Telecommuting win-win’ for Carolina health system

Productivity and morale boosted

A telecommuting project in the pre-services department at Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, NC, is reducing the amount of work time lost to bad weather and delighting employees who find themselves well suited to working at home.

"We have a visionary group vice president, Oren Wyatt, who has been reading articles about how people liked working at home," explains Katie Davis, CAM, assistant vice president of patient registration with responsibility for three acute care facilities in Mecklenburg County as well as for the system’s pre-services area. "After a couple of snowstorms, when we had difficulty getting employees in, he began talking about the possibility of having some of the pre-service staff telecommute."

"In September and October of 2003," she adds, "we sent home three of our most productive employees — two from insurance verification and one pre-registration person — and it’s been really good." The following January and February — when snow was making travel difficult for other staff members — the telecommuters were able to work every day, Davis notes. There were very few technical issues involved in establishing the home workspace, she says. "We set them up with a computer, a fax/copier, and a shredder, and put in phone lines."

The implications of HIPAA privacy rule were made clear to the participating employees, Davis points out. "They needed to understand that they had to have a room to work in where the door could be closed and things could be locked up," she adds, "because they were going to be using health information that could not be shared."

The pre-registration employee, for example, would have to print a surgery schedule, work from it, and then shred it at the end of the day, Davis notes. "If the employees had company, they would have to make sure that everything was put away."

An unexpected benefit has been that the productivity of the home-based employees has noticeably increased. "We monitored them until the first of the year, and then we started measuring. We’re very pleased." (See transactions per hour chart.)

By mid September, two more pre-services employees had begun working at home, plans were in place for two more to begin in October, and another two in November, for a total of six additional people in the telecommuting program by the end of the year, out of 56 employees in the department.

One of the original three participating staff members was initially hesitant about working at home, Davis says. "She said she really needed to think about it — she was afraid she would miss being around people — but then she said she wanted to give it a try."

Now, Davis adds, she believes that all three employees would be upset if they had to return to the office setting. "They really enjoy what they are doing."

In addition to being able to work during bad weather, one of the advantages is that the employees are more productive at home, she says. "In any area with a large number of people, there are a lot more opportunities to be social."

Employees must work in the department at least a year before they are eligible to participate in the telecommuting program, Davis says. Those who do work at home are required to come to the office every other week for staff meetings. "If for some reason the equipment is down, or there is an accident and the power to their homes is cut off," she notes, "they understand that they are to come back to work at the facility."

The department’s managers visit the homes of those who commute about once a month to encourage a sense of connection. "We don’t want them to be like islands out there. We also include them in any celebrations we do — not just at the holidays, but when we meet our goals and have pizza parties."

There is no specific plan for how many pre-services employees will ultimately become telecommuters, she says. "We’ll just send some more and see how that goes." The expansion won’t be limitless, Davis notes, "because there are those who prefer to be away from home to work."

Neither the potential savings nor the costs of space were driving forces behind the project, she says, although they would be nice side benefits. "What’s driving this is employee retention."

With the same view in mind, opportunities for employee flextime already were in place, Davis explains. "We have employees who rotate schedules and who can work four 10-hour days. Everybody can’t be off at the same time, but they can go to the manager and, if the request is reasonable, we’ll try to do it."

Pre-services employees begin work as early as 6:30 a.m. and as late as 12:30 p.m., she says, with a closing time of 8:30 p.m. Extended hours are a "win-win" situation, Davis notes, since it’s usually easier to reach people in the evening hours. "That’s one thing we are trying to do here — to make it win-win for both employees and Carolinas HealthCare System," she adds. "The employees know what it takes to get the job done far better than the managers or even I do. We appreciate their input, take it seriously, and if they can come up with a better way, we’ll do it."

[Katie Davis can be reached at (704) 529-2401 or by e-mail (katie.davis@carolinashealthcare.org).]