Finance departments continue to be asked to do more with less. But those challenges can create opportunities to innovate, improve employee morale, and find the large and small improvements needed to drive organizations forward.
In a presentation to HFMA’s Large System Controller Council, Mike Hennessey, director of financial management for Grant Thornton, the sponsor of the group, noted that health care has changed considerably over the past 10 years, and that the most innovative organizations are the ones financially thriving. “That doesn’t mean they are doing more with more,” Hennessey said. “Maybe they are doing more with less because they are seeing how other organizations are evolving, and they are seeing opportunities as their organization grows, and ultimately, that snowballs itself into a good situation.”
One factor holding many organizations back is that, on average, employees are engaged in their work for only 33 percent of their work hours.
“It’s important to reassess the thinking from the past of ‘I need to see my workers,’” said Erica O’Malley, partner for the Organizational Strategy Leader at Grant Thornton. “Whether you see them or not, you have no idea really what they are doing.”
Having a better engaged healthcare finance workforce is necessary because it enables organizations to move workers from lower-level activities where they are producers or “guardians” (i.e., engaged in compliance activities) to higher-level roles where they can be strategists and change agents.
Finance leaders may get some help in transitioning workers this way from increasing varieties of digital financial tools—when organizations can afford them. Such tools can enable automation of simple tasks in accounts receivable and financial reporting, while organizations look to shift employees to higher-level tasks.
Finance departments are facing growing pressure to control or cut costs, and labor is their biggest cost, O’Malley said. “They are going to want you to do more with less and to figure out how to do that and who’s going to help them do it.” O’Malley suggested each finance leader should look at his or her department and ask, “How many change agents do I really have?” She noted that these change agents will be critically important as the industry continues to undergo change.
Seeking Higher-Level Talent: Initial Steps
For organizations looking to cultivate such higher-level workers, Hennessey said the first step is for finance leaders to get a pulse of their team. For instance, they should figure out the share with strong ambition among them.
It is important to remember that there are very different types of transformative activities, including incremental or strategic, reactive or proactive. And different employees spend different amounts of time in those different roles. Employees engaged in incremental transformation can find small but important efficiencies before a financial crisis requires cuts. Hennessey said leaders need to encourage the advancement of ideas from every level; otherwise, employees will self-censor when a great idea occurs to them.
Another key part of the process, said O’Malley, is asking members of the department whether the overall organization’s values and culture statement resonates with them. “That is supposed to be the brand of the hospital, not just the patient side of the hospital, so [any] disconnect, that disharmony, impacts engagement,” she said.
She also noted that employees who are engaged are five times more effective. A good goal for a leader is to increase their engagement from the 33 percent average to 50 or 60 percent, she said.
“It’s not about being an organization that’s running everyone into the ground,” O’Malley said. “[It’s just to have] an organization where people show up ready to work, excited to work, on time, and willing to stay a little bit late.”
Sourcing and Attracting Talent: A Key Role for Finance
Data demonstrate human resources departments have little time for strategic efforts to find and retain such high-level talent. That means finance leaders need to drive sourcing of their talent because they know more about what type of talent they need.
Finance leaders also are in a war for top talent. Although compensation dominates discussions about obtaining and retaining top talent, O’Malley said research shows compensation is not a priority for today’s workers—especially younger generations. Instead, the younger members of the workforce grew up with their parents asking them their opinions on decisions like vacations and where to eat. Now, they want to provide their opinions at work on important arrangements.
“Times are changing, and we’re part of the reason they are changing; and it’s not bad,” O’Malley said. “But the recognition piece is what’s really important.” She cited the example of organizations that have found savings by allowing workers to go to part-time status—when they sought it—and take a salary cut commensurate with the reduced work time.
In terms of retaining highly sought staff, O’Malley said her organization put the question directly to the employees regarding what work arrangements they would prefer and what would allow them to meet the goals of the business. “It is amazing what they can figure out on their own, because they all know that the objective hasn’t changed,” she said. “And that’s something that needs to be embraced.”
Among those finance leaders who have used some flexible work arrangement, some have described career stagnation in such employees. O’Malley underscored the need for conversations with those employees about whether they need to be stuck and what their goals are.
Finance leaders with experience in flexible work arrangements for employees said success depended on workers knowing what results their organization needed. One pitfall with such arrangements is that employees with flexible work schedules can be hard to reach, often leaving it up to the supervisor to perform a task when the employee could not be contacted to perform it.
Improving Talent Management: Key Steps
To innovate in talent management, finance leaders first should make sure they have a baseline understanding of their departments through focus groups and other feedback from existing workers. Next, they should define the desired future state for their departments, based on industry trends and others’ initiatives. Then, they should educate their staffs regarding the entirety of the work they need to perform and seek staff buy-in on a common approach.
O’Malley cautioned finance leaders, however, against saying something will change and then failing to follow through, which she said is a sure way to undermine an organization’s morale. She also noted that an organizations’ investment in change management should be strong enough to ensure people understand the nature of the change.