When is face-to-face communication in the workplace essential? 10 healthcare leaders weigh in

A lot of communication in the workplace is conducted electronically. However, it is essential for hospital and health system leaders to have  face-to-face conversations with employees in some situations.

Becker's Hospital Review asked healthcare leaders to share what interactions at their organization are in person. Below are their responses.

Kevin Armstrong
Chief of Staff and Executive Vice President of Mission and Values at Indiana University Health (Indianapolis)

Are the stakes high, the emotions strong, and the opinions diverse? I want to meet face to face. Same goes for hiring someone. I want time with them in the same room. When the risks are high and the issue is mission-critical, let's take 10 minutes in person rather than 30 minutes exchanging texts.

Just as I've learned not to hit 'send' when mad, I've also discovered that risks are minimized and benefits amplified when body language and other nonverbal cues are on full display in actual conversation. Proximity is always an issue among our far-flung staff, while deadlines provide a tempting excuse to resort to email. The question I end up asking is, Am I sacrificing effectiveness for efficiency?

Technology's options are abundant and attractive. Sharing facts, exchanging ideas, confirming agreements and pursuing options can happen through text, IM, video chat or email. But even video conferences limit the remarkable capacity we humans have to sense and feel and discern the other when we are fully present to each other.  

Communication technologies can save time. So can face-to-face meetings, especially when it comes to building trust and engaging mission-critical matters.

Michael Apkon, MD, PhD
President and CEO of Tufts Medical Center and Floating Hospital for Children (Boston)

Conversations where the stakes are high and trust needs to be established benefit considerably from face-face-conversations. It is difficult to communicate urgency, genuineness and a sense of being heard with digital communications, particularly those that don't occur visually and in real time. It is also difficult, if not impossible, for a leader to understand how a conversation or communication is received without being able to engage in a face-to-face conversation with employees.

Bernard Klein, MD
Chief Executive of Providence Holy Cross Medical Center (Mission Hills, Calif.)

With all the options we have to communicate — texting, emailing, instant messages and conference calls — it can be such a pleasure as well as an eye-opener to meet face to face and engage in conversation without clicking away on a keyboard.

At Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in northern Los Angeles, we have found that mass emails aren't always effective. The vast majority of employees — those involved in direct patient care — spend little time on their computers and the results are missed communications and potential disengagement.

Yet communication throughout our hospital is critical to best practices as we share news, ideas and concerns.

I have found that frequent rounding keeps me in touch with our employees, particularly those on the front lines of patient care. This keeps the leadership team apprised of developing issues, large and small, and encourages discussion and action.

Several years ago, we instituted Providence Information Exchange — PIE — rounds. I join members of my senior leadership team and we make rounds to check the pulse of our staff members. We explain any new initiatives and discuss issues important to all. Mostly we listen. Looking someone in the eye in meaningful conversation goes a long way to nurture good relationships, grow the pride in what we do and encourage a spirit of teamwork to enhance the care of our patients, their families and one another.

Finally, we conduct safety rounds. Safety information is too important to share exclusively by email. The message might not be received for hours, if not days. Meeting in person in the various workplaces provides us the opportunity to identify potential hazards and remedies and to advance safe practices. Hospital employees work hard and deserve the respect of in-person, inclusive conversation.

Lori Knowles
Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer of Memorial Hermann Health System (Houston)

Despite having a sprawling footprint with dozens of facilities spread across the fourth largest metropolitan city in the country, Memorial Hermann Health System places a tremendous value on the importance of face-to-face interactions. Our CEO and other members of the C-suite regularly take time out of their busy schedules to travel across the Greater Houston region to visit our 11 acute care campuses where they host town hall meetings with staff.

These are great opportunities for senior leadership not only to share important news and field any questions and concerns, but also to unify our workforce around a common vision and strategy and engage our employees in a meaningful way. That commitment from the very top to demonstrate a style of servant leadership has filtered down throughout the organization, establishing a culture that fosters in-person connections between leaders and their teams. On any given day, you can find campus leaders rounding in different units, dropping in on meetings with bedside staff and visiting with patients and their families.

In recent years, we launched multidisciplinary discharge rounds at all of our acute care hospitals. Team members from all disciplines — physicians, nurses, case managers, ancillary personnel and others — meet every day and have focused, structured conversations to help ensure that our patients are receiving the care they need so that they can heal and return home as quickly as possible. These meetings often include leaders as well as anyone else who may be involved in that patient's care plan, including pharmacists, therapists, chaplains, dietitians and members of the clinical documentation team, as needed. These daily huddles create a collaborative work environment that underscores our dedication to treat each other and our patients with dignity and respect while delivering compassionate care to our community.

