Practice team digest

Ensuring wellbeing across the whole practice team

Moin Valli, founder and director of Valli Opticians, and Peter Telfer, co-director of Urquhart Opticians, tell OT  how they maintain staff wellbeing across their independent practices

A cartoon man is jumping for joy on a dark green background whilst carrying yellow and red shopping bags

Three days before we speak, Moin Valli hosted his company’s annual conference: a full day, where staff from Valli Opticians’ 16 practices came together for education, activities, and an evening awards ceremony.

This year the conference had a ‘royal’ theme, with everyone in fancy dress: staff arrived as kings and queens, but also as Freddie Mercury and ABBA’s dancing queens, Valli told OT.

All practices closed so that staff could gather for the Saturday conference, which Valli described as “30% educational and 70% fun.”

“We don’t want to bore them with death by PowerPoint,” Valli said. “That doesn’t work for us. So, the afternoon was the Royal Variety Performance. We put them all in teams and then gave them a brief of what they had to do: come up with a performance, a song, a poem, or act out a scene.

“We mixed the teams up, so it wasn’t per branch. And then they all had to perform on stage for about for about five minutes.

“We did Britain’s Got Talent-type judging, with cards going up. We had a tie, so the team captains then had to do a lip sync battle, to Queen's Don't stop me now.”

The day’s activities were followed by an awards ceremony (entitled the ‘Royal Honours List’) and a sit-down dinner.

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Valli Opticians staff during the independent group's annual conference

Planning the conference is a big undertaking – Valli described it as being “like planning a wedding every year” – but one that he finds invaluable for staff relationships and morale.

The day exists to “remind staff what our values are,” Valli explained: “family values, laughter in practices, and happiness in practices.”

The conference allows staff who work in different practices to interact, he continued: “It’s lovely for everyone to meet everyone.”

As an independent group with practices across Yorkshire and the Northwest, OT is interested in finding out how Valli builds team cohesion across its entire business.

It hasn’t always been plain sailing, Valli admitted.

“Our company grew from Huddersfield, then into Yorkshire, then the Northwest, and all over Manchester and Lancashire,” he said. “In the first couple of years, we found that there was a Yorkshire/Northwest divide, where each side thought the head office team thought more of one side than the other. There was no truth in it.”

Branch twinning allowed for better mixing between practice teams, Valli explained.

“A number of years ago, we twinned the branches: a Yorkshire branch with a Northwest branch, to break down the Pennine Moor barrier.”

The issue is long gone now: “They feel like they know each other really well, and there’s definitely a lot more chat going on the WhatsApp groups and between branches, which is really good to see,” he shared.

At Urquhart Opticians, a group of Hakim Group independent practices in Ayrshire, Scotland, day-to-day communication across the company’s 12 practices is kept informal via Teams: “It’s quite a light-hearted, quick and easy way to communicate, to make sure that everyone is up to speed with everything that's going on at any given time,” co-director, Peter Telfer, explained.

Inter-practice harmony

Large scale events and regular Teams catch-ups might foster improved relationships between separate practices, but what about within practices themselves – how do Valli and Telfer build team cohesion when the optometrist is likely to be in the testing room all day?

At Valli, practice managers have monthly sessions on how to build working relationships across the whole practice team.

Communication is key, Valli explained: every manager in every branch has a coffee break with each of their team members once a month, to “keep that engagement, that one-to-one connection, going.”

Regular check-ins help optometrists relate to the needs of the practice outside the testing room, he said. A morning huddle 15 minutes before clinics begin, coffee in hand, ensures that everyone knows where they need to be and what the schedule is for the day.

Urquhart Opticians also has a 15-minute huddle at 8.45am, something the Hakim Group encourages but that Telfer and his co-owner, Alistair Duff, have been doing since taking over the business in 2015.

Telfer explained the set-up: “The practice manager or the optometrist would normally lead that meeting,” he said. “We’ll go through the diary for the day: who’s in, why are they in, is there anything we need to be aware of? That can vary from if a patient has, for example, communication difficulties, right through to if a patient is coming to us for the first time because they’re new to the area.”

He added: “We go through the diary. We also work around the team: reception, dispensing opticians, and optometrists. It’s an opportunity for anyone to raise any successes, any concerns that may have happened the day before, or that might come up on that day. We will spend time chatting about the practice objectives for the day as well.”

Telfer continued: “We run some incentives as a team. That comes back to wellbeing: making sure we’re awarding success and giving recognition. Team meetings are a massive part of that cohesion.”

Valli agrees: “For us, the most important thing is team chemistry. We’re always thinking about that.”

Prioritising in-practice relationships can mean moving people around, Valli explained: “We’ve swapped staff. We might really like a person, but think they’re not the right fit in a team. So, let’s see if they’re going to be a better fit in this team, because of these personalities.”

He added: “We’ve done this over the years a few times. Once you’ve got that team, once you’ve got that chemistry, once everyone respects each other and has each other's back, they enjoy coming into work. It is having that home from home.”

A shift in staff wellbeing

Telfer identified flexible working as a key staff wellbeing policy that has emerged recently at Urquhart.

