Leaders discuss how they are managing remote work/return-to-work strategies

June 29, 2021  //  FOUND IN: Strategy & Leadership,
Four chairs with desks attached, with more workstations shown in the background.
A more open workspace for HITS at the 777 Building.

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how Michigan Medicine delivers care, conducts research and educates the health care leaders of the future.

It also has had a profound impact on our workforce and workplaces. Many employees have been working remotely since March 2020. Others never left, as their roles required them to remain on campus.

Now, as work continues to bring some of the workforce back to Michigan Medicine, numerous opportunities — and challenges — await.

To enable Michigan Medicine to better execute its tripartite mission, thousands of managers are reviewing space their teams occupy to determine how staff remote working arrangements will successfully meld with organizational needs to optimize a flexible work environment.

The Michigan Medicine Flexible First Workforce and Workplace Committee is developing tools to help managers make decisions, have appropriate conversations with employees and craft effective strategies. A SharePoint site includes goals, deliverables and objectives for Flexible First, a list of frequently asked questions, and updates on the workplace and workforce subgroups. 

Many managers have “gone first” in determining their workplace needs and workforce preferences. Some were thinking about remote work long before the pandemic. Others had to act fast due to lease expirations and other factors.

Over the next two years, Michigan Medicine will vacate more than 200,000 square feet by committing to flexible-first principles at several leased sites, including Traverwood III, Oakbrook, Arbor Lakes, Michigan House and property along Plymouth Road.

Three managers and their teams who are studying and implementing their return-to-work strategies are sharing what they have learned, the successes they have had, the mistakes they have made, and the opportunities and uncertainties that linger as fall approaches.

Lessons learned. Click on image for a plain-text version.
Click on image for a plain-text version of this graphic.

Keeping up momentum

The prevalent emotion each emphasized is that changes brought on by the pandemic continue to affect both management and staff — and that these can be a challenge for all involved. But they also have seen their teams do great work, both on- and off-site, and with proper planning, they say this momentum can continue post-pandemic.

“We have been through some amazing change,” said Benjie Johnson, chief officer for Revenue Cycle Management. “Giving people space and allowing them to manage their work and calendars, we have found that collaboration and brainstorming still happens. Our productivity has only gone up.”

Revenue Cycle began to move some staff to remote work well before the pandemic. After a pilot phase to try remote work for a segment of its workforce, most of the team working out of the KMS Building was sent home when the pandemic hit in spring 2020. What started as a small experiment has since blossomed into a full-fledge movement.

“Staff started to ask: ‘When are we coming back?’ I thought, maybe we should remove that question,” Johnson said. After working with senior staff and surveying employees (96 percent favored continuing some remote work arrangement), Revenue Cycle announced in August 2020 that it would have a remote workforce permanently. In doing so, the group reduced its space footprint to less than a third of its original allotment.

An early proponent of remote work, Johnson said surveying employees, establishing a committee, and ensuring that management is fully committed to plans are essential steps in crafting a remote work strategy that benefits Michigan Medicine and its employees.

Space exploration

Photo of an empty cubicle with chair and screenshot of program allowing an employee to reserve the space.
A screenshot of a program that will help HITS employees reserve workspace.

Like Revenue Cycle, HITS was considering flexible-staffing models prior to COVID-19. This included consolidating staff into the 777 Building from Arbor Lakes and other locations. Looking at a smaller capacity in the 777 Building, leadership found the need for a flexible model that allowed for more telecommuting and fewer space assignments.

HITS engaged staff with surveys, asking questions about telecommuting and how they would approach coming into an office space without assigned seating. They formed a space committee and created principles around space assignments. All HITS staff will have the ability to come into any facility and reserve a space to work if that is how they need to perform their job that day.

“Our development of these principles and engagement of staff has worked well,” said Brian Kwapis, senior director of finance and administration for HITS. “We understand this is a huge change management issue for staff. We are prepared to return to work under these new principles and continue to assess how it is working on a frequent basis.”

HITS also is creating a return-to-work playbook to help staff transition. Kwapis added: “Consider this a change management effort and not just a facilities relocation project.”

‘No one wants to be working on an island’

Gloria Harrington, chief administrator for the Department of Psychiatry, likened her team’s efforts to driving a car while they are building it. Like her counterparts, she emphasized establishing a set of principles around remote work and space requirements, so that all decisions can be applied fairly across each department.

“If you have time to do advanced planning, do it,” Harrington said. “Involve people in the conversation so that they feel they have a say in their destiny.”

Harrington is moving staff from Traverwood, either onsite or working remotely. She said key to the process is providing workspace for employees when they need it. This includes touchdown space, hoteling (reservable) space and spaces that allow for collaboration. Considering employees’ preferences is paramount to this new working world, she added.

“Make sure people still feel like they have a home in the department,” Harrington said. “It is important for people to stay connected — no one wants to be working on an island.”

While time will determine the success of her team’s planning efforts, Harrington said she is confident her employees will continue to respond. “During the pandemic, things have gone great,” she said. “This year really showed us that we can really trust them to do great work from anywhere.”