Nobody sets out to create a toxic company culture. Even clinic owners who prioritize the bottom line realize that success hinges on a happy workforce. Yet, a healthy working environment doesn’t just materialize out of thin air. You have to cultivate it by prioritizing company culture and listening to your employees’ interests, needs, and long-term goals. Doing so might sound like a lot of work—especially when so many clinics are struggling during the pandemic. That’s why we spoke with several clinicians and owners to find out what does (and doesn’t) make a healthy clinic culture—and you might be surprised by the simplicity of these solutions!
1. Say “good morning.”
Saying two little words sounds blindingly easy, but it makes a huge difference in morale. I once worked for a manager who rarely greeted her employees. I’d smile and say “good morning” each time I arrived, and she’d usually reply with something like, “I hope you’re ready to work.” On a good day, she’d work a “hi” or “hello” into our morning interactions. Of course, we were always ready to work, but when our supervisor set the tone by treating us like wriggling sacks of billable units, it took the wind out of our sails a bit. The thing is, she was a really kind person. She just didn’t know how to translate her kindness into creating a motivating and supportive clinical environment. Simply saying “good morning” and acknowledging something positive about your employees goes a long way. Maybe they look nice. Perhaps they did a great job with a particular patient or took the time to help a new hire learn your clinic’s software.
Pro Tip: You can even create a specific “pre-game” phrase for clinicians to say each morning. It could be something like, “Go get ‘em,” “Go empower some patients,” or even, “It’s showtime.” It doesn’t have to be overly cheesy or fancy, but it should be something that builds camaraderie among employees and makes them realize you have their backs. To this day, I still remember a principal at my high school ending announcements with, “Study hard, do what’s right, and I’m out!”
2. Establish an open-door policy.
Obviously, greeting your employees is much easier when you have a small staff who arrive at the same time. Even if you have a huge team—and it’s impossible to greet everyone personally each day—it’s vital to make them feel like they can come to you for support. After all, every manager’s goal is to remove as many roadblocks to employee success as possible. Being present can be challenging, though—especially for supervisors of large teams. Brittany Ferri, OTR/L, CPRP, is a non-clinical occupational therapist who runs Simplicity of Health. She says paying attention to your employees’ health and well-being helps stave off burnout, which makes them more productive in the long run—and shows that you see them as people, not just workers. Ferri believes focusing on staff wellness starts with creating an open-door policy so employees know they can come to you anytime. “Make sure you’re accessible to those who need you, and be sure this message extends to those who don’t often seek out your help,” she recommends.
Pro Tip: Go beyond simply having an “open door” policy. Be proactive by scheduling periodic one-on-one meetings with your staff members where they can open up and discuss whatever they want.
3. Celebrate wins.
We live in an era where unlimited CEU platforms reign supreme—and they’re a fantastic option, especially during times when attending in-person courses isn’t safe. But, when a therapist invests the time, money, and energy to attend in-person courses, it should be acknowledged—and even celebrated. You can do this without spending a dime—by announcing recent course completions, certifications, and specializations via clinic-wide email blasts, for example. Or, you can go lower-tech and post announcements on the facility walls. You can also print and hand out new name badges to reflect new certifications and specializations. By acknowledging your employees’ commitment to growth, you are showing that you see them as valued members of the team whose wins are worth celebrating.
Pro Tip: Consider adding your team members’ bios to your website, or creating a wall of fame that features clinician and office staff names and accolades. The wall can focus on your team members’ personal lives—with pictures of them traveling or eating their favorite meals—or you can stick to professional accomplishments, such as certifications, specializations, and the like.
4. Create a gratitude fund.
Celebrating wins through the aforementioned soft gestures is always helpful, but a hard token of appreciation also goes a long way. Therapists are typically good-hearted people. They work off the clock, answering emails and phone calls during their lunch breaks and personal time. They take double- and even triple-bookings in stride. And it’s not just clinicians going above and beyond; front-office staff will bend over backwards to soothe frustrated patients and ensure customer satisfaction reigns supreme, even if it means taking some verbal abuse from time to time. While a simple “thank you” is always nice in these cases, a gift of gratitude takes things a step further. A $5 Starbucks gift card and a personalized thank-you note might not seem like much, but the gesture means a lot. Sure, 5% raises across the board might not be an option, but the occasional tangible display of appreciation is surprisingly effective when it comes to making employees feel valued.
Pro Tip: Create stacks of paper with employees’ names on them, and enable coworkers, patients, and family members to grab the papers and drop them into a fish bowl whenever an employee demonstrates excellent service or care (or simply goes above and beyond in some way). Each month, draw names from the bowl and award prizes purchased from the gratitude fund.
5. Ask your employees about their goals.
Managers typically know the goals they want their staff members to achieve. They can probably recite those goals in their sleep! But employees have dreams and goals of their own, and those aspirations often change over time. Furthermore, employee goals may extend beyond the normal scope of their role in ways that perfectly align with the needs of the organization. The only way you will know about these changing priorities is by asking. As with patient care, sometimes we need to step back and remember that designing client-centric goals is the most effective strategy. Make it a point to regularly sit down with your employees and ask them about their career goals. They might surprise you. Your top pelvic health clinician might be dying to expand into pediatric care. The quiet, reliable generalist PT might be hoping to move into a clinical informatics specialist role someday. While it’s certainly appropriate to expect clinicians to advocate for their own needs, good culture starts from the head. By initiating such conversations, you can cultivate a culture of trust and support—and a feeling that you’re in it together for the long haul.
