Empowering Blue aims to improve workplace environment, innovation

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Employees of Health Information Technology & Services in Michigan Medicine embraced remote work long before the COVID-19 pandemic, with some working from South Carolina, Florida and even overseas.

The lessons learned from those experiences were the topic of the latest installment of Empowering Blue, a community of practice that connects U-M staff and faculty members interested in workplace improvement and innovation.

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“My belief is that the clearer that your team understands their purpose and understands what I refer to as systems of work — the way we get things done — where they (team members)  are becomes less and less important,” Michael Warden, senior director of Business IT for HITS, said during the Empowering Blue session he led Nov. 2.

Organizational Excellence, a department within U-M’s Shared Services Center, launched Empowering Blue in November 2020. Lisa Earls, senior operational improvement consultant and a member of the Empowering Blue planning team, said the goal was to create a space where people from across the university could network, swap ideas and share best practices.

Sessions take place about once every six weeks over Zoom. Past topics have included increasing engagement and productivity in meetings, developing metrics with goals, and building a culture of psychological safety among employees. 

Carl LoConte, senior operational improvement consultant and a member of the Empowering Blue planning team, said the pandemic sparked outside-the-box thinking across all types of jobs and workplaces. People are asking questions about the work they do and how they spend their time, he said.

“I think there’s an amount of reflection that’s happening that is maybe inspiring people who otherwise wouldn’t have attended a session like this, or wouldn’t have seen a community of practice like this for them (to participate in Empowering Blue) because they’re asking some of those questions on the regular now: ‘Why do we do it this way? Is there a better way to do it?’” LoConte said.

Each Empowering Blue session draws anywhere from about 30 to 70 faculty and staff members. Sessions are free, although advance registration is required.

The next session, Dec. 7, is called, “A community discussion: Celebrating successes and working together on challenges.” Participants will be able to share what they’ve achieved over the past year and discuss the challenges they face.

During the most recent Empowering Blue session, Warden talked about the lessons his team has learned about remote and hybrid work. He said flexible environments have less to do with being remote and more about conceptualizing what it means to work together.

Warden said that in the past, individual employees had to get special approval to work remotely. In 2015, his team decided to “lean into it a bit more,” and working from home became the norm rather than the exception. Employees appreciated the flexibility, he said.  

“In most of those experiences, what we learned was there was never a problem that working remotely raised that didn’t already exist on-site,” Warden said.

Because of its experience with remote work, HITS was able to pivot and adapt quickly when the pandemic hit in March 2020. Today, about 80 percent of HITS staffers work remotely, including about 95 percent of the staff at Business IT at HITS.

In fact, remote work is going so well that a $1 million plan to renovate the HITS Service Desk call center was scrapped, Warden said.  

“We actually believe that our reduction to our physical space allows us to consume less of the university’s resources,” he said.

Warden said HITS and Michigan Medicine have fully embraced a “flexible first” approach, with plans for continued flexible and remote work environments.

“Our focus on delivery of results is really what drives us. Where you sit doesn’t matter,” he said.

Organizers of Empowering Blue said they’re encouraged by the positive feedback the program has received. While all sessions have been virtual, they’re considering conducting an in-person meeting in the future.

“We’re really looking to build more connections for community members,” Earls said.

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