Paul Kempinski, president and CEO of Children’s Mercy Kansas City, has faced a common dilemma for employers in the COVID-19 pandemic: Which staff can work remotely, and how does the organization balance that flexibility in the long term? Finding the right approach for leadership and the workforce can be tricky. The pediatric hospital has developed a hybrid approach and a way to elicit feedback from workers.
At what point did the hospital transition some staff to remote and what positions are they in?
This whole transition to a remote workforce was really catalyzed by COVID. I think what we can acknowledge is that many industries outside of healthcare had a much more mature experience with employees working remotely and from home. But for us, when COVID hit, we realized we had to promote social distancing and the safety of our patients and staff. We immediately sent nearly 25% of our 8,500 employee workforce into a home environment. And then we realized that we had an opportunity to look at the workforce of the future. One of the few good things resulting from COVID is the fact that we realized we had an opportunity to increase the flexibility, productivity and general engagement of our workforce by enabling a remote work policy, program and model that had not existed in our organization previously. We get to work on that in a much more intentional way and (create) one that would serve us well beyond COVID.
So who it’s impacted are really all of those non-direct patient-facing employees. There are many more individuals that we’ve realized along the way that may not be routinely patient-facing on a daily basis, but do have the need to be visible and present in the workplace at times. And that helped to inform some of our policies going forward.
Are some of the people who you’ve found did need to be in-person not those you may have thought of originally?
Yes. I’ll give you a perfect example. We have a lot of emphasis on process and system improvement through the application of lean methodologies in our organization. And some of our process improvement specialists when COVID hit began to work remotely from their homes. But we quickly realized that in order for them to be fully effective in their jobs, they need to do process observations. And that means being on patient-care units, in clinics and in other hospital- and clinic-based operations, where they’re watching the work being done so that they can in turn facilitate improvements to the systems and processes that are taking place in those environments.
How has the mentality in the C-suite changed regarding remote work?
We’re going through a three-phase process. Phase one really began as COVID hit, and we realized that there was an immediate need to send a number of employees home. And then we began to work intentionally and strategically on creating a model and a set of policies, procedures and guidelines that would help to inform which employees can work from home on a relatively permanent basis, which employees really need to be in our facilities.
And then which employees could be in sort of a hybrid model, where they came into a worksite on occasion but also were able to work from home on occasion. The work that we’ve been doing now is what we call the beta-testing option, where we have modeled some futuristic, more contemporary workspaces that are hybrid in nature that bring employees together from different departments who can work in collaborative spaces and really test the need as to whether or not certain employees need private offices, collaborative spaces, check-in locations, drop-in locations and so forth.
And then in early ’22, we’ll begin the next phase of this experiment, which will be to test, collect data and collect feedback from those who are experiencing these new work environments, and then modify and refine our approach going forward. But our hypothesis is that we will have greater levels of employee satisfaction, greater levels of morale, greater levels of engagement, and we hope that we will be able to both measure and see improvements in productivity.
It sounds like there probably isn’t a time when Children’s Mercy staff will be 100% in-person in the future.
I honestly think that those days are gone, to be very honest with you. Now, what I would predict, and this is just Paul speaking intuitively without data, I do think there will be additional learnings over the next one to two years as we test the impact on the remote work model against our desire to create and foster a culture of engagement. There will be some realities that will face us, and we will be guided by the experience of our employees who are working from home and in these hybrid models.
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How do you believe that has affected morale, both with front-line workers or with those who are remote?
I think right now it’s really rejuvenated morale. I think coming out of the fog of COVID, which we hope we are coming out of, I think it’s been a morale booster. In fact, in some of the satisfaction surveys that we’ve done with our employees, 97% of those who are working in these remote work environments at home have expressed an extremely high level of satisfaction with that opportunity, which gives them greater flexibility and nimbleness.
Childcare has been an incredible challenge for our employees, as well as just about everybody in the U.S. who has children. To be able to ensure that they’re getting educated through in-person school or teaching from home and just access to childcare has been a struggle. This gives employees more flexibility to ensure that their families are being cared for, which in turn helps them to be more engaged and more satisfied in the work environment even when it’s virtual. So far it’s instilled a great level of satisfaction, and we want to make sure that continues and is sustained over the long run.
How has it affected your recruiting?
We are—just as all of healthcare is and so many sectors of the economy are—dealing with the great resignation and the workforce shortages that are occurring right now. But I would posit that it has served as an incredible retention initiative for us, for our employees. And we now have increased our ability to recruit incredible talent from farther geographic reaches. So I think it’s a bit of a double-edged sword and the jury is still out, but I think it’s assisted in our retention efforts, and it’s assisting in focused ways with our recruitment efforts as well.