Innovation creates a more equitable future

Pandemic-inspired ideas can solve some of the bigger challenges in healthcare, employee experience, and workplace diversity and inclusion

We must continue to apply digital innovation from COVID-19 to build a more equitable future.

Crisis spawns innovation. That’s always been true, and in the 20th century, periods of chaos and uncertainty led to advances such as nuclear power, space travel, and, of course, duct tape. They even led to the medium in which this article resides; the internet owes its existence to U.S. dreams “of a networked military using computing power to defeat the Soviet Union.

At a high level, it’s easy to understand why. When something like COVID-19 comes along, we suddenly have hundreds of problems and no choice but to solve them as fast as we can. That’s what innovation is —the application of new or existing ideas to solve problems in our lives.

During COVID-19, we turned to technology to solve many of the new challenges we were facing. For the most part, technology came through for us. One healthcare executive told me the pandemic’s biggest impact is how it forced us to trust nascent technologies previously deemed too risky or complex for real-world, large-scale application.

The development of COVID-19 vaccines, for example, leveraged years of research and development around mRNA vaccines and demonstrated what’s possible when a community comes together around a singular goal. I’m excited to see what these innovations will inspire down the line, such as the application of mRNA vaccines to intractable diseases like malaria.

The vaccines are examples of fast-tracked innovation that showed we can move more quickly and more ambitiously in applying technology to our world.

What other pandemic-inspired innovations will have far-reaching impacts on the world? The list is long, but as we talk about getting “back to normal,” I see three areas where normal isn’t good enough and where we can innovate to evolve.

Improve patient care across the board

It’s hardly novel to call healthcare broken, and many of its problems extend far beyond the scope of this writing. But what’s always frustrated me about the industry is the amount of unharvested low-hanging fruit that could significantly improve patient experience and quality of care.

COVID-19 made that clear, as healthcare systems struggled with unprecedented demand for information, care, and vaccines. To their credit, the systems responded, adopting digital solutions to bring scale to an industry under siege.

Burnout is surging among employee populations. Leaders must act fast to prevent it from spiraling out of control.

Seattle’s Providence St. Joseph Health, for example, deployed an AI-powered chatbot to screen and triage tens of thousands of patients—freeing clinicians to focus on individuals at greatest risk. Months later, when distributing vaccines, Children’s Minnesota, a nonprofit system of hospitals in the Minneapolis region, used an online patient portal to integrate patient scheduling with backend scheduling and inventory systems. Doing so reduced vaccine wait times from three hours, via a walk-in model, to 20 minutes, with an appointment.

It went so well that Children’s Minnesota now plans to take a similar approach to general and seasonal flu and immunization vaccinations. The organization’s experience, along with that of Providence St. Joseph, shows how digital technology can accelerate positive health outcomes.

That’s why every healthcare organization must invest in a digital front door that includes a patient portal, scheduling and telehealth capabilities, and general healthcare information. It’s what patients want and, more importantly, it’s what the highest standard of care requires.

Address burnout and mental well-being in the workplace

COVID-19 threatened or damaged not just our physical health but also our mental and emotional well-being. Burnout is surging among employee populations. Leaders must act fast to prevent it from spiraling out of control.

Part of that action is cultural. (I predicted back in January we may even see an organic return to a more structured workday.) But part of it is also technological. Tools like process mining and AI-powered work assignment can pinpoint employees and teams carrying particularly burdensome workloads, as well as people in the organization who can help them.

The former allows you to understand if you are deviating from your ideal process and identify bottlenecks so you can streamline workflows. Identifying bottlenecks can help reveal teams under strain. The latter maps the skills of employee populations, and as one team hits capacity, it automatically assigns tasks to properly skilled, more available individuals.

Many hands make light work, so these technologies address two of burnout’s leading causes during the pandemic: longer hours, and difficulty unplugging at the end of the day.

Diversify your talent pool

If we successfully address burnout among remote employees, we’ll make remote work viable at scale. Then we’ll have the opportunity to remake the geographic structure of the modern economy and expand access to opportunity beyond traditional “superstar” cities or regions in which high-tech, high-growth industries are overwhelmingly concentrated.

Over the past 15 years, for example, five metro areas—San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, San Diego, and Boston— counted for 90% of employment growth in America’s innovation economy. Meanwhile, an overlapping four regions—the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.—grabbed three-quarters of all venture capital investment in high-tech startups.

Innovation ecosystems like these have clear benefits, but they come at a cost. Not everyone can afford expensive cities like San Francisco or commute long hours every workday. And by concentrating opportunity, we ensure high rents and barriers to entry while hindering diversity and inclusion.

However, this is about not only equity and diversity but also the global war for talent. As a senior executive at a managed service provider told me, critical skills shortages mean “the globe is now our hiring platform.”

It’s a sea change that will ripple around the world, including to the “superstar” cities that may become more livable and environmentally friendly.

These are the kinds of impacts I’ll be watching for in every economy, industry, and organization. Crisis was the spark; now, it’s up to us to ensure it catches, in service of a brighter, more human-centric future.