Reframing the Workforce Conversation

7 minute
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Picture this: You’re an executive on a Zoom call with a group of employees. The subject is setting a date for returning to work in the office. One employee resists. He says working from home gives him more time for his social life and jujitsu training, and he doesn’t understand why he should be required to commute.

Discussions like these are not uncommon as organizations reevaluate and update their workplace flexibility and remote policies. We didn’t make this up; it happened recently at a Seattle-based tech company. These conversations can escalate quickly; in that context and that moment, it can feel like the employee who expects flexibility is challenging traditionally held executive values and the meaning of work itself.

Many workforce issues stem from this seeming clash of values, and when confronted by a comment like the one made by the employee in this example, the desire for more can seem like an affront to the traditional practices that produced many successful generations of executives and organizations.

And in our example, that’s exactly how the CEO responded: “Fair point,” he said, “and you should think about what your priority is…. If you want to be an MMA fighter, go do that.”

As tempting as it may be to respond in exactly that way, a pause for reflection may uncover a different view of the situation and a different response.

Perhaps the employee making this request is highly skilled. Perhaps he takes the mission of the organization very seriously and delivers great results, whether he’s physically present in the office or not. Perhaps having the opportunity to pursue his social activities and jujitsu energizes him, making him a better employee. In that case, you wouldn’t want him to disengage, or even worse, start looking for another job.

So how could you respond, in the moment? In our conversations with healthcare executives recently, we have heard many variations on this quandary.

In recent years, the concept of work-life balance, which sets up two opposing forces, has evolved toward work-life integration, which is built on the premise that people envision the lives they want and seek jobs and employers that facilitate that experience.

That premise is the new basis for competition—in today’s environment our design of work must fit around the needs of the workforce or you will be at a competitive disadvantage. This is particularly difficult in healthcare, where organizations now compete for talent across numerous industries. For clinical talent, your competition is not only the other hospitals or clinics in your market, its insurance and digital health companies, retail organizations like Amazon and Walmart, healthcare technology, and private equity companies. And you’re competing with all those companies for knowledge workers and leadership, too. Your technologists are seeing remote-only offers from firms in New York and San Francisco, and your hourly workers are seeing incredible minimum wage and benefits opportunities while you’re grappling with the seismic financial impacts of 2022.

The first step is understanding what your talent values and determining what is critical to your culture and mission. Can you adapt to those values while deploying your workforce in a new way?

Let’s take a step back to how we’ve seen workplaces adapt to meet the values of their employees to recruit, retain, and ultimately grow and scale the business. In the early 2000s, to attract a younger, creative talent pool, many technology companies installed foosball tables, video game consoles, stocked the fridges with soda, and adopted a flip-flop casual dress code. Those choices weren’t necessarily made to make the office feel like a party; they were designed on the front end as added perqs to compete for talent, and on the backend to encourage workers to be in the office and with their colleagues for extended periods of time, thereby increasing productivity and accelerating growth goals and development timelines.

Looking at this another way, throughout the careers of most tenured executives, illness and injury (yours, your child’s or your elderly parent’s) was likely the only reason for taking unscheduled time off. Times changed, and parents of school-age children started asking to leave early to attend a child’s school play or sporting event. Gradually, that became acceptable, too, and is now an expectation. For many, it was worthwhile to come back online after dinner if it meant having had the ability to be in the audience during the traditional workday. The pivot to work-life integration required reconsideration of workplace policies—both those written in manuals and other, unwritten rules that are foundational to individual workplace cultures. Today we have the data that confirms flexible schedules work better for everyone. And it takes time, transparency, and discussion to create equitable and trusted use of that flexibility among workers.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, working from home became a necessity for many knowledge workers, due to personal and public safety concerns. Ultimately, it served to accelerate full normalization of remote work. Finally, the pandemic eased, and employers began setting—and missing—return-to-office dates as employees pushed back. For many employees, values shifted during the pandemic. The return to very strict in-office policies can create a serious tension within the concept of work-life integration.

In this context, it is necessary to reframe—on individual and organizational levels—not only the return-to-office issue, but also other long-held management expectations related to the workforce.

