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 By Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO, Editor October 12, 2005 - Tip #195 
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Staff Issues: Personal Conversations in the Office

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Personal conversations around the water cooler are a pleasant part of the workday for most people, even if the office doesn't actually have a water cooler. Coworkers enjoy getting to know each other on a personal level, and caring about one another as friends can make the workplace pleasant and build morale. But when does a little idle chit-chat become excessive? How do owners and managers know when enough is enough? With some thoughtful policies, day-to-day observation and good judgment, a happy medium can be found.

All work and no play

In my opinion, a certain amount of personal conversation and friendship among staff members is a good thing. A successful practice depends on employees with friendly, happy attitudes. A pleasant and supportive office environment breeds those attitudes. It's understandable for bosses who sign the paychecks to feel they are being taken advantage of when employees gather during work hours to talk about their weekend plans, but smart bosses see the big picture.

The big picture is made up of all the factors that cause people to like their jobs; also called job satisfaction. High levels of job satisfaction among employees produce good morale, friendly attitudes, high productivity, good punctuality, consistent attendance, and low turnover rates. Wages and benefits are an obvious factor in creating job satisfaction, but studies how that it's not the most important factor. There are many intangible things that make people happy when they go to work.

Too much of anything

Even though we want to foster a happy and caring workplace, employees need training on when to put a lid on the camaraderie and focus on work and professionalism. Managers must see a balance in this area and continually monitor and train staff about it. Here are a few special considerations:
  • Congregations. Imagine this scenario: A new patient to the office arrives for her appointment and approaches the front desk. Three staff members are huddled together busily chatting and laughing about something that is obviously very entertaining. As the patient nears the desk, they all stop talking and turn and look at her. Sheepishly, the patient says her name and one of the employees nods and advises her to have a seat in the waiting area. The chit-chat resumes. A congregation of staff can easily happen during a lull in the office, and it creates a very unpleasant impression. We train our staff to avoid group huddles and to be very aware of conversations in public areas. Only business office personnel should be in the business office and technicians who have nothing to do should be retreat to a designated area in the office. Although we also assign secondary duties to all employees, so they have something to do during those slow times.
  • Within earshot. I'm often amazed at the extremely personal conversations staff members have right outside an exam room door when a patient is inside! And some staffers don't even try to speak in a low voice. I've been in those exam rooms and it's pretty easy to hear others when all you're doing is sitting and waiting. The patient begins to think everyone is having a party, but no one is taking care of me! If the conversation turns to something unkind, a very negative perception is created. I routinely remind staff to be quiet and we have music playing in all rooms and hallways to disguise unwanted noise.
  • Talking about patients. The worst example of overheard chit-chat could be when the topic is about a patient. Commenting about a patient who had an unusual feature or personality is strictly off limits. If another patient overhears that, he is bound to wonder what staff will say about him. I've also had technicians try to tell me something about the patient I'm preparing to go in to see next, in an effort to be helpful, without realizing that the patient could overhear. Unless the tech is saying that you are the nicest and smartest person in the world, hearing someone talk about you is not pleasant. I lead my assistant away from the door or common wall and speak quietly.
  • Gossip. People who gossip and spread rumors about others may not mean any harm, but it can be hurtful. Gossip is generally negative and involves conversation about another person who is not present. This type of conversation is never good, but if that other person is a co-worker, a cycle of revenge and infighting can result. This is one of the most difficult areas to manage because if a boss intervenes at every minor slip of the tongue, matters can be made worse. If an employee is creating serious problems, however, it's important to have a private and frank conversation about the matter. Repeat offenders who can't stop the behavior may have to be dismissed.
  • Productivity. Businesses exist to make a profit and the most successful ones get a lot of things done in a short amount of time. Employees should generally be busy and should work hard. Most good employees like it that way because the day goes by faster and they take pride in the accomplishment. Talking on the job should never get in the way of business, but it can occur naturally at the right times and concurrently with some aspects of work.

Best wishes for continued success,

Read Past Tips Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week

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Send questions and comments to neil@gailmard.com.

Dr. Gailmard offers consulting services to eye care professionals through Prima Eye Group; information is available at www.primaeyegroup.com.

Please Note: The views expressed in Management Tip of the Week do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsor.

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