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Leading Your Team Through the COVID-19 Pandemic

July 28, 2020 • Business • Heidi Jannenga

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a fundamental shift in the healthcare paradigm. It hasn’t just rewritten the rulebook—it’s torn out the pages and thrown the binding out the window. While it’s tempting to look toward the future and simply hope that everything will eventually return to normal, that’s overly optimistic and—frankly—a little misguided. I’m not saying that all healthcare providers will be stuck in head-to-toe PPE for the rest of their careers, but I think we can expect to see some permanent changes in our industry. For instance, I believe there’s no turning back when it comes to providing telehealth, offering emotional support to your staff, or openly discussing and committing to intolerance of social inequities. The country is also entering a recession, so our business and financial choices have changed—and will continue to change—to reflect the current market.

Knowing that, we must position ourselves for a future much different from the one we might have imagined six months ago. There is no doubt that the nature of our problems has changed. Now is the time to adjust our approach to patient care, clinic management, and industry advocacy.

Prioritize communication in your clinic.

Clear and frequent communication is one of the best ways to cut through the uncertainty and unease that arise during times of crisis. During this time of information and misinformation overload, it’s a critical tool that will help you support your staff and connect with your patients and community.

Staff Support

Your team members undoubtedly have a lot on their minds. Enduring a pandemic is stressful enough; enduring a pandemic while navigating a recession and a civil rights movement is quite a lot to handle. While you can’t alleviate all of your staff’s concerns, you can at least remove some of the uncertainty they are feeling and help support them in a way that improves their work relationships and work lives.

If you haven’t already begun communicating with your staff about the state of your clinic and the industry, then now’s the time to begin. None of us know exactly where the world is heading, but you can reduce anxiety around the unknown by speaking openly and frankly with your staff about where your clinic stands in terms of furloughs, service offerings, and general business operations. You don’t have to get into the nitty-gritty financial details (nor should you), but you should plan semi-regular meetings where you can present updates on:

  • industry data,
  • your clinic’s general financial status,
  • project and/or protocol updates, and
  • team kudos.

If planned correctly, these meetings can be a great opportunity to foster stronger relationships between you and your staff. By making it a point to address their questions, you show that you care about your staff’s concerns—and that’ll go a long way toward boosting morale. Sometimes employees just want to feel heard and acknowledged. But, be careful not to act overly optimistic or make promises that you cannot keep; instead, be direct and transparent about the conclusions you can draw from the data at hand.

Creating a Supportive Environment

Communication goes both ways. While you should absolutely focus on refining your internal messaging, it’s also important to take the time to hear from your staff and know where they stand—whether that’s through one-on-one phone calls, video conferencing, or employee surveys. But ultimately, if you want your staff to feel comfortable freely and openly voicing their thoughts and opinions, you must provide an environment where they can speak their minds without retribution. Creating that space is a culture initiative—one where you ensure that respect and transparency are carved into the bedrock of your clinic’s daily operations. You must live and breathe these values—you have to walk the walk.

Brand Implications

I truly believe that your immediate reaction to a crisis will be reflected in your brand for years to come. Patients and the community will remember if you were the clinic that offered no flexibility during these trying times, or if you were the clinic that made your services more accessible than ever. Are you the clinic that asked PTs who were exposed to COVID-19 to continue working until they received their test results—or did you send those therapists home to protect your staff and patients?

Your staff and patients will remember your actions, and they’ll assign meaning to those actions if you don’t communicate why they’re happening. That’s why it’s integral that you create detailed operational plans and communicate them openly to your patients, referral sources, and the community at large. Update your website, social media profiles, and Google My Business page to talk about what your clinic is doing to help patients and keep them safe during this public health crisis.

WebPT During Crisis

The pandemic isn’t the only crisis that has occurred this year—the tragic death of George Floyd and the resulting social and civil unrest is a crisis in and of itself. Back in May, when these events began to unfold and we watched a large portion of the country unite behind the BLM movement, WebPTers and Members alike turned their eyes toward our company to watch for our response. WebPT leadership has always prioritized diversity and inclusion, but we knew we could do better and do more. But, we didn’t want to offer half-hearted support—we wanted to make meaningful and long-lasting changes in our company that would help us better support WebPTers and our entire professional network.

One of the first steps that we took to address and support diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in our company was to invite Antoine Andrews, the Chief DEI Officer with YearUp, to give a virtual talk at WebPT. Nearly 200 WebPTers (the max capacity Zoom allows) attended Antoine’s session and participated in organized peer-to-peer discussion sessions afterward. Our WebPTers were overwhelmingly invested and engaged in improving the company’s focus on DEI, and they offered a ton of feedback and ideas about how we can continue to improve our company and culture. We now have a dedicated DEI taskforce, and we have committed—as a company—to enhancing DEI as part of our culture and operations.

