Making work, work better for everyone

Digital workflows can deliver reduced stress, greater flexibility, increased confidence and pride in work for employees

Habitus Insight analyzed two organizations on opposite sides of the world to understand how digital workflows and other new technologies are changing how people work, and how they feel about their work.

Donna has been a hospital administrator for nearly a decade, working for one of Australasia’s largest health systems. Her job is to ensure all patients are properly scheduled for clinic appointments. The task has been especially complex in the years since a massive earthquake struck the city where she works. Hospital buildings were damaged, and many offices had to be relocated. Recovery has been a slow process, as employees and patients have also been dealing with the impact of the catastrophe on their homes and families.

Historically, Donna’s team used a paper-based system to manage records and schedule appointments. It took them about 40 minutes to prepare for each patient visit. The health system recently implemented a digital workflow strategy that has automated these manual processes, with the goal of delivering better, more efficient services to patients.

The initiative was led by the HR department, in collaboration with IT and the employees themselves. Donna has been able to play a key role in imagining how the health system can empower employees to improve patient care. For instance, she helped draft requirements for a new “paper-lite” scheduling system. She was also involved in rolling out the new system and training her colleagues in its use.

As a result, the time it takes her team to prepare for each patient visit has been cut in half. Donna reports the new system has lifted her spirits and those of her team. “The camaraderie within the department is returning,” she said. “They feel like they’re getting in control of things again.”

Automating manual processes has also helped the team’s work-life balance. Donna used to spend most of her evenings catching up on work. Now she has time to make dinner for her family, help her adopted granddaughter with homework, and go for walks. Donna has even started to plan holiday trips with her husband, a long-cherished but previously impractical dream.

Through an ethnographic investigation of organizations in Australasia and the United States, we observed how digital workflows, such as the automated scheduling system Donna helped to introduce, are giving workers the tools they need to be successful in their roles. We found that digitization helps organizations focus employees on their core mission. In both organizations, this has helped foster a reinvigorated and more explicitly customer- and patient-centric culture. Many of our interview subjects expressed profound satisfaction because they were able to achieve outcomes that not only advance their organization’s mission, but also satisfied their own motivation to better serve people in need.

Employees learn to welcome change

Tammi is responsible for managing customer service in a U.S. state government agency that connects state residents with employment, education, and other support services. The stories she hears are often emotional and difficult. Behind the employee-service window where Tammi and colleagues sit, workers post motivational handwritten notes and pictures to get them through the day and help them focus on delivering positive outcomes. Reading all the words of encouragement, it is obvious caseworkers feel an intense responsibility to serve their community as best they can. The employees connect their professional success to the personal success of their customers.

“In this environment, sometimes it can be stressful, not only because of the information we deal with. We are helping people that are in need of resources and supportive services, like education or employment. But sometimes, it’s also the number of people who are coming in,” said Tammi. Up to 300 customers have visited in a single day. By closing time, emotions can run high.

Over the last three years, Tammi has helped introduce a new customer service management (CSM) system to reduce customer wait times, which had been as long as three hours. Now, she says, wait times are typically around 16 minutes. That’s because customers can now request services and information through new lobby kiosks. Automated CSM software directs them to the most appropriate caseworker. The system also captures customer information up front, so caseworkers have more information about the customer’s needs when they begin an interview. They know customers by name, not just by case number. These efficiencies have reduced stress and boosted morale on Tammi’s team.

The change process wasn’t easy. The stress was less about learning to use new software and more about the challenge of introducing new ways of working into a very tense work environment, where customers often exhibit challenging behaviors. Moreover, some customers have no experience with computers and must be taught basic computer skills, like using a mouse or entering personal information on screen. We observed numerous caseworkers as they calmly and carefully directed nervous customers through the new process.

The new system helps Tammi’s team deliver better customer service. “We have customers now come and say, ‘Wow, I was here a year ago, I was here two years ago, and it’s not the same place,’ and that is just the best thing I hear every day,” said Tammi.

Putting skills and experience to better use

Ramona has worked at the state agency for 20 years in different roles. She has also been a customer. As a result, she is a well of institutional knowledge. Currently, she is a customer service coordinator at the head office. Along with two colleagues, she manages customer service inquiries from across the state.

Before the agency implemented the new CSM system, Ramona used to spend around 90% of her time at work inputting customer details into Excel spreadsheets. The workload was overwhelming, and a waste of her expertise.

Now, the system automatically populates customer data. Ramona has time to dig deep into customer inquiries, which lets her provide more effective and valuable services. She has the time and autonomy to organize her own work and develop relationships with colleagues in the office. Ramona sees that colleagues value and respect her work. She is putting her skill set to good use, and enjoying her experience as an employee.

On top of this, Ramona has also started working from home up to three days a week. The new mobility tools have freed up time to enjoy with family.

It is no exaggeration to say the new CSM system has transformed work for Ramona, enabling her to develop her role and continually make new contributions to the organization’s mission.

Gaining confidence and a feeling of empowerment

Basic process changes—such as online task scheduling—can have significant effects on how employees experience work. This was true for the hospital orderlies in the Australasian health system we visited.

