Jefferson McMillan-Wilhoit, Director of Health Informatics and Technology for Illinois's Lake County Health Department, visits the shore of Lake Michigan in Waukegan.

Apr 09 2021

Collaboration Tools Connect Health Agencies Working Remotely in a Crisis

Project management tools and chat-based solutions bring workers together to tackle the novel coronavirus and other emergencies.

The Lake County Health Department in Illinois moved slowly when it initially rolled out Microsoft Teams. At first, IT leaders encouraged the organization’s 1,000 employees to simply use the chat function, since workers were already accustomed to instant messaging. Then, leaders began urging employees to use Teams for video meetings, as well as for collaboration and file sharing.

By the time COVID-19 hit last spring — and the department was forced to move much of its operations to the Teams platform — the agency was ready. 

“The learning curve came when we were trying to implement the ‘team’ idea, where people can share files and collaborate directly within that team,” says Jefferson McMillan-Wilhoit, director of health informatics and technology for the department. “It wasn’t until COVID-19 that the organization really began to embrace that team concept.”

Already on the rise before the pandemic, collaboration software suites saw rapid adoption during 2020, when organizations were scrambling to find ways to keep remote workers connected and productive. This was especially important for local, county and state health departments, which have fought the pandemic on the front lines, organizing testing initiatives and vaccination clinics.

While video collaboration has received the lion’s share of attention over the past year, features such as chat and file sharing have also opened up new ways for employees to collaborate. What’s more, these new, improved workflows are likely to stick around, even after the pandemic is under control.

“Usually, a public health crisis would require everyone to be in an operations center, managing the immediate response efforts and building the operations and tactics to manage the pandemic,” says E. Oscar Alleyne, chief of programs and services for the National Association of County and City Health Officials. “But because of the need for social distancing, the use of these collaboration tools has been really helpful. Agencies are able to spread out their subject-matter experts, and folks don’t have to drop everything and be sequestered in an emergency operations center to manage events.”

Collaboration Software Changed Work Habits at the Agency

Lake County stood up a public health emergency operations center in March. At first, the unit was responsible for containment and mitigation activities such as contact tracing, but the focus has since shifted to vaccination. “We were able to almost immediately spin up that group in Microsoft Teams,” McMillan-Wilhoit says.

Although the agency’s employees already had access to Teams, the pandemic created a sort of forced adoption initiative that woke workers up to the software suite’s functionality. “Suddenly, it was the only way we had to continue our operations and to communicate,” McMillan-Wilhoit says. “People used it, and they realized how useful it was. I had users who were just absolutely amazed that they could upload a file into a team and then all work on it together.”

Nearly all of the agency’s meetings are now being conducted over video via Teams, and the collaboration suite is also subtly shifting employees away from long, drawn-out email threads and toward chat conversations that allow for more of a real-time exchange. “It’s more synchronous communication,” says McMillan-Wilhoit, who wants the department to be essentially “email free” five years from now. “I can have a back-and-forth conversation rather than getting a very lengthy email and then having to meditate on it and respond to it.”

Microsoft Teams allows groups to escalate conversations organically, McMillan-Wilhoit adds. “Most conversations will start out as a chat, and then we’ll say, ‘We probably need to move this into the team.’ Then we say, ‘This is actually turning into a project,’ and all communication goes in there.”

Before moving to Teams, employees would often circulate files via email, and then inevitably lose track of who had the most recent version. “It caused a lot of confusion,” he says. “Now, we get that ­efficiency because we don’t have as much email traffic, and we’re not missing things.”

Jefferson McMillan-Wilhoit
It’s more synchronous communication. I can have a back-and-forth conversation rather than getting a very lengthy email and then having to meditate on it and respond to it.”

Jefferson McMillan-Wilhoit Director of Health Informatics and Technology, Lake County Health Department

Collaboration Tools Boost Intra-Agency Information Exchange

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services was already using c­ollaboration tools such as Cisco Webex and Jabber before COVID-19 struck. However, use of these tools has “skyrocketed” over the past year, says Paula Peters, deputy CIO for the state.

“Thinking back a year ago, it’s crazy to think that I did not even know how to schedule a Webex meeting, and now that is pretty much my whole day,” says Lisa Cox, commmunications director for the DHSS. “It’s been a lifesaver. There are so many times that we’re screen sharing, and then we move that right into a web call. It’s so helpful. The geographic distance isn’t limiting us in any way.”

Screen sharing and persistent chat have been especially important in allowing the department’s tech professionals to work remotely, says Jo Ann Harbison, client services manager for the state.

“Collaboration tools have been important for us in working with our partners to share screens,” she says. “If they can show me what they’re seeing, that makes getting to a solution that much faster.” Internally, persistent chat helps the tech team to solve problems more quickly, Harbison adds. “As soon anyone has a question, they can get an immediate response. They’re not waiting for me to dig through my email. It’s an ongoing dialogue, and everyone can follow the thread.”

MORE FROM STATETECH: Explore five ways the pandemic is reshaping government technology plans. 

State Experiences Increased Productivity with Remote Workers

Missouri has seen sustained productivity increases while employees work remotely, says Jeff Wann, the state’s CIO. “We looked across the board, and all the agencies report that productivity is up.”

Cox says that collaboration tools have “definitely increased” productivity in her own work life. “You can schedule meetings back to back,” she says. “It’s like I’m able to be in two places at once.” 

Such testimonials likely mean that these new workflows have a permanent place in many health agency operations. “Folks are figuring out that if they eliminate travel time, they can get more out of their day,” Harbison says. “These new communication tools and increased use of technology are here to stay.”

Photography by Bob Stefko