New year, new opportunity: 4 ways to improve and jumpstart your veterinary clinic culture

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veterinary staff with a happy dog in an exam roomAs a CVPM, I take great pride in the strong company culture in our veterinary clinic. My team is cheerful, hardworking, and dedicated. They know our core values by heart and embody them in every aspect of their jobs. My technicians will pick up the phone or check out a client without complaint, and my front desk staff will clean a cage or prep a fecal sample without hesitation. Every member of the staff is active and engaged, going above and beyond to care for our patients — it is not an uncommon sight in my clinic to see a technician huddled in a cage with an anxious patient, typing notes on a laptop. We have worked hard as a team to build this culture and it’s one of the things that makes our clinic special. 

But this past year has been hard on everyone and my team is no exception. By the time 2020 came to a close, they were all exhausted, stressed, and burnt out. After months on end of endlessly ringing phones, an influx of appointments that we didn’t have enough staff to handle, clients taking their frustrations out on us, and rapidly changing protocols, all on top of the anxiety that comes from living through such an unprecedented time in history, the culture in our practice was in desperate need of a reboot. 

I’m sure we’re not alone in this. Fortunately, the start of a new year is the perfect time to make your company’s workplace culture a priority. Whether you’re starting from scratch, trying to fix a broken company culture, or just looking to make a few tweaks, read on for tips on how to start your year off with a new and improved veterinary clinic culture.

1. Don’t Build on a Foundation of Quicksand

A positive practice culture is not something that is achieved and then simply exists; it must be consistently nurtured in order to thrive. It is important to step back and evaluate periodically, to assess what is working, and, perhaps more importantly, what isn’t working. What better time than the start of a new year?

I am a big believer in the power of core values. Our clinic’s core values make up the foundation of everything we do, from how we interact with each other, to how we interact with clients and patients, to how we practice medicine. They are discussed during the hiring process, onboarding process, staff meetings, and employee counseling sessions. 

If you aren’t building your culture on a solid, shared set of ideals, you might as well be building on quicksand. Click To Tweet

Any time I notice a negative shift in our culture, it is usually because we have started to drift away from one or more of our values. One of our clinic’s core values is balance; we ensure that employees get a real lunch break each day, and keeping staff late is an exception rather than a rule. We encourage everyone to take time off and nurture their lives outside of work. During the course of this past year, we had lost sight of that. Once we recognized this and corrected it by limiting the number of work-in appointments we took each day, we noticed a significant improvement in the atmosphere at the clinic. 

Use the new year as an opportunity to examine the foundation of your clinic’s culture and to fill any cracks you may find.  

2. Gratitude Matters

In the early days of the pandemic, I implemented a daily gratitude practice during our morning team meeting where each employee stated one thing they were grateful for that day. Staff quickly tired of the practice and I begrudgingly retired it (because no matter how much I loved this idea, I had to recognize it was no longer having its intended effect) but I continue to practice the following daily:

  1. Never take your staff for granted. You do not want to find out how hard they are to replace.
  2. Make sure you express your appreciation to your team. Do this genuinely and do this often.
  3. Focus on the positives whenever possible. Don’t let one mistake overshadow a whole day’s worth of good work.

It’s easy during times of stress to forget to feel and express gratitude. And while standing around in a circle hearing about how their coworker is grateful for the rainbow they saw that morning during their commute might not be for everyone, I guarantee your staff will not get tired of the three principles listed above. 

3. The Customer is Not Always Right

A frustrated man looking at his laptop with his hand over his eyesHow many times has a member of your staff been reamed out by a frustrated client who is upset about a policy? When this happens, we as leaders can either back our staff or throw them under the bus. 

In my practice, I do not override an employee who was simply enforcing a protocol I made. Would it make the client happy if I did? Most likely. Would it make my life easier in the moment? Probably. Would it demoralize my employee who just listened to a client rant about how unfair our policy is while politely holding their ground exactly as they had been instructed? Almost certainly. 

This past year has brought an unprecedented level of complaints from clients. They’re frustrated about wait times, or about curbside appointments, or about limited appointment availability. For a team that thrives on providing excellent customer service, it has been disheartening to hear from so many unhappy clients. 

Show your team support by standing behind them when they enforce your clinic’s policies. You can’t prevent clients from venting their anger at your staff, but you can make sure your team feels supported and validated. If you do decide to make an exception to a policy, consider letting the employee who handled the original complaint relay that information. This changes the narrative from being undermined to being empowered. 

4. A Fed Staff is a Happy Staff is a Productive Staff

A meme depicting managers rewarding struggling employees with a pizza party, and a high fiveI think by now we’ve all seen the meme where an out of touch manager high fives their drowning employee, exclaiming “Pizza party!” While it’s important not to substitute feeding your staff for actually improving their work environment, never underestimate the power of some good grub! 

To me, feeding people is an inherently caring gesture, and anyone who knows me knows that food is 100% my love language. The Snack Fairy pays a quarterly visit to our clinic, filling the break room with a mixture of junk food and healthy snacks. On days where the schedule looks particularly grueling or someone has called out sick, I might swing by Starbucks to pick up everyone’s favorite beverage (because let’s face it, everything is easier to handle when you’re well caffeinated!). And, yes, pizza parties are a fairly regular occurrence — they’re a cliché for a reason!

But if food isn’t your thing, then there are plenty of other ways to make your staff feel appreciated. Maybe you have an impromptu dance party during a stressful day or lead your team in a guided meditation after a tough case. Anything that says, “Sometimes we can’t help the situation we’re in, but hopefully this makes it a little more tolerable.” At the end of the day, what matters is that we’ve found a way to show our team how valued and appreciated they are and that we care about their wellbeing. 

To a Better Year Ahead

January is always a time for reflection and resolutions and that has never been more relevant than this year. Take this opportunity to reflect on your company’s culture. Examine what is working, and, more importantly, what isn’t working. Commit to making changes as needed to ensure that you go through 2021 with the strongest company culture possible.

 


 

Kristie Buys, the author
Kristie Buys, CVPM, is the hospital administrator and partial owner of Balance Veterinary Center, an integrative veterinary clinic. She has worked in the veterinary field for over 15 years and spent years working as a technician in both small animal and exotic medicine prior to moving into management. Kristie has a particular interest in practice culture and the importance of investing in human capital, holistic/integrative medicine, and the human-animal bond.