Just before our cities went into lockdown and cases of coronavirus had started to hit our health system, I addressed our clinical teams to deliver a key message: Our entire world was about to change and we had a calling to step up and serve during this crisis.
At Forward we have spent the last four years building a healthcare system that combines technology with doctors in order to give our members better insights into their health. Drawing on that experience, we were able to rapidly pivot to serve our members during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We launched COVID-19 testing in all eight of our locations around the country (two in New York; two in Los Angeles, and others in Orange County, San Francisco, San Diego, in California; and Washington, D.C.) when tests were in short supply. We trained every person on our onsite teams on the appropriate use of protective equipment to keep themselves and our members safe. We built a COVID-19 assessment tool into our app that allows our members to assess their symptoms and risk level with a few taps on their phone. We launched a coronavirus resource page on our website to combat misinformation. These are the strategies our leadership used to support our people and take care of our patients during this time.
Build technology to support your clinicians
Even before the pandemic, Forward’s systems were built to scale, adapt, and support our clinical teams. For example, we have tools in our app that allow our software to structure and interpret a member’s symptoms as they tell us about them. Adapting those tools to COVID-19 allowed us to quickly create an assessment that could give members guidance on their situation, often without requiring a member of the clinical team to be involved. This helped prevent our clinicians from becoming overwhelmed. We leveraged learning and development systems that assess the knowledge of every Care Team member to make sure that every person on our team understood how to provide COVID-19 testing and how to protect themselves as they cared for members with coronavirus.
Enable cross-functional collaboration
Forward has spent the last four years learning how to facilitate collaboration between teams of engineers, designers, product managers, operations specialists, and medical experts. Collaboration typically happens in numerous weekly cross-functional team meetings where representatives of each team identify obstacles and help to move work forward. When we recognized the threat that COVID-19 posed, we took meetings that happen on a weekly basis and made them daily. For the team in headquarters, we emphasized how critical their work was for serving our members and protecting the health of our onsite teams. The bravery of our onsite teammates helped inspire everyone across the organization. Physicians and product managers collaborated with engineers to create tools that incorporate the best clinical guidance for our members. Operations teams worked with occupational safety experts to make sure that our supply chains for appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) were intact, including developing relationships with international suppliers of PPE. Having PPE has been critical to our ability to test and care for our members during the crisis. And because of our efforts, we’ve been able to donate PPE to other healthcare organizations here in the U.S.
Communicate honestly to motivate your teams
As a leadership team, we have not downplayed the seriousness of the crisis or the personal risks that we all need to take to respond successfully. We know that our clinical teams are putting themselves in harm’s way and we specifically call out their bravery and service in public forums, especially our weekly company all-hands meeting. We have been honest in saying that, even if we execute perfectly, some of us at Forward will get sick, and many of us will lose people we love. We’ve talked about the fact that there is never really any guarantee of remaining healthy. We are each given the day in front of us and we can decide whether or not we make ourselves useful to our fellow human beings. In our all-hands meeting and team-specific meetings (medical, engineering, product, operations), we have called upon everyone to step up and put their skills to use when our members need us most. I have been genuinely moved to see doctors and medical assistants suit up in PPE each day to care for our members, to see product managers and engineers pouring their hearts into work that supports our clinical teams and to see our operations teams hustling to keep our sites running. As we’ve responded to the crisis, physicians on the front lines have presented stories of how we’ve helped our members to the company so that everyone can see the impact we’re having.
Rely on distributed leadership and trust your people
When responding quickly to a crisis, it is impossible for a central leadership team to anticipate every situation that can arise in the field. We focused on a simple principle: We will be here to serve our members through this pandemic. This was our priority as our corporate office built dozens of protocols to support our clinical teams such as how to triage members with coronavirus-like symptoms, how to bring them onsite safely for testing, how to perform the tests, and how to care for members who are ill. We knew that our policies and procedures could not address every situation that our teams would encounter. We emphasized trust and good local decision-making. We told our people to make the best decisions they could with the information that they had available at the time and then to flag these areas of uncertainty so we can address the situation programmatically in the future. This has allowed our teams to respond flexibly and confidently as unanticipated situations arise.
Focus on the positive impact you can make and then expand your scope
Much of what’s happening in the world today is beyond the control of any individual. The most prominent leaders in the world are struggling to find the right responses to the coronavirus. At Forward, we started by working on the things most directly under our control: Getting good information to our members, assessing them for symptoms, and rapidly rolling out testing for COVID-19. Our teams know that every test we do and every person we care for matters. Now we’re working to help more people. We’ve made our COVID-19 assessment available on our website, for free to anyone. We’re working with domestic and international laboratory partners to scale up testing and make it available to more people. And we’re communicating with policymakers about science-based approaches to fight coronavirus and restore our economy.
Every company, whether it delivers healthcare or not, is navigating a landscape that is completely different than what we expected just a few weeks ago. Our job as leaders is to help our teams make sense of this situation and make clear how we can each apply our efforts in ways that serve other people and help our organizations succeed. Just like any of us as individuals, no company has a guarantee that it will survive the pandemic and the resulting recession. In order to maintain the trust of our teams, we must be transparent about the difficult decisions we face. We can’t wish COVID-19 away. We can speak with our teams honestly about the challenges it creates, and inspire them with meaningful opportunities to contribute to this fight. That’s what leadership in 2020 looks like.