At the onset of the pandemic, Medicaid programs, like many businesses and organizations, swiftly shifted their staff to remote work. In the early months, Medicaid programs were tasked with securing emergency authorizations from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and supporting statewide emergency response efforts, while also maintaining essential operations. Medicaid leaders had to innovate to support their teams, maintain communication with staff working from home, and bolster organizational morale in a virtual workplace. There’s no shortage of creative outcomes for maintaining communication and staff supports, including virtual town halls, video newsletters, and flexible work schedules.
The reality of returning to physical offices is on the horizon following the recent announcement from the Biden Administration about broad vaccine eligibility and rollout over the coming weeks. In addition to the practical aspects of outlining safety protocols and determining operational plans to support the safe return to offices, there will be broader leadership challenges that Medicaid leaders will need to navigate. Following are considerations for leading staff through the transition to a new operating norm, which will likely look different than the pre-pandemic norm, given all that we have learned since shifting to remote work.
- Get input from staff: While the transition to remote work was sudden, the transition back to the office can have a longer runway. Get input from your staff to help inform a transition plan by using tools like a staff-wide survey or informal listening sessions to understand their key concerns and hopes for returning to the office. Many Medicaid agencies used short surveys at the onset of the pandemic to get quick, real-time feedback from staff. Putting mechanisms in place to ensure that staff feel heard and supported can help leaders create a plan that more effectively balances workplace and staff needs, and secure more buy-in from staff. It’s been a challenging year both personally and professionally for many and compassion and sensitivity will be key.
- Communicate the vision: As with any major change, communication will be essential. Work with your senior leadership team to craft a communications plan and develop strategies for cascading that communication through the organization. Consider a diverse range of communication channels (e.g., emails, internal newsletters, staff briefings, etc.) since people absorb information differently. Some Medicaid agencies are using weekly video updates that are recorded so staff can refer back as necessary. Be transparent about where information is evolving and follow-up when you know more. This will help foster trust.
- Build on innovations: This past year has fostered (and forced) opportunities to innovate how teams work together and maintain connectedness in a virtual environment. Just because staff are returning to the office, completely or in part, doesn’t mean the way you do work has to go back to pre-pandemic norms. It’s also likely that agencies will adopt more flexible work schedules and/or keep a portion of staff working remotely given lessons about the advantages to remote/hybrid positions during the pandemic. Arizona Medicaid, for example, opted to keep more than 60 percent of staff working from “virtual offices,” even after the pandemic ends. Keep the tools and processes that served teams well and apply them to the new environment. During the pandemic, many Medicaid agencies have been holding all-staff meetings through virtual technology, something that isn’t feasible for many agencies to do in-person due to a lack of a meeting space large enough for all staff. Virtual all-staff meetings may be something to maintain even once the pandemic subsides.
- Clarify expectations: Be clear with your staff about expectations with respect to new norms related to team functioning, communication, processes, and accountability. This past year required staff to pivot and flex new skills. It will be important to articulate your expectations in the new environment — which may be a combination of in-person and virtual over the long term — otherwise, there is the risk of defaulting to practices that feel familiar but may not serve teams well. Encourage teams to acknowledge how their expectations of each other may evolve through the transition as well.
- Tools for managers: Mid-level managers in your agency can play a very important role in the transition back to work. They have a direct line of communication to staff, so they will hear about concerns, frustrations, and anticipation about the transition. Foster opportunities for mid-level managers to relay the themes they’re hearing to senior leadership and encourage them to propose solutions. In turn, ensure that your mid-level managers have tools to support their teams and staff.
- It probably won’t be the same, and that’s okay: There may be a desire to return to “the way things were before” the pandemic, which is understandable given how tumultuous the past year has been. There may also be a desire to maintain some of the flexibilities of remote work that many have enjoyed over the past year. Either way, there will likely be a lot of uncertainty to navigate. It will be important to support your staff through the change and remember that it will take a while to get into a rhythm once staff return to the office. The more you can help set appropriate expectations, the smoother the transition will be.