WebPTers and Members alike will remember this time in our company’s history. It was an important moment where we demonstrated our commitment to our core values and company culture—even though it was messy and we knew it might upset people. It was more important for us to support this modern-day civil rights movement, to support marginalized communities who can benefit from improved access to health care, and to keep WebPT accountable in the years to come. And ultimately, that choice will be reflected in our brand—both internally and externally—as we move forward.

Reimagine your clinic processes.

When you’re responding to a crisis, there’s nothing more important than meeting your patients and staff where they are. You may need to sleuth around a little bit, but ultimately, you must discover their needs and determine how you can efficiently meet them.

In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, your patients and staff need the promise of safety—or at least reassurance that safety is your top priority. That’s where reimagining your clinic processes comes into play. By offering telehealth services or mixing up your scheduling protocol, you can help patients and staff better adhere to social distancing standards, keep them safer, and allow them to feel more comfortable in your clinic. This is also the time to think innovatively about your clinic’s future, from adjusting operations to reduce physical touch and enhance cleaning protocols, to creating a scheduling framework that allows you to change staffing as patient volumes dictate.

Improved Efficiency

When reimagining your clinic processes, first consider your clinic’s financial state. Making cost-conscious choices can be difficult—especially when you’re trying to make up a significant amount of revenue. You could outsource your billing, for instance, saving you the time and effort of working out billing in-house. You could also look at your intake, collection, and scheduling operations and eliminate redundancies and high-touch processes. If you can reduce the amount of time it takes to check in a patient, for instance, you can free up your front office staff to complete other tasks.

Develop leaders inside of your practice.

You can learn a lot about the people around you by watching them during high-tension moments. I, personally, have been in awe of our WebPTers—they have risen to meet and conquer challenge after challenge with true grit and resilience. They have stepped up to the plate, and I am confident that a large number of them are capable of leading others. Now it’s up to me and the other leaders in WebPT to give them a chance to rise to their full potential.

This is something that is so critical in any organization—but especially in a PT clinic. Offering your employees a chance to learn and grow and better themselves is a win for everyone. Providing employees with professional and personal development opportunities helps keep them engaged and invested in their careers. That’s not to say that everyone in your practice is cut out for leadership, but if you don’t provide any learning opportunities to your employees, then they’ll ultimately stagnate and lose interest in their jobs. Remember, a great therapist does not automatically make a great manager—but providing leadership training or mentorship to those who are interested is crucial for employee retention. You might be surprised how many will rise to the occasion if you give them the chance to do so.

Hone your culture and your purpose.

Cultivating a strong company culture is crucial to the success of your clinic. Your culture serves as a compass, keeping you, your leaders, and your employees on course—even when the waters get choppy. COVID-19 has created a lot of uncertainty in the world, but you can be certain of any decision if it aligns with the values and ideals that form the foundation of your organization.

Core Values and Positive Company Culture

If you have heard me speak on company culture, you have probably heard me say something along the lines of, “You can’t just write out some core values and say that you have a culture.” Those core values must be integrated into every aspect of your clinic—from your hiring process to your employee reviews to your customer service approach. In-clinic leaders must buy into your core values and consistently demonstrate them during the workday.

Creating a motivating and positive culture is not an easy thing to do. Consistency is key to showcasing your culture with sincerity. It can be done by rewarding those who live and breathe your values and holding yourself accountable to your team and, ultimately, your patients.

Continue to advocate for the PT profession.

The economy and the PT industry are not where we want them to be. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, PTs were already grappling with payer reimbursement cuts—and those have not abated. Unless the federal government is planning to make a huge policy reversal in the upcoming 2021 proposed rule, PTs and OTs will face an across-the-board Medicare payment cut of up to 8% next year. Even if we weren’t facing economic stagnation, a cut of this size would be deleterious to rehab therapy clinics. In our current state, payment reductions of this magnitude could completely cripple the industry.

We must continue to advocate for the PT profession. We’ve seen some wonderful wins this year (e.g., the NCCI edit reversal and the inclusion of PTs and OTs in telehealth legislation), so we know that advocacy works. We simply must continue fighting for our fair share of Medicare payments.

The best way to safeguard your clinic’s future is to safeguard the future of the entire PT industry. If you’re an APTA member, then please, contribute to the advocacy effort here. Otherwise, you can contribute to WebPT’s advocacy effort here.

______________________

Times are tough. PTs across the nation have had to overcome countless challenges that were not only unexpected, but also plain unimaginable a few short months ago. And yet, despite this adversity, PTs have shown immense resilience and adaptability. We are in the middle of a transformative moment, and now is the time to step up as a leader in your organization and our industry so we can all position ourselves for the post-pandemic world. Are you ready to push toward a brighter future?

Heidi Jannenga

Heidi Jannenga, PT, DPT, ATC/L, is the president and co-founder of WebPT, the leading practice management solution for physical, occupational, and speech therapists. Heidi leads WebPT’s product vision, company culture, and branding efforts, while advocating for the physical therapy profession on a national scale. She co-founded WebPT after recognizing the need for a more sophisticated...

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