Aug 17 2022

CDW Executive SummIT: The Side Effects of Hybrid Work at Seattle Children’s

Remote work enabled healthcare organizations to provide essential care throughout the pandemic. But as they adapt to hybrid work environments, there are unexpected concerns.

Nearly every industry was hit hard when the pandemic struck, but few faced the immediate need for remote access with the urgency of healthcare. With lives on the line, providers scrambled to establish reliable ways to connect with patients who depended on their continuous care.

In many ways, the endeavor for Seattle Children’s can be called a major success. Fortunately, the organization had been equipped for remote work prior to the pandemic, but it wasn’t operating remotely on such a scale. According to Zafar Chaudry, senior vice president and chief digital and information officer at Seattle Children’s, “Overnight, we went from 175 people working from home to 450,000 people working from home.”

Chaudry spoke at the CDW Executive SummIT: Managing the Evolving Workforce, where he shared his organization’s journey to hybrid work and discussed some of the unexpected challenges the provider discovered along the way and is still encountering today.

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Hybrid Work Provided Health Systems with Unforeseen Benefits

Working through the pandemic, the hospital decided it wanted to set up its workforce for remote work more permanently, but it had to overcome some hurdles to get there. There were the common IT challenges such as hardware, connectivity and security. But there were other difficulties, including more competitive recruiting and hiring.

“Unfortunately, as a not-for-profit pediatric hospital, I might offer you a great working environment or a good mission, but I can’t offer you RVUs [relative value units] that you can cash in for,” Chaudry explained. “So, we looked at this and said: Well, first, we’ve got to use that to open up the ability to hire in other markets. So, we moved from just hiring in Washington. We now hire in Washington, Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Texas, Georgia and Florida, and will soon be opening up to all 50 states.”

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Another challenge in setting up any remote workforce is equipping a team to perform its work effectively. Chaudry explained how Children’s met the needs of its employees who were no longer working in the hospital facilities. “We built an app store where you could order your tech kit. You get $500 toward a fancy chair or a new table, and you can order the two items and other peripherals on that website. And we will have a negotiated price that you could apply your $500 grant to, and then everything will be shipped to your house.”

The hospital also reaped some unexpected benefits from real estate decisions made possible because of large-scale remote work. According to Chaudry, the hospital shut down multiple office buildings in downtown Seattle, which has saved the average employee approximately $8,000 in commuting costs, while the organization is projected to realize cost savings of $100 million over 10 years.

Acknowledging Hidden Consequences of Hybrid Work in Healthcare

Chaudry said there have been many positives from remote work, but there have been negative side effects too, pointing out that mental health is a genuine concern. Many conversations have focused on the challenges of working parents who struggle to balance time with children learning from home. But Chaudry said the hospital also wanted to focus on the mental health of employees dealing with isolation in new ways. “What people don’t talk about is mental health issues of their employees while they are isolated at home,” he said.

“If we’ve got young people working in IT, they live by themselves and live in a studio apartment, they never leave the studio apartment. They were already introverted,” he explained. “I’ve seen in the last 18 months or so that pressure. I’ve seen people reach a boiling point because there’s no human-to-human contact. And that’s been harder to manage.”

Zafar Chaudry
There is that level of compassion that you have to develop.”

Zafar Chaudry Senior Vice President and Chief Digital and Information Officer, Seattle Children’s

Seattle Children’s decided to establish an employee welfare group specifically devoted to IT staff. In addition, it increased the number of interactions between leaders and their teams. “Before, I was doing town halls every quarter. And now I have to do a town hall every month, for 60 minutes. In 60 minutes, I usually get 60 to 90 questions.”

Chaudry said the increased number of events has helped, but he noted a related challenge when it comes to communication. “We’ve also learned that middle management doesn’t always feed the information down from the front line. So, now, you’ve also got to do virtual rallies with your teams at a high level, to try and understand what people are struggling with.”

Remaining Mindful of the Human Element of Hybrid Work

While technology certainly has been the key to enabling the widespread adoption of hybrid work, it’s the connections between humans that will ensure its long-term success.

Chaudry called it the compassion component. “There is that level of compassion that you have to develop,” he explained, saying that opening up and sharing his own losses and experiences has helped other coworkers. “My life, what I face, how I grew up, what challenges I might have, what am I crying about? That’s really helped people speak up.”

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“As a leader, it’s really hard to have a conversation with an employee who wants to tell you about some things — what they’ve lost, what they’ve gained — it's heartbreaking. And it may resonate, because you may have gone through similar things.”

“We love to get people engaged. So, if you’re not doing this, have a town hall when you go back, and just talk about feelings, talk about what you've gone through in the pandemic, how that has impacted your family. And you will be amazed at how many people reach out to you and say, ‘That just resonated with me. I'm glad you said that.’”

A version of this article first appeared as part of BizTech magazine’s coverage of the CDW Executive SummIT.

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