While some electronic health record system developers are pushing for a return to in-person work, others are following the lead of big tech companies and evaluating whether remote work options could extend beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
Epic Systems Corp. this weekend walked back its plan to begin bringing employees back to the office Monday, a controversial move that brought national attention and pushback from concerned employees. The company's phased approach would have required most of its nearly 10,000 workers to return to work at its 1,000-acre campus in Verona, Wis., by Sept. 21, well before the company's competitors.
As of last week, an estimated one-third of Epic's workers had already voluntarily returned to work on campus, according to the company.
But Epic's push for a return to in-person work isn't the norm, said Rick Kes, a partner and healthcare senior analyst at audit and consulting firm RSM. Some of the company's competitors, including Cerner Corp. and Meditech, have been looking to add permanent work-from-home options for some employee roles.
"Most of the other electronic health record companies that we've been following appear to be a bit more willing to allow a work-from-home status than what appears to be coming from Epic," Kes said last week, before Epic had loosened its return-to-work mandate.
Information technology companies have increasingly been hiring for remote workers, Kes said, citing employment data from the Computing Technology Industry Association trade group. And major technology companies including Facebook and Twitter have created buzz in recent months for offering permanent work-from-home options for some of their roles.
Cerner, which has said it's not going to require most of its workforce to return to the office until at least year-end, has been considering whether to keep some workers remote permanently. The company is evaluating a long-term "hybrid workforce strategy," in which Cerner may transition some roles to permanent remote work and some to "hybrid" roles, said Eva Karp, a senior vice president and chief clinical and patient safety officer at Cerner. They haven't solidified which roles will be affected yet.
Some employees do work best on-site, and the company in May brought back about 4% of its 13,000 Kansas City, Mo., area workers, according to Karp. That first phase of workers to return to the company's offices includes employees that work on "critical resources" like data centers, as well as in security and those working at on-site employee health clinics.
Cerner had planned to bring a second phase of workers back about a month later, but delayed that plan as COVID-19 continued to spread in the region.
Westwood, Mass.-based Meditech plans to kick off a phased return-to-office plan Oct. 1, during which an initial set of employees will work in the office 40% the time and at home for 60% of the time, a company spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
"We see our culture evolving with some staff working virtually full time and others partially remote," she said.
That contrasts companies like Epic, where leadership has argued employees are more productive when working together and in-person.
"Over the past several months, our experience has been that results are much better and faster when staff are able to collaborate on new and creative ideas during in-person brainstorming sessions compared to over the phone or video conference," an Epic spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement last week.
While Epic loosened its return-to-office mandate in an email to employees on Saturday, it still hopes to move forward with the plan. Epic has continued to ask workers to return to campus, but has said the move isn't mandatory while the company works with Public Health Madison & Dane County to confirm it's complying with the agency's guidance.
"While our intention is to return staff to campus, we are adjusting the timeframe as we work with public health officials to gain their agreement on our plan," said Sverre Roang, Epic's chief administrative officer, in an emailed statement.
Epic's initial plan had made allowances for employees with high-risk health conditions and parents, who could continue working remotely through Nov. 2, but not for other employees.
Many Epic workers had pushed back on the return-to-office plan.
By pushing for a return to in-person work, a union alleged Epic is "claiming that a culture of chance encounters in the hallways is more important than the untold deaths that will occur both indirectly by spread through the broader community and directly from forcing workers into close quarters when they don't need to be."
Madison Industrial Workers of the World union drafted a statement with Epic employees last week, calling on the EHR company to let employees continue to work remotely until at least year-end.
Employees across industries have been split on whether they're ready to return to the office. Thirty-eight percent of professionals in a June poll by consulting firm Korn Ferry indicated they were somewhat likely to return to the office once their company reopens, followed by 32% who said it was highly likely and 30% who said it was unlikely.
Still, half of all respondents said they were afraid to return due to health concerns.
Allscripts, another developer of EHR software, has taken a more cautious approach, with leadership saying the company doesn't plan to lift its remote work policy until at least the end of 2020—if not later.
The company likely won't set a specific return-to-office date until there's more "clarity around what it looks like to work in an office setting" during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Allscripts CEO Paul Black.
"We will be a late adopter of whatever policies become more broadly accepted," Black said.
Chicago-based Allscripts hasn't brought back employees to regularly work in its offices, though there's a handful of workers going into buildings for jobs like billing, which involve on-site tasks like collecting mail and scanning documents. But "there's not very many roles" that require being on-site today, said Erikka Buracchio, senior vice president of global human resources at Allscripts.
However, the company isn't looking to make remote work a permanent fixture.
"We're social beings," Buracchio said. "We would like to share colleagues again at some point."