Although most healthcare leaders recognize the inherent link between work place design strategy and their organization’s culture, few deeply understand the reciprocal relationship that exists between the two. Far too often, healthcare leaders view their places of work and care as a container that responds to existing culture and not a change agent to inspire culture change. Those with this viewpoint have a limited perspective on how design can positively impact their system and workforce to spur new levels of success.

In truth, the relationship between work place design and company culture isn’t all that different from a tango. When leveraged correctly, one can lead the other and vice versa to move a health system forward. While design should take cues from existing culture, it should also serve as a tool to transform patient care, multidisciplinary teaming, learning, engagement, transparency and the overall user experience. Health organizations should embrace work place design changes as a bridge tool that can move their culture from where it is today, to where they want it to be tomorrow.

Kaleida Health & SUNY Buffalo, Gates Vascular Institute

For example, a healthcare organization that is dissatisfied with the level of collaboration should not design spaces that simply respond to existing work styles. Instead, it needs to spur new behaviors through new types of spaces that challenge and reshape how their people work to spur multidisciplinary thinking and teaming.

The University of Minnesota Health took such an innovative approach when designing its Clinics and Surgery Center, moving away from private offices that could be empty up to 90% of the time and introducing a variety of touchdown spaces, collaboration areas, adaptable clinical modules, a small number of unassigned offices that could be reserved for certain times, and a two-story staff café and atrium space. The resulting facility has increased staff engagement and satisfaction, saved University of Minnesota Health tens of millions, and earned national media attention from the likes of STAT, Fast Company and Modern Healthcare.

Not every health system requires a solution as radical as Minnesota Health’s, but all should focus on the symbiotic relationship between work place design and culture to take purposeful action knowing the positive impact it will have on their culture. This is a careful dance and anyone hoping to “Master the Tango” between the two, must commit to some fundamental steps and strategies to ensure success.

Understand Your People
Before embarking on workplace design strategy, every organization should understand and align on the needs and constraints of providers, clinicians and employees in addition to its business goals for the future. Without this foundational knowledge, health systems are ill-equipped to define the where, what and how of their work place. Space changes can help companies achieve their organizational goals but any ambiguity or leadership misalignment could lead to inefficient decision-making and potential roadblocks. Organizations with articulated goals can ensure every space decision they make is in line with their broader long-term objectives.

Establishing a baseline around the needs, wants and hopes for future work place investments requires input and buy-in from the end users — leadership, physicians staff and sometimes even patients. Through individual meetings, focus groups, town hall sessions, surveys, workplace simulations, prototyping and other prevalent feedback communication tools, healthcare organizations can engage stakeholders thoughtfully before finalizing and implementing workplace changes. Reliable two-way feedback loops will reinforce the validity and strength of both the design changes themselves and adoption.

Kaleida Health & SUNY Buffalo, Gates Vascular Institute

Establish Measurable Goals
Data is an incredible advantage modern health systems have at their disposal that their predecessors lacked. While many organizations may not yet fully leverage it, there is a deliberate science to developing measurable goals for work place culture change. Be it a percentage increase in physician engagement or employee satisfaction across all generations in the workplace or metrics surrounding research and education — today’s health systems are equipped to leverage data to ensure their work place design investments deliver ROI.

Used strategically, data can help health systems understand exactly how employees work today, their organizational networks and adjacencies, space utilization rates, demographic preferences and how satisfied different users are with their experience. With baselines established and goals set, organizations can invest more confidently and better evaluate success throughout the transition. The future demands effective workplaces that are regularly monitored, measured, recalibrated and re-evaluated as organizations strive for elite performance and experiences.

Marry Policy with Workplace Design Strategy
Once an organization has a thorough understanding of its people, business goals and the culture changes it hopes to realize via work place design, it must also consider how it all relates to existing policies. One of the leading tripwires for successful implementation is disconnects between place strategy and work or talent policies.

For instance, many providers are concerned about the health and wellness of their staff and are beginning to introduce staff gardens, decompression rooms and other wellness-focused amenities. However, if there aren’t policies in place to encourage their use, they may not achieve their full impact. Similarly, simply changing policy to facilitate staff mobility and flexibility to conduct charting work remotely can help with time management and wellness. But again, without the policy change, technology or design changes can only go so far.

As more organizations shift toward mobile work strategies, health systems will need to revisit policies connected with the scheduling of meeting rooms, use of collaboration tools or digitization. They will need to develop relevant guidelines that help their employees understand and adopt new protocols. All new policy, process or practice changes should be paired with programs to change behaviors and the organization’s culture to ensure successful implementation.

Invest in Change Management
While it is widely acknowledged that organizational change management is vital to any transformation, many organizations are still guilty of relegating it to the back burner until later in the process. This is especially true in larger projects where design and transition activities can stretch across years. Starting the change management process sooner rather than later helps companies reap the benefits of their investments and results in higher employee satisfaction and productivity. Employees require time and coaching to adopt new behaviors that respond to a new workplace’s benefits and advantages. For example, a system may open a new medical office building with leading-edge technology to accelerate patient intake. However, until employees understand the new tools and feel comfortable using them, performance and patient experience fail to improve.

Investing in change management can accelerate this learning curve. Successful change management programs should begin early and encompass cultural and behavioral change in addition to employee engagement and training.

Healthcare work places can do more than just house existing culture — they should foster exciting culture change for health systems of all types and scales. Emerging tools and research practices empower organizations with more resources than ever before to leverage design to influence culture change. It’s not an easy “tango” to master, but when executed properly it can help healthcare organizations dance toward new levels of success.