Employees who are not always busy working are frequently a source of consternation to physicians. Sometimes, practices attempt to remedy the situation by restructuring staff jobs — not always with good results.

Consider the front desk, for example. In almost any practice, front desk workload will ebb and flow.  Depending on variables like patient punctuality, the mix of appointment types, and the number of new patients, the front desk might be swamped or slow on any given day or during any clinic session.  Sometimes, front desk receptionists may have no one needing their help or attention at all.  Physicians and managers may be tempted to rectify the situation by, say, having the phones ring first at the front desk.

For a typical, busy practice, that’s a foolproof way to increase staff busyness! But does it improve productivity? In my view, usually not.

One reason people appear busier when you ask them to switch back and forth between tasks — or do multiple jobs at once — is that it’s harder to do any of them properly. They’re more active, but not necessarily more productive. This makes intuitive sense, no?  But we don’t need to rely on intuition, thankfully.  With multitasking so prevalent in modern offices, researchers have good reason to study it — and the results suggest that multitasking is even more of a productivity drain than your gut would tell you. One study found that people lose as much as 40% of their productive capacity when trying to constantly do multiple tasks at once.

When front desk staff are required to answer phones while also helping the patients that are standing in front of them, service suffers. Either the patient on the phone or the patient at the desk feels like they’re in second place. And switching back and forth means the employee has to mentally regroup — adding to the length of time it takes to complete each task. More effort is required to do the same tasks — yet the patients staff deal with will perceive less effort made on their behalf. Lose-lose for both of the two patients being juggled.

Actually, make that lose-lose-lose for the patients and the employee. Because trying to do two tasks at the same time, and knowing you’re not doing them as well as you could (and should), is stressful. When a rush of phone calls or patients at the front desk occurs, it will be hard for staff to decide (on the fly) how to prioritize. And facing frustrated patients while feeling unsure that you’re doing a good job is a surefire morale drain.

Changing up job descriptions so that everyone is always busy has another cost: capacity.

The same bit of slack that can be annoying to observe also allows you to handle sudden changes to your normal volume. That way, when, say, a particularly tough flu season hits, or a popular drug is recalled, your team can weather the unexpected upsurge in phone volume without significantly compromising service. (And if you want to get ahead of the crisis by reaching out to patients by mail or phone instead, you’ll have capacity to do it.)

Restructuring your jobs to keep everyone occupied is usually a permanent solution to temporary situation. Unless you’re truly over-staffed, most slack times are short and quick to pass. And tolerating that little bit of slack in the system not only ensures your employees are able to do their jobs well, it also ensures you’ll have capacity to cope with other types of temporary situations that can lead to more for everyone: someone out sick, an employee leaving the practice, or something external to the practice that can lead to a sudden burst of unexpected extra demand.

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