While office-based workers switched en masse to remote working in 2020, 80 per cent of the global workforce that does not usually sit behind a desk to do their jobs, did not. Employees in these essential industries, including healthcare, have typically experienced gaps in terms of having the technology to do their job well and boost productivity.
Covid-19 has added a further complication, as organisations have had to change working arrangements to stay open, including reducing or increasing head count, and quickly upskilling staff while working through the restrictions and uncertainties of the pandemic.
Workforce management firm Quinyx carried out a survey of 450,000 schedules in the UK, and found that several sectors, including healthcare, are consistently mismanaging staffing levels and creating schedules that are only 70 per cent effective. Additionally, their research found that companies are either over-staffed by 30 per cent or under-staffed by 16 per cent.
“This continued state of flux makes the job of managing optimal workforce levels extremely problematic” Quinyx CEO and founder Erik Fjellborg said when the survey was announced. “The downside of not having the correct employee numbers in place can result in compliance violations, poor customer service and a loss in productivity – ultimately leading to reduced revenue.”
The solution lies in automation, he said, which can improve demand forecasting, strategic planning and labour optimisation.
How automation empowers the workforce
Robert Crossman, Director of Working Time Solutions, agrees that automation is of huge benefit. Working across the healthcare spectrum, they typically work with organisations that have shift workers and quite complex demand profiles, including frontline healthcare and support services, and pharma manufacturing.
The National Health Service (NHS) is an example of this. “We worked on a major NHS contract for the pandemic response that was all around shift bidding, so pushing out shifts to remote workers so they could identify who can work at which times of the day. Automation of processes is absolutely key for things like shift swaps, booking holidays, recording and managing TOIL. This enables employees to have visibility of this, but also manage it proactively” he says.
“There’s a real opportunity here in terms of retaining and recruiting people, because that’s going to be a major challenge in healthcare as we emerge from the pandemic – people will feel exhausted and perhaps want to do something different” Crossman adds.
This is echoed by a report McKinsey published in March 2020, which concluded that automation and artificial intelligence have the potential to revolutionise healthcare and address challenges like workforce shortages.
Crossman has seen people’s needs – and organisational demands – shift over time. “The technology and the platforms in which we provide solutions have changed, but the biggest change for us is around demand and work-life balance aspirations, which has really transformed things in terms of the corporate agenda.
“Cost and productivity used to be top of the list, now the focus is a lot more around wellbeing, brand fairness and engagement. We’ve worked with nine UK ambulance services, looking at roster reviews, giving them the tech and expertise to redesign their shift patterns, whereas previously they had challenges around engagement. We’re seeing a lot more transparency these days and I think tech’s certainly facilitating that.”
Addressing changing needs
Crossman says that a lot of traditional workforce management has been around driving payroll, time and attendance, focused on enforcement such as around rules on lateness, rather than empowering staff. Along with issues surrounding legislation and compliance, they saw a gap in the market in terms of forward planning. “You can get situations where people just aren’t able to design or implement new working practices, and end up with lots of spreadsheets to support more traditional systems, lots of overtime, and agency working issues with quality and cost, with a real lack of focus on forward planning, and too much admin” he says.
However technology, and increased access to data and functionality can improve these processes. “Clearly a lot of healthcare is very stretched, but we also see some opportunities, where resource isn’t as well placed as it could be. In some areas there needs to be a big rethink of what we call supply and demand.”
He says there are three main areas to focus on: designing new working practices with staff input, planning ahead, and increased self-management. “The workforce is key, and particularly in healthcare where it’s a very personal kind of industry. Staff should be empowered in planning and management, ensuring there’s trust and choice.
“In terms of forward planning, critical planning and supply and demand should become more proactive, rather than firefighting. We’ve got technology now that enables you to see how your demand is evolving and how your supply aligns to that, so we can spot the risks before they become serious issues.
“Finally, increased self-management” he adds. “Automation for holiday swaps, time off in lieu, and the choice of the hours that you work. In my experience, people’s needs change a lot, and things have moved from the 9-5 norm to people wanting something more flexible, while still providing the kind of cover and demand needed for patients.”
“The more automation and what we would call self-management of working time you can give to people, the better – it’s all about trust, empowerment and choice.”