Management

How to Effectively Sustain the Remote Management of Health IT Staff

Remote management of health IT team

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, many healthcare leaders find themselves managing a much larger number of remote IT and other shared services support workforce for the first time. We’ve collectively learned much more about remote support personnel in the past months and now find ourselves asking important questions including, what worked, what didn’t work and how do these nascent management experiences change the staffing paradigm? There are three important long-term considerations for effective remote management in health IT:

  1. Set up for success
  2. Keep team members connected and adjust for differences
  3. Sustain a blended staffing approach

It is important to note that consideration has been made learnings prior to the COVID-19 crisis on how to manage remote resources and that some of the suppositions have shifted slightly.

1. Set up for Success

The core support teams’ key functions continue whether in-house or remote: secure protected health information (PHI), integrate medical records, support IT systems, manage purchasing or revenue cycle function and connect with others. Most hospitals, health systems and market suppliers were able to quickly ramp up and manage these tasks during the pandemic despite a quick shift into a remote model due to social-distancing requirements.

Remote management of health IT support requires the following fundamental components.

Expectations

Rules of engagement for work from home should cover work hours, availability and anticipated results for key projects. These expectations are all more nuanced in the remote management of health IT. More precisely defined job descriptions and requirements for individual accountability ensures every team member feels a distinct sense of close proximity and team support during work hours, regardless of work location. Set frequency, means and timing of communications establish structure and predictability for a remote team. This includes such specifics as go-to communication tools, team calls, email or instant message response times and use of video conferencing.

Guidance

Strong guidance is needed to protect PHI and ensure system support including specifics for mobile and other smart devices used by remote staff in their homes. It is also important to carefully align escalation and handoff processes. Home networks are more susceptible to hack attacks and represent greater vulnerability. For that reason, an audit of the home network environment and use of virtual private network, or VPN, software is a must.

Metrics

While key performance indicator and service-level agreement (SLA) metrics on support incidents is essential for a high-functioning service desks, close examination and routine audits are even more critical in a remote work environment to stay focused on the operational needs of your organization and shifts in those needs.

Policy

Establishing a remote work policy is a solid step toward setting up for success.

2. Keep Team Members Connected and Adjust for Differences

In the remote management of health IT, it is important to adjust for differences in the remote environment to maintain team productivity, collaboration and company culture. Misconceptions regarding remote workforce productivity and laggard adoption by tenured employees have been quickly dispelled amid the mass migration to home offices.

New realities have set in—here are some to consider:

  • There will be fewer face-to-face interactions and structured meetings. Replace them with predictable, scheduled check-ins.
  • Quick questions for the cube next door are no longer an option. Convert to instant messaging tolls for quick questions and video conferencing for more involved conversations. Check the security of all applications used.
  • Communication can become noisy in the remote environment and employee needs can be overlooked. Govern communications by management to reduce redundancy and standardize email subject lines to streamline internal emails.
  • Include social interactions in your routine to keep teams connected while social distancing.
  • Acknowledge these times are not normal. Strive for at-home workspaces free from distractions, but don’t sweat the small stuff.
  • Establish a culture of accountability and trust to foster stronger social bonds and work relationship among team members.

These realities and many more surfaced during an internal team survey following the rapid shift to remote work. Here are valuable insights across three established health IT support roles.

Analysts

The ease of asking nearby coworkers a question is replaced by video conferencing, instant messages and better use of the internal knowledge base. While the response may take a bit longer, it hasn’t impacted the level of customer support the analysts provide and minimizes disruptions among the team. Management must ensure employees have all the equipment and support they need to ensure a smooth transition for analysts. Regular outreach and communication by managers are also essential. And always use a consistent and secure communication toolset for the teams to interact.

Managers

Scheduling changes and related logistics challenges are a key focus for remote management in health IT. For example, there was an immediate need for managers to provider greater flexibility in light of at-home schooling and day care cancellations. Training of new hires must also be modified and processes refined. Quick assessment and fulfillment of equipment needs is essential as mentioned above.

Cohesiveness can be bolstered with weekly video conferences and a little creativity. One team played virtual game show over their lunch break. And frequent managerial review of daily stats reports helps identify potential frustration areas. Managers also report more focused time with fewer distractions and interruptions.

Directors

Knowledge of each hospital, health system and vendor’s work from home changes is extremely helpful at all levels. Once initial set up to work from home is completed, directors should ensure there are no disruptions to SLAs. Impeccable and reliable customer support must always remain the top priority.

From an employee perspective, directors are reminded to remain open, rational and purposeful in all thoughts, words and actions. People naturally emulate their leaders, so now is the time to set an optimum example. Reiterate the team’s purpose, mission and objectives and set expectations to ensure standards are not compromised in any way. Remember, it is harder to excite and inspire teams remotely. Finally, consider incentive strategies for outstanding performance and accomplishments.

Supporting IT and clinical applications for a health system is a team effort. Everyone has a role to play. Thinking ahead to healthcare’s reboot and recovery phase, a blended staffing approach for health IT systems support may become the new normal.

3. Sustain a Blended Staffing Approach

A recent CHIME Survey regarding chief information officer (CIO) priorities and barriers to progress listed EHR/EMR optimization as the top health IT initiative. That was a month before COVID-19 restrictions were implemented in the United States. Many of these upgrades and new implementations are now temporarily paused or under evaluation. These same restrictions forced reduced traffic to ambulatory care facilities and surgery centers, which reduced the volume of callers to service desks.

Savvy CIOs are already preparing reboot and recovery strategies and for the need to sustain a remote workforce. If not fully, at least in a hybrid, blended model.

  • Redefine “traditional” shifts: With the blended staffing and introduction of a larger remote workforce, IT leaders need to consider non-traditional shift patterns. For example, fluctuate from four hours on, four off and four back on. Each team member needs are different with the change in child care availability and overall household schedules. Flexibility in schedules can help retain top performers and attract talent.
  • Remain remote-ready: A key aspect to remaining remote-ready is ensuring your technology is capable of remote work. Our support desk team members are configured technologically to be remote as a standard. Rather than desktops and hard-wired phones, agents use laptops, docking stations and soft phones for existing support in the office. When social-distancing measures were put into place, agents simply logged in from their home work spaces.
  • Forecast for staffing needs: As health facilities reopen, IT leaders will need to get ahead of the operational needs of their organizations and an increased call volumes to the service desk. Channel the downturn to assess processes and look for opportunities to streamline. Stay in touch with external influences and regulatory changes. Use best and worst case estimating and create an alignment with staffing that is tight yet predictable. And finally, ensure team members are made aware of the forecast and where their support is needed most.

We are shifting into a new normal, where the remote management of health IT employees may remain the standard even after restrictions are lifted. The good news is that research indicates workplaces with the option to work from home experience higher levels of employee engagement. I believe healthcare organizations will benefit from the new blended health IT support trend—and so will their employees.

The views and opinions expressed in this content or by commenters are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HIMSS or its affiliates.

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