According to Punit Soni, it's time for the conversation around the future of work to go beyond the predictable debate between remote work and the return to the office.
Soni is the CEO of Suki, which has offices in California and India. Coming into the office is entirely optional. At the same time, Suki works closely with doctors, a constituency of workers who, for the most part, necessarily work on-site.
For Soni, creating a better way to work — for everyone — comes down to seriously interrogating tired old norms and challenging accepted, ossified ways of doing things.
"Remote and non-remote are just mechanisms," he told me. "We need to change the philosophy of work. Instead of thinking of it as in-person versus remote, we need to think of it as rigidity versus flexibility.
"The question we always need to ask about our work, and all our work processes and tasks, is, Are these things speeding things up or slowing things down? Is there a better way?"
Suki is currently tackling what Soni calls the "single biggest public health crisis in the country that very few people talk about."
According to a 2016 study in Annals of Internal Medicine, clinicians are spending about 27% of their day on direct clinical face time with patients, and 49% on EHRs (electronic health records) and desk work. For every hour spent with a patient, that's nearly two hours spent mining data, answering emails, clicking through pop-up screens, and searching for prior medical records.
"Physicians are responsible for so many items, in addition to patient care," Erin Palm, a practicing surgeon and VP of Clinical at Suki, told me. "They often feel they can never catch up."
In addition, many doctors report spending up to two hours every evening on EHR-related tasks. In the profession, the phenomenon is known, somewhat resignedly, as "pajama time."
In Soni's words, probably the most sophisticated class of professionals in the country are spending much of their workdays serving as glorified data clerks. It's little wonder that, according to the nationwide Future of Healthcare Survey, seven out of 10 doctors are unwilling to recommend their chosen profession to their children or other family members.
"You have an inefficient system that is costing a lot of money and is absolutely burning out doctors," said Soni. "The data that's created is basically garbage. And patient care is slipping through the cracks."
Two years into a pandemic — a crisis on top of a crisis — relieving the strain on doctors is more important than ever. "You, me, the entire country, the entire world, depends on doctors. And they've spent two years — in a world-changing, once-in-a-generation pandemic scenario — having to work 24 hours a day and document on top of it."
The dire situation now has a potential solution: the Suki AI Assistant, a voice-enabled digital assistant for doctors. Using machine learning and natural language processing, it helps doctors complete their documentation and other administrative tasks. According to time-motion studies conducted by the company, doctors who use Suki complete their notes an average of 76% faster.
The longer Suki works with a particular doctor, the smarter it becomes at anticipating the doctor's preferences, and the better it gets at generating accurate notes.
The hope is that, eventually, Suki will be able to pull up a patient’s chest x-ray at command, or call a patient’s emergency contact. Soon, it might create notes, or order prescriptions, just from listening to the conversation between the patient and the clinician.
The idea was never to replace doctors — Suki does not diagnose, nor does it tell doctors how to do their jobs — but to integrate seamlessly and unobtrusively with doctors’ workflow.
In other words, it will become a true clinical colleague.
"We’re hopeful that this type of product progresses to the point where it is like having a medical assistant or a nurse that has been working with you for 15 years," Steven Waldren, VP and Chief Medical Informatics Officer at the American Academy of Family Physicians, has said.
With Suki, clinicians will have more time for patient care — and for themselves.
Of course, burnout is not just a major concern among Suki's target users. It's an issue with any team — Suki included.
"It's the biggest problem, in my opinion," said Soni, "and it's worse in startups. In startups, there's no 'out.'"
The best safeguard against burnout, explains Soni, is a strong sense of community. While they try to help clinicians connect with their patients, the team at Suki is regularly encouraged to connect with each other. The whole team convenes for three "huddle" meetings a week, each lasting only a few minutes. "Fascinatingly enough, seeing each other for even five to seven minutes has a huge impact on morale. You can see you're all in it together." There are longer "TGIF" gatherings every other Friday, with an emphasis on sharing information across the team.
To facilitate one-on-one relationships, colleagues are randomly matched by a Slackbot and encouraged to, for example, grab a walking coffee, while various team leaders, including Soni, have regular "office hours," when they make themselves available to any member of the team — no agenda necessary.
There are opportunities for asynchronous connection, such as a "spotlight" program, in which a team member writes a short piece about themselves to be shared with the team — and a number of bonding rituals around the onboarding process, including games of "Two Truths and a Lie" with new hires. "It's somewhat silly, but just a way to get to know the person, and see what's going on with them. The key is to make this stuff very accessible, but not to put too much process and too much structure on it."
In-person connections are also important. In addition to its annual, company-wide, week-long offsite — "We spend a lot of time programming that," said Soni — if a team member happens to be traveling in the vicinity of another team member, they'll get pinged, a gentle encouragement to arrange an in-person meet-up.
If there's a link between what the Suki AI Assistant is meant to do for doctors and the way Suki itself operates as a company, it's a vision of work that's mindful, respectful, and human — even joyful.
"During the pandemic, we have completely blended our personal and professional lives," said Soni. "We are in each other's homes. My feeling is that, if you're in each other's homes, then you have to treat people the way you would treat them if they came to your house, or you came to theirs. It requires a lot more sensitivity and a lot more respect.\
"CEOs and leaders have to stop thinking only in terms of work-centric problem-solving. If a team member is frustrated, you shouldn't say, 'His work is impacted. How can I help his work get done?' It should be, 'How can I help him?'"
Ultimately, said Soni, a strong sense of humanity is of more fundamental importance to people's working lives than the question of remote versus on-site.
"What actually makes a satisfying, successful company? You can build a financially successful company, but if your culture is not great, it's not a successful company. True success implies a lot more than just financial success."
"It's important to our team that we create some real impact on the world," he added. "But it's equally important that the team is happy while doing it."