Crucial decisions: Considerations for reopening offices

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

At the beginning of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many revenue integrity professionals left their offices and began working from home. Now, some organizations may be considering when and how to bring staff back onsite. However, that’s a complicated decision and one made even more challenging as the pandemic constantly evolves.

Although not all managers are directly responsible for making the call on when to return to the office, they may be asked to weigh in with their perspective. They will also need to be prepared to address staff members’ questions and concerns and provide consistent, transparent communication, says Stacey McCreery, MBA, founder and president of ROI Search Group in Fishers, Indiana.

Time and policy

When McCreery planned for staff to work remotely in March, she knew she needed a realistic plan that looked further ahead. As her staff grappled with the uncertainty of the situation, the strain of social distancing, and the challenges of working from home full time, McCreery knew that uncertainty about when the office would reopen and how the decision would be reached would simply add to staff members’ stress. She knew it was critical to provide some measure of certainty.

With that in mind, McCreery developed a three-month timeline for her organization. In March, she set the initial reopening date for May, subject to review several weeks in advance. After the review period, she extended work from home through August, and plans to review and revise that reopening date on an on-going basis. The review process and timeline are regularly communicated to staff so that they understand expectations and can prepare. Team meetings, individual meetings, and client meetings were successfully shifted to the remote environment. 

“We wanted to take [questions about the timing of reopening] out of the equation so they could take that as a worry away. We have the infrastructure and the capability to work at home, so we can continue to do what they do best,” McCreery says. “We also wanted to communicate it on a two- or three-month timeline. What we didn’t want to do is change our plans every two or three weeks.”

When looking at reopening dates, organizations should also strive to be aligned with their state’s recommendations and what point they are at in the pandemic, McCreery adds. It’s often best to err on the side of caution rather than making a hasty decision, she explains.

Along with reopening timelines, organizations also need to plan for education and enforcement if new policies are in effect—even if the policies are temporary. If an organization is planning to bring staff back to the office in the near future, it’s paramount that it consider what would need to be changed, including the layout and configuration of the office space, the use of common areas such as kitchens and meeting rooms, and the use of personal protective equipment, McCreery says. Any changes must be supported by policies, and the policies themselves need to be supported with education and enforcement.

Fielding questions

Managers are also facing staff members’ questions and concerns about returning to the office. While some staff members may be eager to return as soon as possible, others may have concerns related to their own or a family member’s specific health risks or their ability to function under new office requirements. Managers will need to know how to address these concerns and how to ensure that staff are safe and able to perform well.

Organizations should provide managers with a series of FAQs that can help answer some common questions, McCreery says. However, managers and organizations should be prepared to be flexible.

“I think when we’re asking people to come back to work, we’re going to have to bring employees back to work easily and we’re going to have to figure out for each department what that looks like,” she says. “Is that the same as it was before? Do I need to re-engineer this department so if we have people come back every day, they’re appropriately socially distanced? Are there modifications or accommodations that I need to make for certain employees?”

If a staff member has concerns about returning to the office, managers should consult with human resources (HR), she advises. It may not be appropriate, or permitted from a legal standpoint, to compel a staffer to return to the office.

“You need to have really good guidance from not only HR but also your legal team on what’s appropriate for you to say and what’s not,” McCreery says. “This is where some of the smaller hospitals need to make sure they have really good partnerships. If they don’t already, they need to make sure they have attorneys advising them on what’s okay and what’s not okay.”

Another group of staff members may have discovered that they would simply prefer to work from home and might choose to seek another job that will permit that, McCreery adds. Flexibility is the key to retention, if continuing to work remotely is an option for your organization. If the organization isn’t willing to continue to allow them work from home, managers should be prepared to work with those individuals on transition plans.

Setting priorities

Navigating the return to the office can feel daunting for managers. While managers may have many of the same questions and concerns as their staff, they may also be in a position to advocate for their department.

When called on to make or contribute to decisions, managers should make safety their top priority, McCreery says. Then, evaluate which option will be the most practical and the least disruptive. Consider whether the disruption of bringing staff back to the office sooner rather than later will be worth it. If staff have settled into working from home and are keeping up productivity and quality, it may be best to leave well enough alone, she says.

“I think it’s a very complicated matter. From my position, I’d rather take a more conservative approach and extend it and be a little bit safer, rather than reopen and be a little bit more risky and risk the safety of others,” she explains. “I’m all about being conservative and making sure we’ve thought about everything along the way.”

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Program Management, Revenue Integrity