How to Improve Your Practice Culture During Chaotic Times

Many practices that were busy prior to COVID-19 have seen an even greater spike in activity, due to increased demand for veterinary services. While this increase is good for business, many veterinary team members are feeling the effects on their practice culture. Busy is now a thing of the past, and many of us are living and working in the midst of chaos. For the entire veterinary team, every shift is busier than the day before, with a heavier patient load and endlessly demanding clients.

Some practice cultures are thriving: communication is at its best and the team is working together. Other practice cultures have taken a hard hit. Perhaps team members are blaming each other out of frustration, or they are struggling with feelings of burnout. So, what's the key ingredient to a recipe for a strong team culture during these chaotic times?

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Assess the Damage

Before you can do damage control, you must first assess the damage. COVID-19 has forced veterinary practices to make changes to their policies and procedures in ways you may never have imagined. Has your practice experienced any of the following?

  • Communication breakdowns: Good communication can make or break a practice. If backbiting, finger-pointing, and blame-shifting dominate the conversations among the veterinary team, something needs to be done.
  • Lack of organization: Veterinary practices that are beyond busy also tend to operate in a disorganized fashion and lack efficiency. Team members can all be working diligently, but if they are not working together as a team, they may feel more anxious or burnt out.
  • Decreased team motivation and engagement: Breakdowns in communication and disorganization, left unchecked, will eventually damage team motivation and engagement.

Don't let your veterinary team suffer from the damage caused by a festering practice culture, as this can eventually have a negative impact on your patient care and client relations.

Take Control of Communication

Most issues within a practice can be resolved by modeling, teaching, and then requiring good communication. To start, we must communicate about communication. Give clear outlines specifying what topics are and are not appropriate for team members. Define professional communication, and identify conversations that should be saved for employee's time off the clock. Consider posting an organizational chart that illustrates the chain of command for private conversations, including the right time and place for those conversations to take place. Assign buzz words that can be used as a friendly reminder for team members to change the topic or steer the conversation in another direction.

A simple question about the adorable Shih Tzu who arrived that morning, for instance, can serve as a conversational cue to redirect the discussion away from an inappropriate topic. Positive accolades can also shift conversations well; consider praising your team member for communicating effectively and keeping their cool when dealing with a difficult client. These seemingly small efforts can keep employees engaged with proper dialogue and help to build a healthy, good-for-all team attitude.

Make Appreciation Part of Your Practice Culture

Words of affirmation and genuine acts of kindness can make a lasting impact on team culture. Small gifts of appreciation, or simply quality time spent on a lunch break, can go a long way for team members who are feeling the crunch and challenge brought on by COVID-19.

A fun way to spread positivity within a practice is by encouraging the team to share "kudos" when one team member wants to acknowledge and celebrate another. Provide scratch paper so that team members can write down something positive about another team member that is work-related. Then, read these notes of appreciation at team meetings or post them on employee lockers once a month.

All the chaos of 2020 taught veterinary teams to be resilient and adaptable, but it was not without challenge and consequence. At times, the client experience is less than ideal and team member communication is not what it should be. Lessons learned through trial and error are never easy; however, those lessons were still learned.

As you move through 2021, strive to be proactive instead of reactive in order to prevent chaos from brewing in your practice. Grant your team and yourself the grace that is necessary to develop and build a healthy, professional, and positive practice culture. Make room for constructive and inspiring communication, can-do attitudes, and thoughtful appreciation — which, in turn, will help boost employee engagement and motivation.

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Andrea Crabtree

Andrea is a Southern California native. She graduated from Cal Poly Pomona with a BS in animal health science in 2004. She has received certifications as a Certified Veterinary Practice Manager (2011), Professional in Human Resources (2016), California Professional in Human Resources (2017), Senior Professional in Human Resources (2019), and Certified Compassion Fatigue Professional (2019). In January of 2016, Andrea received the Southern California VMA Paraprofessional of the Year Award. She is currently the owner of FurPaws Consulting.

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