Remote Work in Healthcare IT Consulting: Should We Take a Closer Look?

Remote work is an appealing idea. When the topic of remote opportunities comes up on job discussion boards, I see a lot of enthusiasm expressed by would-be remote workers hoping to land a gig. Remote work is something I have personal experience with, and I must admit I’m a big fan. I spent a good number of years as a road warrior but currently do remote consulting work. Whenever my work-from-home arrangement (with occasional travel, actually) finds its way into a conversation, the response is usually a kind of wishful jealousy. The person on the other end seems to be imagining me with a headset and a laptop, somewhere on a beach, project planning or troubleshooting between surf sessions (or part of whatever remote office fantasy he or she may be imagining).  I can’t say this is exactly how it works, but a nice image nonetheless. Importantly, remote work seems to more and more appealing to those staffing and managing healthcare IT projects.

It’s also a model we know can work.  I think we all know someone or have read about examples of some type of remote work (or ‘virtual office’ or any of the other innovative work arrangements out there such as the ‘results oriented work environment’) that has shown to be a ‘win-win’ for both management and staff. To support remote work, we have technology at our disposal that enables us to log in to a system from anywhere, to hold virtual meetings, to share documents and otherwise collaborate.

To me, remote work seems to be a good fit for healthcare IT (HIT) consulting. My HIT remote work has been primarily on large, electronic medical records implementation projects. The more experience I gain working remotely and the more I learn about different examples of how remote work can be used, the more I’m convinced it’s not only a good fit for much of what we do in healthcare IT consulting, but with some creative problem solving, it’s a model with potential to not only add value to HIT projects but also serve as a source of innovative strategies for how we work in HIT consulting.

To help start the collective wheels turning, I’ve done some digging and compiled a few of the themes that seem to emerge in discussions on remote work and added thoughts on how they apply to HIT consulting:

Talent. Here, let’s take electronic medical records implementations as an example. These projects are going on in locations all over the country, and are much the same in many ways. They involve many of the same project phases with the same tasks and require resources with the same skills and experience. As we know, these projects can also suffer from the same shortage of talent. Offering remote opportunities enables casting a wider net for talent. How many people who may be a good fit (or a ‘great fit’, or even ‘the answer to our prayers’) simply don’t consider a particular project because relocation isn’t an option or full time travel is ‘just too hard’? We may never know.  These projects also require skills in more specialized areas, such as decision support or CPOE. Offering remote engagements makes it easier to pull in the right folks at the right time, pulling in the right specialists for a shorter term and, at the same time, enabling them to potentially contribute to multiple projects.

Productivity. In articles and blogs on the topic of remote work, enhanced productivity is cited over and over as one of the key positives. This rings true with my own experience.  Think about how you would answer the question “Where do you go when you really need to get something done?” My guess is “the office” is not the first thing that comes to mind. Similarly, for those of you who are traveling consultants, how many times have you complained you “can’t get any real work done” until after you get back to your hotel room? Deep, uninterrupted thought has an important place. And deep thought requires uninterrupted time.  Free from interruptions that are a part of being on site or in the office, most people can really crank up the productivity. Much of what goes into system design, build, testing, documentation, and even some aspects of project planning benefit from uninterrupted, deep thought.  Plus, everyone knows the mood to be productive can strike at any time.  Looking back, I must say that a large proportion of work I’ve done while at client sites could have been more effective done remotely.

Happiness. Remote work is convenient. People like it, it’s true. More time at home means being able to more fully engage in your personal life. This can make people happy and productive. In my case, it also created a feeling of appreciation which has made me quite protective of this arrangement which, in turn, made me particularly sensitive to demonstrating results. Beyond the convenience of remote work, another key consideration is that people want to be trusted. They want to be accountable and to find their own path to the expected outcome.  At the same time, while convenience is nice people accept that the success of a project means periods of intense time and effort, including travel. The right people will do what it takes to make a project successful but these periods can be much more palatable if they feel if this is asked of them only when truly necessary.

Relationships. Successful projects require strong relationships among project team members. Going into my first remote project, one of my biggest concerns was my ability to create and maintain relationships. I worried a lack of face time would inhibit relationship building and my ability to effectively manage the project if I didn’t see the project team every day.  As it turned out, I was surprised how well I felt I was able to build and maintain relationships via phone and email, though it did feel like it needed a more concerted effort — it did take a little extra doing to stay in the loop.  Actually, maybe it’s not that surprising when we consider how we maintain or even develop relationships in other areas of our lives with friends or family we don’t see every day.

Cost. This one is pretty straightforward. Travel costs associated with a week on site can be in the neighborhood of 25% of the total. Travel also represents cost in the form of unproductive time spent in transit.

