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Managing teams in a virtual world requires specialized leadership skills

I’m sure I didn’t think much about continuing education for staff during the height of the pandemic. Like most people in the healthcare IT industry, my team and I have been just trying to figure out how to survive and face the unique challenges that COVID-19 is driving.

However, one day, a colleague alerted me to the fact that while we had done an excellent job quickly deploying our workforce to a remote support model, we failed to recognize the unique challenges associated with team leaders managing a remote workforce.

I realized that while we previously offered employees the opportunity to work remotely on a limited basis, managing a 100% remote workforce was definitely different. This “ah ha” moment led to questions: “What are we going to do about it?” and/or “Is there anything we can do about it?”.

Survey data consistently identified an employee’s respect and trust in their manager as a primary reason for continuing to work with their current employer. With this in mind, our leadership team has decided that there must be something that can be done to assist our management team in this new work environment that has been imposed on us.

Furthermore, corporate decisions regarding the planned reduction in office space for administrative staff along with competitive pressures from other organizations in our region clearly indicate that the remote workforce was here to stay and fast becoming the new normal.

As a result, preparing our leaders to successfully manage talent and work productivity has been more important than ever.

We have taken a multi-faceted approach towards elevating the remote driving capabilities of our team. For starters, we’ve taken advantage of in-house education through the Academy of Penn Medicine, as well as sharing group lessons for our Information Systems Management team.

PMA is a training center affiliated with Penn Medicine that focuses on staff and team development. The directives and programs provided by the PMA were instrumental in establishing an educational institution for remote workforce management.

We also spent time getting our leadership team roughly together to share their experiences, lessons learned, and share quick tips that allowed leaders to learn from each other.

Realizing that so many colleagues are in similar situations of bouncing from one long-distance call to the next and losing the ability to walk the hall to meet team members was astonishing. This sharing experience provided comfort and validation that leaders were not the only ones feeling uncomfortable in this new environment.

Externally, we turned to an education development company to design and administer a remote management training program for our leadership team. The training sessions engaged managers in groups of 12 to 15 for a four-hour session that allowed presentation of materials, breakout sessions, and discussion.

Realizing that many remote employees felt overwhelmed by the state of the pandemic and disconnected from their usual office routine, the program focused on the need for clarity of expectations, communication and engagement.

Overall, the program quickly elevated the leadership team to the unique skills required to manage an entirely remote workforce.

An added bonus associated with our multifaceted training approach was feedback from managers who identified challenges their employees shared about working remotely. Recognizing that technical, social, and personal challenges existed for many because they stayed away from the need for a more personal and virtual touch in providing guidance to employees.

These sensitivities have been exacerbated by the public fear caused by the pandemic and the additional workload required to address the unique IT requirements of the pandemic. At times, the extra and unplanned workload contributed to the general feeling of fatigue among many employees.

The cornerstone of our IT teams culture is an intense focus on employee needs. We continually measure our success on a variety of metrics but do not focus on unplanned total employee turnover.

The introduction of the remote workforce management program has increased our leaders’ awareness of the unique needs of remote workforce management, broadened our leaders’ management skills, provided a solid foundation for future workforce management, and directed our entire team to improve employee retention levels.

This success, combined with the reopening of many centers, puts us in a good position to provide more training opportunities not only to our management team but also to the staff who manage them.

Mike Restuccia is Chief Information Officer at Penn Medicine.

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Written by Joseph

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