Working to Innovate the Future of Work

NIH leadership recently gathered for its annual planning and evaluation retreat, and for the first time since late 2019, we all sat together in one large room. I cannot capture in words how inspiring and energizing it was to be together—but let me tell you, it really was! Through masks and with appropriate physical distancing, replacing heartfelt hugs with warm fist pumps or elbow bumps, the 27 Institute and Center directors and NIH leadership engaged in two days of exploration around key issues such as diversity, equity, and inclusion; new approaches to governance and finance; and the role of NIH in making credible and evidence-based information available to the public. In between these explorations, we caught up on kids and families, vacations, and personal challenges. The very presence of people together “in the flesh” was just amazing!

Like the rest of the working world, NLM is crafting its future of work. We recognize that our future should be planned intentionally to enable our almost-200-year-old institution to achieve the goals that will take us forward into our third century. As we do so, we are examining and challenging long-held work practices, devising new approaches to enhance accountability, and learning how to build a sense of pride or esprit de corps in novel ways. We are committed to meeting our mission in the most efficient and creative manner possible while offering our staff workplace flexibility to meet personal and professional goals. Fundamentally, we are crafting the future of work based on the needs of the NLM mission.

Let me say this clearly: The future of work WILL involve being present in the workspace in a manner that builds trust and fosters innovation. Most NLM federal staff have a workplace flexibility agreement that enables regular telework—this means that the employee must be on-site at least two days a pay period. So being present means intentionally coming to work on a day that others will be in the workplace. The NLM leadership team has already begun to explore this near-term future of work by committing to come into the office each Tuesday. We use these “in-office” Tuesdays as the foundation for meetings and as opportunities to run into each other in the hall. We respect physical distances and, although NIH does not require masking, we still mask up for in-person meetings should anyone request it. It’s sometimes a challenge to figure out how to make the best use of our time on Tuesdays so it doesn’t devolve to “Zooming” from behind office doors instead of “Zooming” from kitchens and back decks.

We’re finding that the pace of work differs when we are on-site together. There’s a little more time for laughter and hallway conversations and a lot more enjoyment in engaging with peers that we know and respect. We are meeting, for the first time, colleagues who joined us during the pandemic and are now becoming more than a thumbnail image and a voice on a video call. Importantly, we are getting to know each other as whole people, with gaits, gestures, postures, and positions. All these nonverbal cues provide additional ways for us to know each other and, perhaps more importantly, to know how we are received by each other. Being present provides us with new opportunities to show support by leaning into a conversation or to be more fully engaged in the conversation in the moment.

NLM is getting ready to formalize an exciting approach to the way we work, one that is embedded in a culture of continuous innovation. Continuous innovation is a business strategy in which an organization remains true to its central mission but intentionally and consistently looks for ways to improve how they deliver on the NLM mission. This may mean modernization of long-held critical services—in the case of NLM, our commitment to modernizing and providing ongoing improvements thereafter. It also encompasses an approach to meeting a mission in new ways, including indexing and serving up the literature using modern computational techniques such as MEDLINE 2022 automated indexing initiative and Medical Subject Headings (also known as MESH) and the recent developments of relevance-based literature search in PubMed using advanced AI methods.

So as we craft NLM’s future of work, one best characterized by innovation, we need to judiciously consider how to best use the precious time we have together. Innovation can occur through many pathways… how do we best use the moments of in-person engagement? Come along and innovate with us!

Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhD

Director, National Library of Medicine

Dr. Brennan is the Director of the NIH National Library of Medicine, a leader in biomedical informatics and computational health data science research and the world’s largest biomedical library. Under her leadership, NLM has grown its intramural and extramural research enterprise, extended stakeholders’ access to credible and reliable health information, and acquired and preserved biomedical literature using cutting-edge digital research and outreach. Read more about Dr. Brennan.

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