Remote vs. In-Person Work in Behavioral Health

It’s July – either the beginning or the middle of the fiscal year for many non-profits. It’s also the middle of summer and time for a temperature check. After two years of COVID and its disruptive impact of every sector of healthcare, social services, and the economy, it is a good time to pause and see what is sticking and what is falling away.

Among the greatest impacts felt through the pandemic was the disruption of the traditional work environment and subsequently the workforce itself. Once the return to work began, so did the great resignation as people re-evaluated careers and set out to find better work life balance. Workplaces that were previously almost entirely in person but had gone as virtual as possible during the shutdown, and then embraced hybrid approaches are now considering a return to full-time, in-person work for all staff.

Worker Preferences vs. Requirements for Care Delivery

In March of this year, CNBC reported on information gleaned from industry leaders and experts. 50% of surveyed employers want workers back in the office full time – many as soon as next year. Workers, on the other hand (52%) wanted flexibility. This tension will require serious consideration on the part of employers as to work hours, flexibility, and the work environment. Healthcare funders have realized that virtual – telehealth – services are an efficient and more flexible way to meet patient needs and, led by Medicare and Medicaid, are continuing and encouraging its use. So, the behavioral health field is likely to see telehealth continue – but will it be from the clinician’s home or the clinic?

And, an added source of tension is that many human service providers could not offer the virtual option to all their staff. Inpatient psychiatric settings, residential treatment centers, homeless shelters, and others needed line staff to be in the service setting, even through the height of the pandemic. This has in some cases created tension between staff who had a virtual work option and those that did not and were, therefore, exposed to greater risks.

This new set of circumstances makes employee retention a growing challenge as salary competition and work environment (to include scheduling flexibility, hybrid options, and soft benefits like professional development and facilities) have become more critical and competitive than ever. And that means that understanding the needs of staff also takes on greater relevance than before as well. With a tight labor market employees have more leverage than in decades past.

Measuring the Impact of Workplace Policies

This is a time for great thoughtfulness and transparency. What goals is leadership trying to meet with its return to the office policy? Are those goals directly tied to the organization’s mission? Data shared in the CNBC report showed that upper-level managers prefer office time while staff prefer hybrid. So, it is important that the leadership’s decision be based on actual mission-related goals, not just their own preference.

Communication remains key. Are the goals being effectively communicated to staff – and, critically, to middle managers through whom most policy decisions flow to line staff? The middle manager group is caught between leaderships’ excellent or poor rationale and plan on one side and the staff’s desires and ability to change jobs if they are dissatisfied on the other. Is the organization making effective use of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)? These groups can help organizations meet the needs of varying organizational groups and build engagement through developing a shared understanding of goals and strategies to accomplish them.

Finally, is the organization measuring the effect of its workplace policies around in person and hybrid work environments? What is the turnover rate pre- and -post decisions about return to work? What are engagement survey scores showing? How have the requirements affected recruitment? Are vacancies going unfilled for longer periods of time? Has hybrid work improved access to services? And, if so, can the organization predict the impact of returning to in-person work?

Engaging Staff with Transparent Decision Making

By engaging staff before a decision is finalized and ensuring transparency about the concerns hybrid and in-person work pose – including about the potential perception that having some staff always required to work in-person (those noted above) while others can work at least part of the time remotely is unfair – can help engage staff more fully in the organization’s mission and success. Measuring and reporting the impact of both hybrid and in person work decisions can improve decision making and support engagement through transparency between leadership and staff.

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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