Practice & Management  

AI Written Works: Stories from the Field - Detail

Using AI to Improve the Quality of Work Life
Sandra C. Kolb , Naomi Johnson

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

Date 05/01/2002

Annotation: Annotation: For over two years, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sponsored three pilot projects using AI to help managers and employees redesign work in order to enhance both productivity and employees? work/life balance. The pilots were evaluated, and a full report is due out shortly.

A November 1998 Quality of Work Life conference at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) highlighted research that had found family-friendly policies were more effective if implemented on a unit-wide, systemic basis with broad employee involvement and in conjunction with work process analysis. Our office was given the lead in replicating these projects within HHS, the first such pilots in the public sector.

Three sites, representing diverse work environments, were chosen for the pilots: a division of our General Counsel?s office in Washington, DC, and the business office and pediatric ward of a Native American hospital in Arizona. The type of employees in the three sites varied enormously: the General Counsel?s staff were primarily attorneys (with a few paralegals and support staff); the pediatric staff were predominantly nurses, while the business office employees were medical clerks, data entry clerks, and patient registrars.

Over the summer of 1999 a Steering Committee of employees was established at each site to assist with data collection and analysis, develop recommendations, and monitor implementation of proposed changes. Representatives from each Steering Committee attended a week-long Appreciative Inquiry training given by Cathy Royal during which they, with our assistance, developed the protocols for interviewing staff about when work/life balance was ?at its best.? The remaining Steering Committee members were given a day-long overview of AI, during which they interviewed each other using the protocols developed during the longer training. This enabled us to pilot the protocols and adjust the questions prior to starting broad-scale interviews. In addition the Steering Committees analyzed this initial interview data, experiencing first hand how the data would be used and learning what they needed to capture in interview notes.

Although we conducted some interviews, the majority were done by the Steering Committee members. After they had completed several, we reconvened the Committees to process the data collected to date, check on progress, and answer questions that had arisen. All employees were given an opportunity to be interviewed, and everyone agreed to participate. A sample of the protocol used is attached. We supplemented the interviews with a traditional work process analysis.

Prior to an "all hands" retreat at each site, the Steering Committees met to process the interview data and draw out the themes. Steering Committee members presented the themes and the wishes collected to their colleagues during the retreat. Some of the presentations were quite creative ; the attorneys did skits to illustrate what life would be like if the wishes were true. (During the retreats we presented observations from the work process analyses, as well as demographic information about the groups "a who works here" picture of the organization.)

During the retreat employees (including managers) prioritized the themes, developing provocative propositions for the top priority areas and brainstorming ideas for change. The Steering Committees crafted the recommendations and submitted them to management, taking into account the priorities and suggestions generated at the retreats as well as the wishes collected during the interviews. The pilot projects grew out of these recommendations. By the end of the pilots employee satisfaction, organizational effectiveness or both had increased in all three sites, although some employees wished that more had been accomplished.

The pilots began in the summer of 2000. The first launched was in the General Counsel's office, where the legal staff piloted flexiplace (or telecommuting), as well as a simplified time and attendance reporting system. The number of employees taking advantage of flexiplace went from 0 to 31% of the staff, with 20% telecommuting on a regular basis. By the end of the pilot in 2001, employee satisfaction with work/life balance had almost doubled, and there was anecdotal evidence that the ability to telecommute was positively affecting recruitment and retention of employees (which had been a concern for management).

Similar results were obtained at the hospital business office, where staff piloted alternate (more than 8-hour days) and flexible work schedules (8-hour days, but with varying start and stop times). Until the pilot began, such schedules were not allowed (except in rare time-limited circumstances). At the end of the pilot 36% of the business office employees were on some kind of alternate or flexible schedule. Employee satisfaction with work/life balance rose (to 67% from 38%), and there was anecdotal evidence that the change in scheduling had positively affected recruitment and retention. Backlogs declined and the hours of clinic coverage increased with the new schedules in place.

The pediatric group initiated two pilots. In one they gave up permanent positions to provide staffing relief to the adult wards in exchange for temporary help during the winter (when patient load was high) and fewer demands to "float" to the adult wards to fill in. The second, done in collaboration with the hospital pharmacy, involved improving discharge education for pediatric patients. The inability of the hospital to find needed temporary staff or reduce the vacancy rate on the adult wards prevented the first from being successful. The second, however, was a success, lessening the wait time for discharge medications (thereby improving patient service) and resulting in time savings for both the pediatric staff and the pharmacy.

By defining success measures and collecting pre- and post-pilot data (through surveys, interviews, focus groups, and analysis of human resources data), we were able to document the pilots' impact on organizational performance and employee satisfaction. AI was seen as a "plus" by the pilot site employees. In spite of the differences in jobs, educational level and culture (the business office staff at the hospital was entirely Native American), when asked what they liked about the process, employees universally mentioned the interviews and the retreats (as well as the results). The chance to provide ideas to management, to get to know the wishes and dreams of their colleagues, and to influence how their work was done was highly valued.

Resource Files:
Protocol for Work Redesign (rtf )

(submitted by Sandra Kolb)

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