Picture this: It’s pre-COVID-19. Your department is largely onsite, with the exception of a few coders who work from home. You feel connected to your staff because you interact with them throughout the day in meetings, in the lunchroom, or at the water cooler.
Fast forward to today. Your department is largely remote, with the exception of a few staff who stay onsite for in-person requests. You hardly see people unless it’s through a computer screen. Maintaining meaningful connections is a challenge.
Overseeing a department that’s largely remote is unfamiliar territory. Yet managers have had no choice but to send the majority of staff home in a matter of days to comply with social distancing mandates to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Below are four things managers likely wished they knew about remote staff management—and what they can do now to improve their departments going forward.
1. A formal telecommuting policy is paramount. During times of uncertainty, information is critical. For remote staff, this means having clear parameters in terms of what you expect from them—and likewise what they can expect from you.
Work with human resources to draft telecommuting policies and procedures or tighten up existing ones. Following are some topics to address:
- Childcare. Will you require remote staff to provide proof (e.g., a letter from daycare or a nanny) that they have assistance with childcare during work hours?
- Covered costs. What costs, if any, will the organization cover—and at what percentage? Examples include fax machine, shredder, cell phone, laptop, and other office supplies. Does this coverage vary depending on whether the employee is full- or part-time?
- Downtime. What’s the procedure if home technology or remote access goes down? Will you require staff to come onsite? Must they do so immediately or only after a certain period of time (e.g., an hour) has elapsed?
- Productivity and quality standards. Will you require remote staff to maintain or exceed certain standards? If they don’t comply, will you require them to come back onsite?
- Response time. Will you impose a requirement for staff to respond to all emails and phone calls within a certain number of minutes unless they are on the phone with a patient?
- Work hours. What’s the expectation for specific work hours? Make it clear that staff can’t work all hours of the night or only when it’s convenient for them just because they’re working from home.
- Workspace. Will you require staff to attest that they use ergonomically correct equipment? Must they attest that their workspace is private and secure? Will you require them to take pictures of their office and send it to you? During video calls, will you require them to give you a tour periodically so you can see for yourself?
2. It’s important to set expectations from the get-go. Let remote staff know that you may call them onsite at any time and for any reason. For example, if the dietary department has an outbreak of COVID-19, HIM staff could be called in to pass out food trays to patients. A remote coder who was formerly a medical assistant could be called onsite to serve in a direct patient care capacity, if needed. The same for a remote nurse performing clinical documentation improvement. They could be called onsite to join other nurses if staffing shortages occur. Help staff see how they fit into the bigger picture and that in an emergency they could be tasked with anything. Also incorporate these expectations into your telecommuting policy.
3. Onsite supervisors might not be well-suited for remote staff management. Managing staff remotely isn’t a good fit for everyone. A remote manager must be someone who isn’t inclined to micromanage but who also strives to keep staff engaged. A manager overseeing remote staff must also be comfortable with establishing and monitoring key performance indicators—someone who is confident in their ability to analyze productivity and quality data. Finally, it must be someone who knows their employees and their triggers—someone who knows how to engage key players on the team who can, in turn, obtain buy-in from others. This could be an existing employee with the right personality traits or a new hire with remote management experience.
4. Not everyone is well-suited to work from home. Although some people thrive and become even more productive when working from home, not everyone does. Distractions (e.g., kids, pets, contractors, elderly parents) sometimes make it difficult to stay focused. Managers must stay attuned to what’s going on. This doesn’t mean calling staff every hour to check in on them, but it does mean keeping in close contact with them to see what is and isn’t working. As a manager, how can you help staff achieve their full potential? Might it require them to come back onsite so they can concentrate? Can you permit them to split their work shift with their spouse so they can take turns watching their children? Be flexible and in touch with your staff’s needs during this time of intense anxiety and change.
When managing remote staff, communication is everything. You don’t need a specific reason to video chat with an employee. Call them simply to say “hi.” Let them know you’re there for them and that you’re their advocate. Remember: Your actions speak louder than words. Let your actions show that you care—even if it’s from a distance.
Five Considerations for Evaluating Remote Staff
Elizabeth Delahoussaye (email@example.com), RHIA, CHPS, is the chief privacy office at Ciox Health, and AnnE Rice, MS, RHIA, is senior director of HIM and privacy officer at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.