Orderlies are essential to healthcare delivery because they are responsible for moving patients and equipment throughout the hospital. They also provide comfort and company to patients. Despite their vital role, orderlies told us they often felt “invisible” and undervalued at work. From their perspective, nurses, medical assistants, and clerical staff saw orderlies as interchangeable resources who could be summoned via loudspeaker or a phone call.

In 2019, the organization decided to retire its radio dispatch system to protect patient confidentiality. They replaced it with a web-based portal accessible via smartphone or tablet. Nobody predicted the outsized effect this new technology would have on the orderly population.

Departments now request orderly support online. This requires more considered planning than before, when a phone call to the dispatcher would suffice. A central orderly supervisor prioritizes planned and real-time requests and assigns orderlies based on availability, location, and skills. The orderlies carry smartphones to respond to their scheduled tasks.

Some orderlies had never used a smartphone before and had limited experience with computers. It was challenging to provide them with appropriate training. Some feared they might not be able to use the system properly, or that they would make mistakes and appear foolish. Once the orderlies overcame those initial concerns, however, they found that mastering the tools gave them new pride in their work.

“I think upskilling the team with technology is helping them in their day-to-day lives,” said Tony, an orderly dispatcher. “It’s that fear factor. Some people have never even used a touch phone—they’ve only used push button. So, moving those people forward, giving them the confidence…I can see them growing as people.”

Some orderlies told us that because of the new dispatch system, they were seen more as “part of the team” in departments across the hospital. They also pointed out that the system keeps a record of requests, which facilitates accountability when mistakes are made. In the past, orderlies were sometimes falsely blamed when things went wrong.

Certain orderlies, referred to as “super users,” were actually teaching the staff in wards and departments how to use the new system. As far as the orderlies are concerned, their role now has a higher status, and the new scheduling system has been responsible for this change.

“[Orderlies have] this tech badge; you can’t be a dimwit now and so they are not seen that way,” said Simon, one of the orderlies we interviewed.

Employees value mobility

In 2010, Tracey moved to the city where the healthcare system is headquartered. One week later the city was struck by a major earthquake. Tracey felt called to help her new community, and so she found a job as a recruitment specialist in the health system.

Tracey is responsible for tracking and managing the applications of around 1,000 doctors at any given time. She constantly connects with departments throughout the health system to understand their recruitment needs. She then identifies and nurtures candidates from across Australasia, the U.K. and Canada. Because the applicant pool is global, she must often work outside regular business hours.

She was among the first to use the health system’s new web-based portal for recruitment. It makes all relevant applicant information easily accessible in a single place, and from anywhere. She can work from her laptop at any hospital location—or even from home. Tracey says the new systems have “changed my life.” She loves her job and can clearly see the positive impact her recruiting has on the rest of the organization. “I know I am making a difference,” she says.

Jamie is a director of performance management and data at the U.S. state government agency. Her role is to extract data from all the organization’s divisions in order to produce reports in accessible formats for senior management. Her workload was massive, approaching 80 hours a week. Jamie accepted this load because she believed in the agency’s mission. “This is people’s lives—it is their food, their basic necessities, their protection. And so, I don’t mess around with that,” Jamie told us.

The new customer service management tools have greatly reduced Jamie’s workload, which is now a more manageable 40 hours a week. Combined with the ability to work from home, this is having a very positive impact on her personal well-being and family life. For example, one of Jamie’s children requires 24-hour care for a spinal injury sustained in a car crash. Jamie now has the flexibility she needs to succeed at work and at home.

Business leaders focus on strategy

In both the organizations we studied, research participants reported a cultural shift enabled by digital workflow technology. Wayne, CIO of the U.S. state government agency, told us that he is trying to build a culture that is open, trusting and listening, one where staff are encouraged to embrace change, ask questions and think creatively.

Darris, a director of customer service at the agency, leads monthly videoconferences where employees talk about their challenges using new digital tools and provide feedback for further development. Darris hopes these groups, which he calls “modernization teams,” will become champions of change in the broader organization.

Stella, chief digital officer of the Australasian health system, leads a similar initiative she describes as “co-design of the user experience.” The goal is to understand the needs and pain points of technology users. “It is not about the technology,” she says. “It is about engagement, understanding how the technology can support the improvements that people wanted to make.” That’s why, throughout this process, training has become a leadership priority.

It hasn’t always been easy to build employee trust in the new user experience, says Carolyn, executive director of planning at the health system. Many of them are used to working in big organizations and tend to assume nothing will ever change.

“We had to undo that cynicism,” she says. “We’ve created an organization and a health system that’s expecting change. And they actually get frustrated when they don’t have it.”

In both organizations, the new digital technologies we examined—including customer service management, digital patient scheduling, task scheduling, recruitment tracking, and remote working tools—have had significant positive effects on the employee experience. They have reduced workloads and increased employee satisfaction. Many of our research participants also reported that the new tech helped the organization align its goals with the core values of the employees. In short, our fieldwork suggests that digital workflows are creating a new environment that increases worker happiness.