walks.

One might expect to see these results at an organization like Microsoft. However, some MGMA members have witnessed the same outcomes in their practices. “Communication was very good amongst the staff,” noted a practice administrator from Florida. “We have a Google Business account so we have used the group chat options. We also have Business Comcast so they were able to use the Be Anywhere feature that allowed them to call patients but show our company phone number.” 
 
Although most of the staff have returned to the office, she added that it’s given the practice peace of mind to know that staff have the ability to work remotely if similar circumstances
 
Another MGMA member, a practice administrator from California, expressed that communication has been a big priority with her staff. “I make a point of calling them when I need to make a point or to simply check in with them,” she said. “I do not want them to feel like they are ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ … I find that I have impromptu Zoom and RingCentral calls often.”
 
Vsuch as RingCentral have made it possible for practices to update their phone systems to make it easier for remote providers and staff to connect. These
 
Shifting to VoIP has worked well for some practices. The California practice administrator noted that it’s enabled her practice’s staff to download an app to their cell phones and answer calls from the practice’s main number. When staff dial through the app, the practice number comes up so patients think they are calling from the office. In addition, she points out that staff and providers can message each other through the app, which is HIPAA compliant.
 
Perhaps most important, the phone system shows who is available to take or make a call. “The staff can log in and out of queues depending on their availability and our scheduling needs,” she said. “For instance, our medical assistants rotate through the scheduling department and can log into the scheduling queue to receive incoming calls no matter where they are in the office. We can fax from every phone number, text patients and have conference calls.”  
 
Communication and collaboration lead to more engaged employees, which helps with retention. But as Gallup’s Adam Hickman, PhD, content manager, and Jennifer Robison, senior editor, pointed out in a 2020 article published a month before the start of the pandemic, engagement has more tangible benefits to businesses, beyond making employees happy.
 
“It is true that engaged employees are more enthusiastic, energetic and positive, feel better about their work and workplace, and have better physical health, but engagement isn't a perk for leaders to dole out, it's a way leaders can improve KPIs,” they wrote. Gallup’s research shows that workplaces with engaged employees have 41% lower absenteeism, 40% fewer quality defects and 21% higher profitability.4
 

Assessing productivity

For those practices that plan to continue to allow staff to work remotely, Nate Moore, CPA, MBA, FACMPE, president, Moore Solutions, offers some advice for measuring billing office productivity in his March 2020 podcast. Moore says that by collecting data on charges and payments and adjustments entered over time (month, week, day, hour, etc.), practices can assess staff productivity. “You can look employee by employee and say, ‘hey, are we dropping off in productivity during a certain time of the day and make sure we’re comfortable with our employees working from home,’”5 he noted.

Assessing the productivity of remote staff is vital for practices new to the virtual workplace. “I am monitoring several reports … that show how long they are logged into the system,” said the practice administrator from California. “I can also check on the volume of their work, but the report isn’t as robust as we need.” 
 
She added that although some of the physicians aren’t fully convinced the staff are working as hard from home as they would in the office, gratitude has played a big part in helping her believe staff are just as productive.  
 
Ultimately, determining whether providers and staff are serving and caring for their patients as best they can is the real measure of success. “It is about focusing on outcomes and exceeding customer expectations, versus managing time in an office,” Deanna Wise, chief information officer, Banner Health, Phoenix, told Becker’s. “This requires clear expectations and strong leadership, with a recognition of work-life blend when delivering across time zones, but it can be done successfully.”6
 
Do you have any best practices or success stories to share on this topic? Please let us know by emailing us at research@mgma.com.
 

JOIN MGMA STAT

Our ability at MGMA to provide great resources, education and advocacy depends on a strong feedback loop with healthcare leaders. To be part of this effort, sign up for MGMA Stat and make your voice heard in our weekly polls. Sign up by texting “STAT” to 33550 or visit mgma.com/stat. Polls will be sent to your phone via text message.

Additional resources

 
Notes:
1. Dyrda L, Drees J. “The strategic vision for long-term remote work at 12 health systems.” Becker’s Health IT. Available from: bit.ly/3mFVw1v.
2. Ibid.
3. Spataro J. “How remote work impacts collaboration: Findings from our team. Microsoft 365. Available from: bit.ly/32mpm1T.
4. Hickman A, Robison, J. “Is working remotely effective? Gallup research says yes.” Gallup. Available from: bit.ly/3scqfV5.
5. Moore N. “March 2020 Billing Office Productivity.” Pivot Tables Podcast, March 9, 2020. Available from: bit.ly/3mOFXoo.
6. Dyrda, Drees. 

About the Author

Christian Green
Christian Green MA
MGMA Writer/Editor MGMA

cgreen@mgma.com

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