Mary LaFrancois
Chief Human Resources Officer of Mount Carmel Health System (Columbus, Ohio)

Face-to-face interaction with our colleagues is a high priority for our organization. We have created tier accountability throughout Mount Carmel Health System. It starts with tier 1, which takes place at the department level. The daily huddle, run by the department leader, focuses on what is happening in the unit that day, confirming patients and colleagues are safe, in addition to recognition, announcements and the opportunity to answer colleague questions. The leaders then head to a tier 2 safety huddle, where they can share the information from their tier 1 huddle, ask for any help they may need, and take the opportunity to connect with hospital-wide leaders. Tier 3 gives the directors an opportunity to fix any concerns that were shared at tier 2. Finally, tier 4 includes the top leaders of the hospital coming together to follow up on all the good work that is taking place between tier 1 and 3, make decisions if any are needed, and ask any questions that come from the previous tier conversations. Throughout all tier huddles, we believe it's an opportunity for our colleagues, whether it be our leaders or their teams, to support one another.

Other face-to-face interactions that take place throughout Mount Carmel and are important to our organization include:

  • Our leader rounding gives our leadership an opportunity each day to connect with colleagues and patients. Leaders can find out the needs and concerns of our colleagues, as well as our patients, right at that moment — that way they can take care of any concerns or answer any questions a lot faster than an unread email or unheard voicemail. They can help our colleagues in the moment, which can go a long way for colleagues to feel engaged and supported.
  • Several senior leaders have monthly sessions with colleagues to hear from them. Some examples include 'Meals with Mike' (hospital president); 'Muffins with Mary' (chief human resources officer); and 'Popcorn with Paul' (CFO).

Theodore Long, MD
Vice President for Ambulatory Care at NYC Health + Hospitals (New York City)

When I joined the largest public health system in the country in January, I knew I had a lot to learn about our challenges, and I realized that our providers throughout the city were the sources of information I needed to connect with. So, over the span of 54 days, I visited more than 70 locations — every community health center, every neighborhood clinic, every school-based clinic, and every hospital-based ambulatory care center — to learn from the clinicians and staff I was committed to helping. The best way to go about change is to have everyone involved in that change with you, and I felt it important to meet our people in person and in their space — both to make a connection with them and to see their issues with my own eyes. We believe I'm the first person to visit each and every one of our locations, and I'm glad I took the time to reach out and listen and learn. Meeting our primary care teams in person really helped shape my thinking.

Dave Peterson
Senior Vice President and CIO of Erlanger Health System (Chattanooga, Tenn.)

Although technology can make interactions more convenient, I still believe that the best way to build and maintain a relationship is face to face. 

I still use face-to-face interactions to kick off projects, project updates and project closures. Also, any interactions that require extensive end user input, I still believe face to face is the best approach. In-person social interactions provide higher quality conversations with our customers.

Scott Rissmiller, MD
Deputy Chief Physician Executive at Atrium Health (Charlotte, N.C.)

With change being one of the few constants in the healthcare field, the importance of being able to look a colleague in the eye and have a conversation is more important than ever, particularly with busy practicing physicians. This challenge is increasingly complicated with physicians spread out across hundreds of locations across our region. While daily huddles are ideal to address site-specific needs, I believe there is still a need for broader, in-person meetings to address larger issues such as culture and strategy. We have a series of in-person meetings throughout the year for system and medical leaders to connect, discuss key topics and ask questions of senior leaders. We view these [as] an investment in our team and culture, as well as part of a larger plan to ensure we are communicating with our providers on a regular basis and reinforce what we are telling them through electronic communications — be that e-mail or internal social channels such as Yammer.

Lynn Skoczelas
Chief Experience Officer of Sharp HeathCare (San Diego)

At Sharp HealthCare, we strongly believe in the importance of personal relationships and connection. As an organization, we hold an annual all-staff assembly, in which we bring together all 20,000 team members to celebrate their accomplishments, educate them on the state of our organization, and inspire them to continue transforming the healthcare experience each and every day. We also create a strong connection with our leaders by hosting quarterly leadership development sessions in which we share updates about the organization, best practices, and hear from inspiring speakers. Finally, it is an expectation that all leaders regularly round on their employees and hold daily huddles, so a personal connection and face-to-face dialogue can occur, in clinical and nonclinical areas alike.

Mike Thompson
Senior Executive Officer of Integrated Health Services, Florida Hospital (Orlando)

Technology plays an important role in communications and operations, but it cannot replace the face-to-face time with our team members. That in-person time — whether it be rounding in small physician practices or hosting town halls with large groups — is invaluable.

We have a successful, multi-faceted initiative that combines both — what we call the 'Performance Platform.' During this monthly program, we film a message about an important topic (with plenty of background information and tips about how to relay the topic to frontline staff) and send it to our top leaders. From there, our workgroup leaders and designated 'coaches' have in-person meetings and cascade the information to all team members. Having this in-person component is key to helping our teams build leadership and communication skills and ensures everyone receives the same message.

Because of the size and scope of our outpatient services (we have more than 400 locations and thousands of employees), we hold town halls for team members and physicians at various locations several times a year. We hold additional town halls just for physicians. And all of our senior leaders round monthly at our outpatient offices, including myself and Florida Hospital CEO Daryl Tol.

We believe this layered approach is the best at helping us stay connected with our team members.

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