Remote work is appealing. We can point to examples where it’s been successful. However, it seems the work of proactively finding the ways it can add the most value to HIT consulting is ahead of us. Given both the issues and advantages discussed above (plus any others folks can think of), this is an area that seems ripe for innovation. There are new tools in the toolbox and inventive minds can use them in creative ways to build something new.  This includes ways to enhance the quality of content and services we provide as well as strategic ways to improve how we work.

While there are remote opportunities out there, this arrangement still seems to be comparatively rare. I don’t doubt this is due to both clinging to how things have always been done as well as suspicion as to how well it can really work. This isn’t surprising. Though not a completely new idea, it can still be quite a paradigm shift.  Also, although I’ve stepped through some of the positives of remote work above, both on site and remote work have their respective pros and cons. There are activities or phases in the project where one or the other clearly makes the most sense. Any best practices that emerge will likely use the two to complement one another.

As for next steps, we can think critically about our project plans not just terms of the usual suspects of tasks, timelines and owners, but also in terms of what type of arrangement—remote or on site–makes the most sense for each and how remote work can be used strategically to enhance the quality of the results. I’m hopeful that refining and promoting models of how we can work with both clients and one another will not only result in the development new tools and processes but may even result in new forums for collaborative innovation. Like any idea, of course, this needs the right people to take it on and put it to the test.

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Derek Garrison

13 Comments

  • Excellent post, Derek! I went in to my consulting job search stating that the only type of work I would consider was remote work with the occasional travel when absolutely necessary. I found a wonderful fit with a customer who, because of the large metropolitan city they are in and the strive for work/life balance set by their leadership, already had a culture set up where employees are measured by their results rather than by their time spent in their cubicle so remote work was already in place when I got there.

    Having worked for a vendor and now as a consultant, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly with HIT consultants in terms of true talent and those who may have, ah hah, overstated their experience, but with the right mix of reverence toward the situation (I am extremely protective of my ability to work remotely and produce more deliverables than expected to secure the privilege) and positive attitude from the customer, there is no reason why remote consulting can’t be a wonderfully symbiotic relationship.

  • Derek & Heidi,
    I agree this type of remote work is very appealing but I am having problems finding them. I spoke with a number of recruiters but the general feedback I received was that they will keep my profile in mind in case something opens up.

    Do you guys have any good tips regarding how to find these types of opportunity?

  • Great post, Derek, and welcome to the Healthcare IT Today Blogging Team!

    plin – If you’re looking for Virtual/Remote opportunities, take a look at our sister site, http://www.HealthcareITCentral.com. Job Category > All Categories and Location > Virtual/Remote currently yields 29 openings. We frequently see this type of position listed – check back often or subscribe to our Weekly Job Alert newsletter to be among the first to learn when new positions are posted: http://www.healthcareitcentral.com/newsletter.cfm

    Happy New Year!

    G.

  • Gwen,
    I just checked out the virtual/remote roles but a lot of them are extensive traveling consultants. I would love to see a category for pure remote work (except for initial 1~2 weeks on site).

    Thanks.

  • Great post and great discussion!

    After 20+ years of consulting, I have found that it is hard to find a project that could support remote roles right off the bat. My experience is that once you gain a client’s trust you can spend more and more time offsite, but for the most part consulting roles are not designed as 90+% offsite.

  • Great post. I’m about to hit my one year mark in the consulting space, and I must say that physically being present does not necessarily constitute project success. Some of our top leaders and managers are rarely seen in the local office, yet their “presence” is constantly witnessed!

    The only caveat to remote consulting work is ensuring secure connections for data transfer, so that patient data is protected (i.e. HIPAA, etc.).

  • Heidi,

    Thanks for your example where a remote arrangement was a good fit. I think the idea of measuring performance by results or deliverables is an important one. On the flip side, so is having the right ‘reverance toward the situation’ as you put it.

  • Tim,

    You mentioned that ‘for the most part consulting roles are not designed as 90+% offsite’. I think an important part of what I was getting at is that I don’t think (I don’t know this for sure, but I don’t think) most roles aren’t really designed as either–onsite or offsite. That is, I suspect the starting point is simply that the consultant will travel to the customer site every week. I think that if this aspect is designed more thoughtfully into the role, with optimizing results, cost, etc. in mind, the result will be different than what we are seeing today.

  • Ryan,

    I agree. With the PHI that’s involved, securing data is a key concern. The technology is there, but everyone involved needs to give protecting this sensitive data due diligence.

    I also agree that ‘presence’ (or impact or other related terms) can be achieved in more than one way. Out of sight does not mean out of mind, necessarily.

  • I been trying to get my oldest son to look this field over and consider training for such a job. Him mom is a RN nurse and she agrees it would be a good field to get into.

  • Does the use of Skype help you in developing a relationship remotely? I have found that it is much more effective after you have gotten to know people in person. Starting a relationship via Skype isn’t much better than by phone or email. It may be even worse if the picture isn’t good, the sound is poor, or the participants are distracted by the relatively new communication option.

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