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Navigating the pandemic to support your workforce – while scaling for demand

Reflecting on a year of crisis, growth and teamwork

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By Jason Bellet, co-founder & Chief Customer Officer at Eko

In early 2020, California-based Eko, a young company that specializes in digital stethoscopes, telehealth software and AI-powered analysis, found itself in a perfect storm of unique problems. COVID-19 was well on its way toward being declared a pandemic, California’s case numbers were climbing, and all of Eko’s employees were suddenly under stay-at-home orders. At the same time, demand for Eko products was rising fast. Navigating these competing forces was a significant challenge.

While company leaders worked to cut through red tape on the shipping end, other team members scrambled to secure PPE for Bay Area warehouse workers. All non-essential employees found themselves in the steep learning curve of working from home while juggling personal lives in a state of upheaval. Eko was less than a decade old, with under 50 employees. One year later, the company doubled in size, closed a Series C funding round, and shipped tens of thousands of advanced stethoscopes to clinicians on the front lines of the fight against coronavirus.

Solutions for Pandemic-Sized Problems

One of the first crises to hit the healthcare system in 2020 as hospitals across the world prepared to deal with a flood of COVID-19 patients, was a critical shortage in PPE. Providers kept careful counts and hosted news conferences when supplies grew dangerously low. Companies and organizations started donating stockpiles. Every box of gowns, gloves, and masks counted. The anxiety among doctors and nurses to protect not only themselves, but their patients was so high they started searching for exposure solutions.

As COVID began to be recognized as a severe issue that had pulmonary implications, we immediately started to see the demand from our customer base, from health systems, and from individual clinicians to have a stethoscope that could help them examine patients better, but help keep them safe too. There was a massive explosion in interest, as demand for product started to rise in proportion with COVID cases. Skepticism and roadblocks that had been holding back telehealth for years vanished overnight. We suddenly saw in six months an acceleration of telehealth that would have taken ten years pre-COVID.

The biggest challenge became hiring. Employees were having a hard time keeping up with record demand while riding the COVID roller coaster of kids in distance learning, grocery store shelves almost bare, and disruptive changes at every turn. The one thing Eko employees weren’t dealing with was a sense of helplessness.

A Mission to Believe In

During a time of stress and uncertainty, Eko employees took heart in the fact that they were doing something meaningful: getting critical tools into the hands of front line healthcare providers. We had an extremely dedicated team that doubled down when the pandemic hit. Our warehouse team and our supply chain team is intimately aware of the impact that our products have on physicians and patients.

Eko’s Head of People & Places, Mandy Adkins, said the sense of purpose extended to everyone involved in Eko’s mission. “The way we were able to make a difference, shipping tools directly to frontline health workers has helped drive our team through all of this. We’re all living through this stressful thing, but we’re working for a company whose mission we care about so deeply,” said Adkins. Eko employees also had an incredible resource that helped ease uncertainty in the early days of COVID. Vice President of Clinical Affairs, Dr. Steve Pham, provided an update from the front lines every week. Half an hour of the company’s “all-hands call” was devoted to Dr. Pham giving his take on what was unfolding and answering questions.

This was a time when we didn’t know the mortality rate of COVID, we didn’t know how it was transmitted, and we didn’t know who it affected and who it didn’t. To have an internal medicine physician in the Eko team a text or speed dial away, answering questions was phenomenal, especially as people started to have friends and family affected.

Re-Evaluation Under Extraordinary Circumstances

California’s lockdown went into effect the same day Eko was set to open a new office space in downtown Oakland. The move was months in the making and represented a major stepping stone for the company, both in maturity and size.

“We built out the whole space with our brand. Then no one ever saw it,” Adkins said. As the months wore on, the boxes gathered dust as employees adapted to working from home. Some even moved out of state. Adkins thinks of the office now as a time capsule. While Eko plans to open the Oakland office as restrictions ease, it will look vastly different than everyone was expecting. Team members still in the Bay Area will have the choice to come in as often or as little as they like. Instead of a bustling space with every employee at a work space, the headquarters will likely be a spot for collaboration and special events.

Remote work doesn’t have the negative stigma it once did. People have proven to themselves and their team leadership that they can be just as productive at home. The coronavirus crisis has pushed leaders in a lot of industries to rethink how best to do things. The healthtech sector is just one field evolving and adapting to meet a future that looks vastly different than it did in 2019.

We’re not always going to have a pandemic to force us to pause and think big about how we could be doing things on a much different level. It’s forced many companies, including ours, to figure out what we were doing really well, and what we could optimize.

It’s one of several unexpected silver linings to 2020. And as the U.S. and the world works toward herd immunity and recovery from the crisis, it’s clear technology will continue to lead the way into the future of medical care.

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