A laboratory with high morale is like a well-oiled machine. Here's how to get your employees fired up about their jobs--and about your laboratory.
Something's not right. Your employees have always taken initiative and exhibited a willingness to go the extra mile. But lately, their remakes are increasing, many are calling in sick and, in general, they just don't seem to be taking pride in their work. What could be the problem?
It's very likely morale and, as any business owner will tell you, it can be your laboratory's greatest strength or its most fatal flaw. When morale drops, so will your quality and productivity; when it's high, your employees are inspired to do their best and feel a sense of ownership in your laboratory.
But fostering high morale is not as simple as giving a pep talk or perk here and there when you notice a drop in productivity. Rather, you need to cultivate a positive culture in which employees feel valued--one that celebrates achievements, fosters teamwork and communication and treats each employee as an individual. "Part of our overall philosophy is creating an environment in which our employees can succeed, be recognized for their contributions, take pride in their work and truly enjoy working together," says Joannie Bretag, vice president of human resources for Ottawa Dental Laboratory, Ottawa, Illinois.
In fact, since 1998, the 101-employee laboratory has focused on enhancing communication, planning employee events and boosting benefits and educational opportunities. As a result, Ottawa's turnover rate has dropped to a record low of 6% and, each month, the laboratory continues to see some of the lowest remake percentages in its history.
Of course, in creating a positive environment, there are a few "givens"--meaning that if your relationship with your employees lacks certain elements, no morale-boosting strategy will make up for them. One is fair pay. Although studies show that money alone doesn't keep employees happy, those who feel unfairly compensated wind up feeling resentful. Keep in mind that, just like you, your employees have goals for financial security.
Another crucial ingredient is respect for your staff's abilities and efforts. Demonstrate it by sticking by them when a customer is abusive, trying to see their point of view when they feel a policy is unfair and never blaming someone for an honest mistake. "When technicians call from other laboratories looking to change jobs, a common cause is the feeling that their boss is disrespectful," says Matt Murdock, president of 200-employee Arrowhead Dental Laboratory in Sandy, Utah. "The perceived lack of respect oftentimes results from the employee feeling like there was a rush to judgment and not a fair review of the facts related to an incident in the lab."
The third element you should have to build on is good communication. One-on-one conversations, brief staff meetings, even periodic surveys can create an atmosphere in which employees can address issues without fear of reprisal. It also demonstrates that you're accessible and encourages them to take responsibility for their work and to suggest ways to improve it.
For example, Don Warden, president of Lord's Dental Studio, Green Bay, Wisconsin, keeps the lines of communication open with his 170 employees via monthly 10-minute "mobile meetings." "I pick a few current 'hot topics'--for example, our rising health insurance premiums or issues that pertained to building our new facility--and go into each department to get technicians' input," says Warden. "Our team members have said many times that they appreciate that I take the time to update them and listen to their feedback."
To earn your employees' trust, you must be prepared to take their contributions seriously and address their concerns. For example, in 1999, Ottawa Dental Laboratory invested $5,000 to have a consultant perform an extensive employee satisfaction survey. Although the results showed that employees were relatively satisified, the laboratory wanted to take the necessary steps to improve its ratings. A major undertaking was to revise its compensation system. Under the old system, technicians with the same amount of experience in different departments earned different wages. Since there was no consistent system in place, raises were often perceived to be based on favoritism.
To address the issue, the laboratory spent more than a year developing a structured wage and compensation plan in which all technicians at the same level earn the same wage, regardless of department, and there are set pre-requisites to advance to the next level. A subsequent satisfaction survey found that 85% of employees "were proud" to work at Ottawa and 95% said they "liked the work they do."
If you make it a practice to stay on top of how your employees are feeling about their jobs and your laboratory, you can also head off morale problems at the pass. For example, Arrowhead Dental Laboratory experiences the traditional surge of work in November and December, followed by the post-holiday slowdown at the end of the year. "The fluctuation in workload can cause employees to feel stressed and frustrated. Providing small morale boosters like department luncheons, birthday recognition and employee spotlights in the company newsletter help to offset the pressure little by little," says Murdock.
Perhaps the biggest contributor to employee morale is recognition for a job well done. Whether it's a simple or more elaborate reward, you should find opportunities to recognize employees' achievements and show pride in your staff. Not only does the recognition motivate people to keep up the good work, but overlooking their contributions can be discouraging and result in a "why bother" mentality.
Arrowhead Dental Laboratory makes a practice of honoring achievements both big and small. An employee committee selects an employee of the month and all employees choose an employee of the year from that group. The laboratory also honors employees at five-year intervals with a watch, ring or other gift presented at its annual party in December. "In today's work climate where changing jobs every couple of years is becoming the standard, recognizing employees who are committed to longevity is an important responsibility of the company. Over time, we too often take for granted the value of our long-term people," says Murdock.
The laboratory also tries to reward employees who go the extra mile in their daily routines. If an employee catches an error before it leaves the lab--such as a prescription that wasn't followed correctly--he or she is given a "pink slip" to drop into a jar. Every few weeks, a winner is drawn and rewarded with a gift, such as a new television. At the annual party, a winner is drawn from the year's worth of pink slips and receives the grand prize; for example, a trip for two was awarded in December.
Similarly, as part of its Employee Appreciation Program, 98-employee Town and Country Dental Studios, Freeport, New York, has a quarterly drawing to recognize good attendance. Employees with no sick days receive five chances and those with one sick day receive one chance; prizes have included camcorders, DVD players and home computer systems. The laboratory's appreciation efforts have also been rewarded: over 50% of the staff has been with the company for more than five years; 25% for more than 10 years and a dozen employees have dedicated more than 20 years of service.
