Most patient access staff at Portland-based MaineHealth now work remotely. Of 71 employees, 31 work on site and 44 work at home.

Since the department is mostly paperless, remote staff handle their jobs mostly as they did on site. What both groups miss is face-to-face interaction, says Stacey Swim, director of patient access preservices. Managers devised these ways to keep all patient access employees connected:

Team huddles via Zoom. “This is a chance for any questions, rumors, or speculations to be addressed,” Swim reports.

Staff express worry over whether they can return to work on site, new childcare policies, and the possibility of furloughs.

Supervisors send “Would you rather” polls sporadically throughout the day. “We utilized voting buttons in Outlook so all team members are able to vote,” Swim says.

At the end of the week, supervisors send a note to encourage staff to go outside. On the following Monday, staff share a photo of something they came across in their travels (for instance, a heart-shaped rock or ocean scene). “We do a collage of everyone’s pics. We are now in the process of framing them,” Swim says. Photos of the display are emailed to remote staff.

Supervisors randomly send “ice-breaker” questions. Staff enjoy learning interesting facts about one another, Swim reports. Employees share their musical tastes, three people they would love to invite to dinner, which TV show family best represents their own, and high school yearbook pictures.

Supervisors announce contests (e.g., Who can make the most calls in the next hour?). The winner earns an extra 10 minutes for lunch or a break.

Staff earn a cape to wear if they are named superhero of the day. This is given out each day from the person who received the cape the day before (remote workers earn a virtual cape). “The cape is not given by the manager or leads. It is something that the team circulates to one another,” Swim explains.

The award is not about performance metrics. It is handed to someone who brightens the day for coworkers, is always making the team laugh, or is helping someone with a question. “At the end of the day, it’s all about communication, support, and well-being,” Swim adds.

At Jackson North Medical Center in North Miami Beach, FL, remote workers and the on site team meet once a week. “Staff discuss any patient concerns or challenges,” says Carolyn Brooks-Edgecombe, director of eligibility and patient access.

A meeting is scheduled with the on site team, a laptop is put in the center of the room, and the remote workers connect via Zoom. “They are able to speak to each other, which keeps a sense of connection,” Brooks-Edgecombe says.

Both groups are offered flexibility for better work/life balance. Remote workers really appreciated that they were included in this. “This is something that can get lost with the expectations of working remotely,” Brooks-Edgecombe notes.

Family members are more distracting than expected. Staff soon find themselves working well beyond their normal shift. To guard against poor morale, the remote team is encouraged to use a separate room for work, if possible. “We all need time to completely disconnect and maintain a separation between our work and home life,” Brooks-Edgecombe observes.

At Stanford Children’s Health, patient access staff receive a midweek motivation email with an inspirational saying. Weekly “huddles” (now held via WebEx so all staff can join) focus specifically on trust, integrity, teamwork, and honesty. “We pick a topic that resonates with the team members,” says Namrata Rathore, director of referral and scheduling.

Remote staff said they missed conversing with peers. To keep coworkers in touch on a personal level, a virtual “coffee talk” happens each Friday. “This is a way for all team members, remote or on site, to converse outside of work hours,” Rathore says.