Pro Tip: Build your employees’ goals into their performance evaluations whenever possible, so all parties can see (and celebrate) progress made.
6. Allow employees to be experts.
One way to make employees feel valuable is to enable them to be experts, based upon their goals and interests, whenever possible. Liana Merkel, PT, DPT, is an outpatient ortho physical therapist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She recommends working with employees to identify their goals and strengths so they can lean in and become clinic experts accordingly. She suggests sharing that information with other staff members, so each clinician can be a “specialist” in some way or another. For example, if a therapist is interested in working with throwing athletes, then that PT could become the lead or go-to for overhead shoulder injuries. Leads then become a resource for other clinicians—and having the opportunity to share and spread their expertise can be extremely motivating. It’s also good for the clinic as a whole. “Having such experts gives the company an edge,” says Merkel. “And it helps the whole team feel successful on a daily basis.”
Pro Tip: Avoid pitting employees against each other when they have similar interests. There’s no reason to compete for a specific title. When several clinicians have aligned goals, consider creating “dream teams” that become powerhouses of combined strength! Not only does this minimize instances of employee conflict, but it also elevates the quality of care across the entire clinic.
7. Address conflict appropriately.
Speaking of conflict, it’s impossible to eliminate any sort of workplace friction altogether. Occasional personnel issues are inevitable in any workplace, and the manner in which your leaders address those challenges can mean the difference between a healthy culture and an unhealthy one. Encourage your team members to be honest with you, and don’t take sides. Even if one party is clearly in the wrong, listen patiently and allow both employees to provide honest accounts of how they feel. Avoid getting defensive or jumping to conclusions. Once both parties have aired their respective grievances, work with them together and separately to not only solve the problem at hand, but also avoid future issues of a similar nature.
Pro Tip: Encourage frustrated employees to reach out to you immediately after a conflict surfaces rather than sharing their grievances with other employees. Gossip is a powerful force that can quickly pollute an otherwise positive culture. On that note, avoid discussing any internal disputes with uninvolved parties.
8. Be transparent.
As you can tell from this article, communication lies at the heart of a positive clinic culture. After all, knowledge is power, and failing to communicate vital information across the organization can feel very disempowering and demoralizing to employees. While sharing proprietary information or detailed financials might be going too far (depending on the size of your facility and other factors), your employees deserve to understand the rationale behind major decisions. The same goes for employees; it’s vital to have open communication with your supervisor. Managers aren’t mind-readers, and they can’t fix problems they don’t know about. Monique Pineros, PT, DPT, is a staff acute care physical therapist at Southern Arizona VA Healthcare System in Tucson, AZ. She feels that having transparent two-way communication is the key to a healthy workplace culture. “Never be afraid to voice your concerns because of conflict or retribution,” she advises. She also recommends creating an environment that fosters a collaborative approach to problem-solving and prioritizes hearing more than one viewpoint. “Taking these steps has helped us maintain good dynamics on our team,” she explains.
Pro Tip: Some people are more vocal than others, so don’t assume that an employee who rarely speaks in meetings doesn’t have ideas. Consider initiatives that allow people to submit ideas in writing—perhaps even anonymously.
9. Don’t take advantage of your employees.
Physical therapists tend to be team players. Don’t exploit that by eating into their free time for the sake of your business. Merkel points out that scheduling meetings at lunchtime or team-building activities after work might seem harmless (or even fun!), but it can come off as disrespectful to employees. “You are just adding more time onto someone’s already-busy work week,” she explains. She points out that getting to know your coworkers shouldn’t feel like a chore, and if team-building is a priority, then closing the office a few hours early is the best way to plan team events. Ideally, you can still pay your employees for those hours, and it won’t send the message that camaraderie comes at the cost of their personal time. Taking this approach “means employees will come to team-building activities feeling refreshed and energetic,” says Merkel.
Pro Tip: Last-minute lunch meetings happen, so if you need to schedule them, be sure to thank your employees for their flexibility, provide lunch, and pay them accordingly for their time if they’re hourly employees. If they’re salaried, try to make it up to them by providing flex time later in the week.
10. Enable your staff to grow beyond clinical care.
More and more physical therapy professionals see themselves leaving patient care at some point (moving to a non-clinical role was the second-most considered career change among respondents in WebPT’s 2019 State of Rehab Therapy survey), but doing so doesn’t mean they have to leave your organization. Encourage your team to share their interests, and urge them to develop their non-clinical skills during slow times at work. Ferri says reimbursing non-clinical courses is one way to promote this. “Invest in your staff, so they invest in you,” she recommends. “Allow them to engage in continuing ed courses and attend conferences, and support other professional interests.” She suggests looking at this investment as a way to keep high performers around, even if they decide they’re ready to pursue non-clinical PT jobs. “This shows you’re dedicated to their success, and you want them to thrive at your facility,” she says.
Pro Tip: Make your own life easier by listing out some administrative tasks that you dread, either because they’re challenging or they bore you to tears. Identify staff members who show interest in such tasks, and empower them by allowing them to step up and thrive while simultaneously taking work off your plate.
Creating a positive work culture goes beyond pizza parties, but it’s not rocket science. By creating a culture that fosters trust, communication, and growth, you’ll have a happy team on your hands!
What types of methods have worked well—or not so well—in fostering a healthy clinic culture in your organization? Let us know in the comment section below!