The added benefit of celebrating employee accomplishments is that it encourages others in your laboratory to emulate the behavior. That was one of the objectives behind National Dentex Corp.'s CDT Day last October. "We wanted to both recognize CDTs and raise awareness about the CDT program, because we'd like to have more employees take on the goal of becoming certified," says Tina Chemini, human resources manager. National Dentex gave each of its 139 CDTs a denim shirt emblazoned with the CDT logo and encouraged its 40 lab locations to honor their CDTs with ice cream parties, lunches, framed plaques and more.
If your laboratory is large enough to have department managers, it's important to get them in the habit of demonstrating their appreciation, too. To get his managers in that frame of mind, Warden encouraged them to report back to him with three employee recognitions each week, and empowered them to give out gift certificates on the spot. "This helped it become second nature," he said. "Otherwise, it's easy to get caught up and not take the time to notice when someone is doing everything right."
Warden also makes sure that employees get feedback from another powerful source--the customer. Comment cards returned by clients are entered into a database and routed to everyone in the company, and they've proven to be a powerful motivator. "Last year, at a monthly luncheon we hold for those celebrating hiring anniversaries, I asked each team member to write down his best and worst experience since he started here," says Warden. "The 'worst' experience was often 'that a case was done poorly in the doctor's eyes' and, over and over again, the 'best' question was answered with 'positive feedback from the customer.'"
Have some fun
Encouraging your employees to have fun together and to develop relationships is an excellent way to foster mutual respect and teamwork. People who enjoy one another are usually more productive in the workplace and have a greater loyalty to each other and to the laboratory. This is something that Hal and Glenda Jones, owners of Summit Dental Lab, Waco, Texas, know well. They and their 30 employees enjoy chili cookoffs, picnics and even occasional "Play Days," during which they close the laboratory for half a day and hold a bowling or volleyball tournament or laser-tag game or even hire a recreational professional to lead the staff through team-building exercises.
"Play Days are expensive--we pay everyone's regular salary as well as the food, prizes and entertainment costs--but they are unquestionably the best bonding experiences we've had," says Glenda Jones. "Laughter is our glue! We've found that teamwork both within and between departments is strengthened through gatherings at which you never even utter the word 'crown.'"
Jones also plans less costly activities to surprise Summit employees. "There are plenty of things you can do to brighten up their weeks that don't take technicians away from the bench for very long. For example, during the summer, we had a portable snow cone stand in front of the laboratory for a cool treat during break time," she says. Jones also recommends that you take pictures of your laboratory's events and display them on a bulletin board. "All else being equal, people tend to stay where they feel part of the family."
To encourage that same family atmosphere, Ottawa Dental Laboratory holds an annual "Meet the Lab Day," welcoming employees' family and friends for refreshments, games, prizes and raffles. "It gives employees a chance to take pride in the laboratory and show off where they work," says Bretag.
Another way to effectively bring together your staff members is to get everyone to pitch in for a good cause. At Artisan Dental Laboratory in Portland, Oregon, the staff "adopted" 40 foster children during the holidays and provided them with gifts. They also regularly collect food for the Oregon Food Bank, even holding contests to see which department can contribute the most. In addition, the laboratory participates in Donated Dental Services and sponsors a golf tournament to benefit a dental student scholarship fund at Oregon Health and Science University.
"All of these things contribute to morale because they give us a common goal outside of the laboratory," says Karl Koch, chairman of the board of the 85-person lab. "It's an opportunity to work together to make a difference and I've always felt strongly that it's important for us to give back to the community in which we work."
Show you care
Demonstrating that you have genuine concern for your employees' needs also keeps them feeling good about working for your laboratory. For example, in the summer of 2003, Bob Wakitsch, co-owner of Dental Craft Corp., Ringwood, Illinois, sensed that several of his employees were burned out but, because the laboratory was under-staffed, it was impossible for them to take vacation time. "We were so busy and so short-handed to begin with that we couldn't afford to stay open while employees took time off. And, those who really needed the vacation felt guilty about taking it and adding to their co-workers' workload," says Wakitsch. To remedy the situation, Wakitsch offered to shut down the laboratory for a week so employees could take vacations; his 15 employees agreed and got to vote on which week they preferred. "Of course, it knocked off a chunk of our sales and meant we didn't meet our goals that month, but it was worth it to give our employees a chance to re-energize," he says.
Sometimes when an employee is dealing with a personal problem he needs more than a day off. Summit Dental Lab employees have a valuable resource in those situations: an Employee Assistance Program in which corporate chaplains visit the laboratory weekly--or by request--to offer confidential discussions on personal issues such as marriage, divorce, serious illness, death and grief recovery, parenting and more. In the event of a crisis, they provide 24-hour, 365 day-a-year emergency care for both employees and their immediate family members.
There are also many laboratory owners who are watching out for their employees' physical well-being. Recognizing that employees who are healthy and feel good about themselves will likely feel better about their work, these owners have implemented wellness programs of varying degrees. Lord's Dental Studio, for example, spent approximately $3,000 to buy equipment for an on-site gym and employees pay $2 every two weeks to belong. The lab also sponsors lunch-and-learns on health-related topics, a monthly on-site nurse visit and a voluntary health-risk assessment where employees can get their blood pressure and cholesterol checked.
"We've actually caught people in early stages of heart disease and helped them take care of things before they got out of control," says Warden. "From a financial standpoint, the company has a vested interest in the health of our employees, but these strategies also demonstrate to our people that we care about their well-being."