Make employees connect to your practice

September 15, 2008

An ophthalmic practice must create an environment in which employees are engaged with their work and are motivated to perform it well. Such an environment can be achieved by obtaining information about employee strengths, weaknesses, and goals and tying these to the practice goals.

Key Points

Seattle-Human resource professionals know that money is not the only reason-and sometimes not even the main reason-that employees decide to leave or remain at a job.

Frequently, the decision rests on "softer" issues, such as whether the employee feels valued and has a connection to the employer's mission and goals.

The challenge for ophthalmic practices, according to Russ Igoe, director of eye care services for Seattle-based Group Health, is to create an environment in which employees are engaged with their work and motivated to perform it well. Igoe quoted from the conclusions of a multi-year Gallup workplace issue survey of more than 3 million employees across a wide variety of industries: " 'The success of your organization depends quite simply on your understanding of psychology. How each employee connects with your company, or your customers.' So simply put, it isn't what we do, it's how we do," Igoe said.

"That sounds very simple, but bringing it about can be pretty difficult," he said. "Managers need to focus on the needs of employees, get to know their strengths, and care about them as human beings in order to get their best efforts."

The challenge is made greater by having to manage individuals of widely differing backgrounds and ages, from middle-aged baby boomers to Generation Y members fresh out of school. "The skills that are needed to be successful are the ability to extract, orchestrate, and utilize the human talent that you have around you," he said.

Igoe said Group Health has developed a variety of tools to implement the findings of the Gallup survey.

Job desciptions ensure that employees understand what is expected of them.

"It should be a living, working document. If you don't give it to everyone on the day they start, if you don't use it in your skills training and two or three other occasions, then it's not a living document," he cautioned.

Classifications of "good," "great," and "world-class" are included in the descriptions, with good defined as being able to do everything in the description, great defined as being able to do the tasks at production speed and without errors, and world-class being defined as doing it at production speed while teaching someone else to do it.

Mission and goals

Igoe said he thinks that meetings to discuss employee performance and expectations should take place more than once a year.

"It is more effective to sit down with people every 3 months to give them specific assessments and training goals," he said. "Ask them, 'What's your main focus going to be for the next 3 months? What are your strengths? What else do you need from me to help you out?' That gets people engaged because they know exactly what they are supposed to do and that you are going to support them."

Similarly, it's important for employees to be clear about the practice's mission and goals, Igoe said.

"It can be as simple as a set of practice goals. When your employees walk in tomorrow, do they know your goal for the year? Is it obvious that we want two more satellites and to increase our patients by 20%? If it isn't that obvious, why isn't it? It gives employees focus and tells them what their role is in achieving it."

Getting to know employees as individuals, and understanding their strengths and weaknesses, are essential for steering them into positions in which they can best employ their strengths, he said. "The least efficient thing you can do is try and make everyone the same," Igoe advised. "The most efficient is to identify the outcomes you want, then help every person find what they can do best to achieve that outcome."

He cited the case of a contact lens technician who, after being in her job for a year, revealed that she disliked the idea of touching someone's eye.

"She was a dedicated employee, very smart, and a good problem-solver, but she was in the wrong job. Now we have her in a different position, and she is a stellar employee. The key is to focus on people's strengths and manage around their weaknesses," Igoe added.

Simply talking

A crucial part of helping employees feel engaged is simply talking to them, listening to their ideas and concerns, and when appropriate, acting on them, he said.

"Lots of times we ask for suggestions and then think to ourselves the reasons why we can't take them," Igoe said. "But we forget to acknowledge that we heard and appreciate the idea. And if there is a reason why it can't be implemented, explain that. It makes a real difference to employees to know they're being listened to."

Team meetings often are a good time to get feedback and hear concerns, but Igoe cautioned that team issues should be separated from operational issues. Team meetings also can include fun and/or team-building exercises.

"That helps to get to know people as individuals and gets to the issue of someone cares about me as a person. If you encourage that, it will pay dividends in the long run," he said.

Igoe recommended surveying employees regularly as a way of ensuring that their opinions are heard. "Probably half of our employees have responded to a survey with a valuable insight or suggestion. But you have to follow up and report the results publicly. People will see that you are listening, which primes the pump for even more ideas," he said.

Employee input can be helpful especially when a practice is considering trying something new or different, he said. For example, when Group Health wanted to start an automated call system to notify patients when their glasses were ready for pick-up, employees were able to spot some potential problems that management hadn't considered.

Frequent praise helps employees enjoy their jobs and their workplace, Igoe said.

"Have you gone a week without telling someone they did a good job? If you have it's too long," he said. At the same time, it's important to know how each employee likes to receive praise. Some like to be praised publicly, Igoe said, whereas others prefer to get it in private.

Learning on the job is important to many employees and should be included as part of performance reviews, he added. "Sometimes it can be as easy as helping someone overcome a fear of talking in public by helping them lead a team meeting," Igoe said. "It doesn't have to be a big thing. But a lot of little things add up to big things and can become a big driver of engagement."