The first step in this reframing is to acknowledge that the traditional “in-office” perspective is valid. Familiar structures, such as uniform work schedules, have in fact led to success for many organizations.

However, it’s worth revisiting assumptions about workplace norms. The classic ideal of the American 9-to-5 work schedule made sense in the days when the phone rang frequently and people had to be in the office to answer it, and if we wanted to see each other during a meeting, we had to be in the same room. Many Millennials and all members of Generation Z never experienced that era in the workplace. Scheduling and work setting look very different through the eyes of individuals who spent much of their careers with a landline phone glued to their ears or seated in a conference-room chair, compared with those naturally fluent in Skype and Slack, who have never used a Rolodex.

What’s critical today is that we are asking what did we learn from the “traditional” working environment? What activities contributed most significantly to our culture? What parts best enabled us to fulfil our mission? How did we build relationships, create leaders and mentors, offer praise and criticism, and nurture talent? What other benefits existed from being in the office?

And how do we create a hybrid opportunity that embraces the way our people want to work and builds on the best parts on the traditional working environment?

We’re living through the growing pains of a cultural workforce evolution—it’s our responsibility as leaders to understand what drove our teams’ many years of success, what made our delivery networks unique, attracted talent, and provided exceptional results for our patients, while simultaneously embracing the changes and advancements that will once again set us apart from the pack. The question isn’t whether workplace flexibility is the new basis for competition—it’s how much time you have to make the investments and improvements required to adapt your culture before your talent finds a workplace that better matches their evolving values.

Realigning Workforce Strategies to Mitigate the Workforce Crisis

To update your organizational workforce culture, consider these strategies for building capabilities, driving culture change, and retooling for a more contemporary approach to work.

Building and Maintaining Culture in a New Environment

  • Honestly appraise organizational culture with respect to employer/employee working relationships.
    • Identify long-held management expectations that may be unbalanced with the workforce’s current values.
      • Are these expectations still valid, or have they evolved given cultural, technological, or other changes?
      • What processes might need to be adapted to rebalance these expectations?
    • Have executives appraised their professional values individually and collectively? What does that look like compared to their teams?
    • Do executives view themselves as servant leaders, i.e., as working for their people?
    • Is collaboration more than a buzzword?
    • Evaluate your decision-making and change management competencies and understand your employees’ perspective on leadership at all levels.
  • Strengthen middle-management development, particularly in areas such as workplace flexibility, communication, and mentoring.

Realigning Your Value Proposition to Attract and Retain Talent

  • Create a dynamic assessment of workforce values across roles/segments within your organization.
  • Assess the organization’s flexibility of scheduling and work setting.
    • To what extent is your approach aligned with contemporary social attitudes and the attitudes of your workforce?
    • Pilot solution design with selected segments of your workforce.
  • Revamp approach to scheduling and time off, particularly for nurses and working parents with children at home.
  • Rethink remote work policies.
  • Reevaluate the traditional 8-hour workday.
  • Reconsider policies on family leave.
    • Is it feasible to offer family leave (paid or unpaid) beyond what is required by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and state mandates?
  • Remove barriers to meaningful work (as defined by workers)—e.g., reduce unnecessary meetings that don’t add value and limit schedule flexibility.

Retooling for a more contemporary approach

  • Launch a comprehensive, sophisticated assessment of workforce risks, needs, and satisfaction at a minimum by job category, job type, job setting, and demographic factors.
  • Reevaluate and redesign employee benefits.
  • Apply advanced technologies and design processes that enable efficiency rather than duplicate efforts.
    • Upgrade platforms for virtual collaboration.
    • Provide support to navigate unfamiliar or less formal communication pathways tied to virtual collaboration platforms.
    • Leverage automation for repetitive tasks.
    • Start investigating automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, voice recognition, and robotics for more sophisticated tasks.
  • Consider workforce implications as part of redefining care models for more efficient use of resources and enhanced patient experience and outcomes, e.g., hospital at home.
Amanda Steele headshot
Amanda Steele is a Managing Director and co-leads Kaufman Hall’s Strategy & Business Transformation practice, where she focuses her time advising health systems and provider enterprises with their enterprise strategy – developing value propositions to deliver on their missions and visions in light of the fast-changing healthcare landscape.
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