​Envy as an Idea Incubator

Sometime in the year 2020, I developed a case of freeness envy, or perhaps flexibly loathing. I work at St. John’s Health Care Corporation, an innovative leader in skilled nursing and senior life in western New York. During the pandemic, because of the high-risk industry we work in, some of our employees opted to leave the workforce while the rest of us came to work in person every day. I’d read all these wonderful stories of people who were working from home, and they’d comment about how much they were saving on commuting and how productive they were. They would gloat that they were safer than most everyone because they never had to leave their house.

To compound this, we began losing some employees who took other jobs because they could work remotely or have more flexibility than we offered. The few employees we lost, coupled with the uplifting stories of people working from home, encouraged us to review our employment practices.

Flexible schedules and remote work are somewhat limited in the health care business. You can’t decide whether to pass medications to someone remotely or at a time that works best for you, or provide them with meals on days and times that work around your pickleball court times. Many of our jobs require presence at work on a rather fixed schedule, but the senior living industry does have some flexibility options available.

Parting with Traditional Notions of Equity, Observation, and Power

I’ve heard HR people state many times that you have to treat everyone the same when it comes to flexible schedules. If you can’t offer flexibility to clinical folks, don’t offer it to other staff. I’ve never bought into this concept. Managing differences is part of the fun of working in HR, and there’s no reason differences can’t also apply to remote work.

Another mindset we have to overcome is the question of the effectiveness of remote workers. Is work getting done if you don’t witness it happening? There’s a school of thought that productivity decreases when people work remotely. The thinking goes that you’ll lose valuable team collaboration and idea sharing. There’s also some thought that remote workers are stealing from the company by cutting their grass or scrolling through their social media on your dime.

However, others think remote workers are more productive because they face fewer distractions and spend less time commuting and more time working. I don’t know the truth of how remote work impacts productivity, but I do know that a remote worker is far more productive than an unfilled position.

There’s a final concept we need to come to terms with, and that’s who is driving the rules of work. Who has the authority and power? As anyone who has been to a restaurant or tried to hire a contractor knows, work is very different than it was four years ago. There’s a critical worker shortage in most every field.

I’ve had a number of people tell me that applicants treat us like we need them more than they need us, and there’s a reason for that: It’s because we need them more than they need us. We’re in a job market like no other, so as an employer, you need to give up the notion that you set all the rules. There are too many choices out there, so you have to negotiate salary and incentivize them with flexibility offerings if you want to have a solid workforce.

Flexibility Is Largely Free, So Use It

Half of our HR team works not only remote, but from other states. Is this situation ideal in every way? Of course not, but it works. In the modern world of work, think about the number of times you communicate with people in the office. How many of those discussions are in person, compared to conversations over email, text, or the phone? Our experience after a few years is that most people have no idea someone isn’t in the office, because when they need support, they typically call, email, or text us; they don’t come to our office in person. Our classic HR teams are all day workers Monday through Friday, and the bulk of our workforce is here during other hours, so interactions typically aren’t face-to-face anyway. When you send a message and get a response, you don’t care where the response came from. 

We’ve had no HR turnover for three years, and flexibly is a large part of the reason. If you had the resources to do a labor productivity time study, would you conclude that remote work is as effective as work in the office? Maybe or maybe not, but I’m certain that an experienced team working partially remote with no turnover is much more productive than a team trying to bring new people up to speed due to 50 percent turnover.

When it comes to equity for people who can’t work remotely or flex their schedules, we try our very best to offer them perks during this very difficult labor market. In New York, clinical employees are paid state-funded bonuses, but office staff are excluded. We also adjust market pay rates for some jobs and not others. If you share your rationale, most employees are able to understand the concept of doing the best you can with individual circumstances.

I’ve found that there is some pain associated with managing differences and explaining them, but I try to keep it in perspective. Keep in mind that giving one person job flexibility doesn’t take anything away from another employee and is largely free—and free is good.

Discovering Work Flexibility BSchedules

There are many kinds of flexibility that can be offered beyond what people typically think of, such as a customized start/end time or work location. Part of the reason we value schedule flexibility is that it reduces the stress of getting life activities done. At St. John’s, we’ve implemented several benefits that help people in fixed work schedules get more flexibility in their lives.

One of these is a way to get physician visits remotely or while at work. We partner with a company that employees or their families can call to get help with the same kinds of issues for which you would visit a primary care physician or an urgent care facility. This helps employees and their families in a way that doesn’t require taking time off work or interfering with their personal lives on days off. 

We’ve also tried to build in some pay flexibility to the best of our ability using a payroll app, which allows employees to get paid when they want after working, for a very small service charge. In effect, an employee can work today and get paid tomorrow. This offering has had a positive impact on our staff benefits.

Flexible Connections

I’ve found that our younger employees don’t use a phone to speak to people, don’t read email, and prefer not to have meetings, so we’ve tried to meet people where they are by communicating to them through text messaging and phone apps. We’re trying to be flexible and share information with them so they can view our messages in a time and manner that works best for them.

Another way we’re trying to connect with people where they are is by using newer digital technology to target prospective employees. We target prospects by using demographic information to reach their social media accounts. Online job advertisements are of course valuable, but we have more success using digital media.

Dean MooreThe world of employment has changed very dramatically in recent years, and concepts that applied a short time ago may not work any longer. Workplace flexibility will result in better productivity and staff engagement. By boosting your employees’ productivity and ensuring they’re committed and happy, you’re automatically increasing the level of patient care your facility provides. In years to come, attracting and retaining quality health care staff will be even more vital, with staffing shortages predicted to increase amid an aging population. Flexibility results in a win-win situation.

Dean Moore is vice president of work/life at St. John’s, a full-service senior care provider with options that range from independent living to skilled nursing and hospice in Rochester, New York. He has been in the human resources industry for more than 30 years.