Why Human Services Organizations Need to Prioritize the Workforce in 2022

In December I wrote about the issue I believed would present the biggest challenge to behavioral health and human service non-profits in 2022: workforce. Given the national news about shifts in the workforce, including the “Great Resignation,” this wasn’t a tough prediction to make. With time, greater clarity has shown that it may be, in part, a shuffle. More people are shifting careers or starting new businesses, not leaving the workforce – although a significant number have retired earlier than they originally planned or been forced out due to lack of child/adult caregiver availability (mostly women). As we noted last month, these trends are particularly significant in behavioral health and human services where a large percentage of the workforce is women. During December, ContinuumCloud conducted its 2022 Executive Trends Survey, and the data submitted by 242 executives clearly indicate that the workforce is, indeed, their most concerning challenge.

The Hybrid Workforce as the New Normal

While under the umbrella of workforce, recruitment and retention – and thereby employee engagement – continue to be a focus for executives who understand that, while salary matters, strategies that promote engagement ultimately improve retention and lessen the need for recruitment. The current-day relationship between engagement and recruitment/retention has become more complex and nuanced as providers have adjusted service delivery methods and workflows to accommodate for COVID.

For example, the survey reflects that providers have adopted virtual service delivery platforms and hybrid work. Telehealth makes services available to clients so that they no longer have to come to the office, and telecommuting means neither do therapists. The challenge as things continue to open up, or do so intermittently, will be determining the optimal mix for each side of that equation.

Are there clients/patients who prefer in-office services, or for whom that would be more effective? If so, what is the right balance and how many FTE (providers and support staff) will that require?

For staff, telecommuting can facilitate meeting the multiple demands of fluctuating childcare or concerns about exposure (particularly for those who are immunocompromised or live with someone who is) but also can mean loss of collegiality and connection to mission. For employers, telecommuting has created communication challenges and concerns about how staff efficiency and effectiveness can be monitored. But it also permits expanded service hours as staff work from home in non-traditional schedules. Whatever the final path, it is clear hybrid – workplace and service delivery – is here to stay.

Strategies for Adjusting to a Hybrid Work Model

This rapid transition to a hybrid work model has created the need to change front-facing and inward-facing strategies. Ease of scheduling and service delivery will require that providers streamline the process and “paperwork” around setting an appointment, determining eligibility, assigning a provider, etc. This will drive providers more and more toward digital solutions that seem more like buying from Amazon than what going to the doctor used to be like. And the appointment itself will have to occur in a manner that is engaging and effective, requiring that staff receive training in lighting placement, making “eye contact” with a camera so that the client feels seen, etc.

 Looking inward, organizations will need to create hybrid strategies for communication, team building, and performance appraisal. Process (e.g., time at work, time to complete a task) is harder to measure when work is remote. Employers will have to focus more on outputs and outcomes than perhaps they have before to assess an employee’s performance. 9-5 may have become 8-11 a.m., 2-3:30 p.m., 6:30-9 p.m., and so on. This in turn requires more sophisticated approaches to data analysis and even redefining terms like “productivity.” To accommodate these changes, employers will need to invest in communication tools that ensure staff are informed, felt heard and receive critical information and feedback abut performance.

Improving Employee Engagement in a Hybrid Work Environment

These transitions will determine engagement levels for staff and for those using services. Easy and flexible access to great and effective care can mean clients whose satisfaction makes them promoters of our organizations; and staff who feel engaged stay longer and become informal recruiters for the organization. At the outset, I noted that engagement is key. There are strategies that can build engagement as organizations struggle to balance hybrid work:

  • Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) can help define the needs of different groups within the organization. For example, the hybrid schedule and workflow needs of caregivers may differ from those of non-caregivers. An ERG of those employees may be able to make excellent recommendations.
  • Creating concise strategies around communication that focus on useful information, without creating noise, that is available through different means (written, video, etc.) that can be accessed based on recipient preference. Don’t email me if I prefer a short video, for example.
  • Determining how often people really need to be in the office to sustain organizational culture and cohesion – training directed at staff development can also serve as an engagement opportunity and build a sense of team cohesion and shared purpose.

There is no doubt that hybrid is here to stay. Preparing the organization to effectively integrate the hybrid consumer and staff experience requires thought, planning, inclusivity, and supportive technology. The challenge will persist and likely evolve as organizations create new approaches to retention, recruitment, and engagement as well as client care.

About the Author

Maggie Labarta

Maggie Labarta is Founder and Consultant at Impact Non-profit Consulting, having previously retired as CEO of Meridian Behavioral Healthcare. Labarta holds a Ph.D. in Clinical and Community Psychology and has extensive experience in both administration and clinical practice. She also has particular expertise in strategic planning, data and analytics as management tools, and organizational development. She provides consultative services for numerous community organizations.

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