“For staff wellbeing, the key thing that really has come out of the pandemic is flexible working,” he said, admitting: “It’s not always easy as an optometry practitioner. We’re open Monday to Friday, 9am to 5.30pm. But we have worked hard to be as flexible as we can with staff.”

Telfer continued: “The key thing is around days of working. Some practices that we did open, we’re not opening currently on a Saturday. Our optometrists who used to do two Saturdays in three, we’ve now got on a Saturday on/Saturday off rota, [after] recognising that these things really are important to team members. That’s probably one of the key things that we’ve changed.”

Regular incentives are also important: “We do work really hard to recognise contribution,” Telfer said. “We have a team training session every Tuesday morning. We’ve got a wheel with lots of different incentives on it, and staff can choose to spin the wheel. On that wheel there are things like an extra day of holiday, a hamper, and a £50 voucher for a local restaurant.”

He added: “It creates really good camaraderie. These things are important: flexible working, and making sure you’ve got a means in place to recognise the contribution that team members are making.”

Valli is a stronger believer in regular incentives, too: the group has ‘free lunch Fridays,’ a staff lottery for High Street vouchers once a month, and a healthcare plan, facilitated independently of the group, that includes counselling for staff if needed.

Spending a lot of time at home during the pandemic “didn’t do people’s mental health a great deal of good,” Valli believes.

He now wants to ensure that staff members have as much support as possible.

“As responsible employers, you try to do as much as you can when you do identify people that might need that extra bit of support,” he said.

The group also offered extra financial support during COVID-19 if staff were experiencing hardship, Valli revealed.

As responsible employers, you try to do as much as you can when you do identify people that might need that extra bit of support

Moin Valli, founder and managing director of Valli Opticians

Practice team training

Valli Opticians identifies staff who might be suitable for extra training or upskilling via rolling reviews with managers, which help establish who might be suitable to take on dispensing optician or audiology courses.

Frequent check-ins with managers or with members of the head office team mean it is relatively easy to “identify people who are really keen on progressing their careers,” Valli explained.

What about those who might be suitable but lack the confidence to put themselves forward?

“All you can do is just be honest with people,” Valli believes. “If you really feel that they’re capable, that’s all you can do: tell them that they are. In the end, it has got to come from them.”

He added: “We’ve had one or two situations where people have felt a little bit like, “I’d better do it, because such and such has told me to.” That, we feel, is not the right approach either.”

Encouragement is key, however: “If it’s mentioned to them over a gradual time period, if and when they’re ready for it, they will go for it,” Valli added.

Utilising long-term staff can be helpful too: the group has optometrists who started as Saturday workers whilst still at school, and former receptionists who are now in regional senior management roles.

Urquhart has a formal process to ensure every staff member is getting to where they want to be: appraisals are conducted, with goals for what each team member wants to achieve in the next 12 months identified in advance.

These goals are then layered into individual training programmes: often level five or level seven optical care, dispensing optician courses, or independent prescriber courses.

Two or three team training days also take place every year, often centred around themes that have been identified.

On a smaller scale, Zoom meetings with staff from all 12 Urquhart practices take place every Tuesday morning before clinics start – bringing everyone together (on the day we speak, Telfer had just run a business update for all his staff).

“The key thing is open communication,” Telfer said. “Our practice managers and opticians are always feeding back to us. Our regional manager works very closely with the team. We’re always trying to identify opportunities to develop team members.”

We’re always trying to identify opportunities to develop team members

Peter Telfer, co-director of Urquhart Opticians, a Hakim Group independent practice

Telfer also noted that all Urquhart practices are relatively close together – he can drive between the two that are furthest apart in two hours, which allows him to know every team member personally.

“All the team members we’ve got, we recruited them,” he explained. “When they join the business, you get a sense of where that person is trying to go in their career. We’re really motivated to try and achieve those objectives together.”

Telfer uses the example of Urquhart’s marketing executive, who originally joined as a receptionist from a concession counter at Debenhams. New opportunities came when she asked if she could start helping with social media posts.

“I think that’s a good story, because you’ve got to stick your head above the parapet,” Telfer said. “Don't be afraid to ask. If you see something not right in the practice, something you think you can make better, speak to your colleagues: the optometrist, the owner, the practice manager. There will be very few people who say no to that. That in itself allows you to build and grow a career.”

He added: “Don’t sit back and wait for other people to develop it for you. Get stuck and make it make it happen yourself. Take advantage of any opportunities that you’re given. Having that positive, proactive, get up and go attitude, I think, is the key thing.”

Moin Valli addresses staff whilst dressed as a Pharaoh to reflect the conference's 'royal' theme

Back at Valli Optician’s annual conference, Valli explains how he interpreted the ‘royal’ theme: by dressing as a pharaoh, a title that in Egyptian means ‘great house.’

In his opening speech, Valli asked staff to identify what makes a great home. Laughter and happiness were the most common answers.

“When I go to our practices, I see these qualities everywhere. Whether it’s Yorkshire, Lancashire, or elsewhere, it’s the same qualities,” he said. “There is always laughter, not just with staff, but between staff and patients. There’s definitely a very welcoming environment; people are happy. That’s what our values are.”

He added: “We are a company that cherishes family values, and that’s what our main values are based on: looking after each other.”