A Forum for Team Conversation — and Venting — is Vital during COVID-19

“Are you crazy?!”

That’s the reaction I might get from some leaders when insisting that staff meetings are more important now than ever. Yes, staff meetings take some thought and time to be effective. Leadership during COVID-19 is indeed challenging in many ways. But team meetings are the only place where staff have a chance to have a focused conversation with all their colleagues. That is, when we shut up and let them talk.

At no time in recent memory have the demands on leaders been more exhausting and protracted than in 2020. This blog is installment #2 in our series, Leadership in the Time of Coronavirus, which takes a fresh look at our T.E.A.M. leadership model through a COVID-19 lens.

With most meetings going virtual, today it is easier for staff to attend meetings from home, eliminating one of the biggest obstacles to attendance for a 24/7 team. This is one of the leadership lessons during COVID-19 that we hold onto. The flexibility that a virtual meeting provides for staff who work 12-hour shifts is something we should consider maintaining even after it is safe to meet in person again.

Maybe we should call them Team Forums

Meetings get a bad rap in many companies, especially health care. And sometimes, they deserve their reputation. When we haphazardly plan meetings primarily as an information dump, they can be boring and frustrating.

A great team meeting should be a forum for both receiving information and sharing ideas. During the pandemic, it should also be a forum for therapeutic venting. Listening to staff non-judgmentally is one of the best ways to reduce a root cause of burnout and encourage retention.

Especially now, staff need a place to vent

During stressful, emotionally draining times, employees need a place to safely vent. If organizations don’t provide it, the frustration often worsens and goes underground.

I still remember well one of the most painful (in the moment) but ultimately beneficial staff meetings I ever attended. At Phoenix Children’s Hospital where I was CEO at the time, our 92-bed neonatal intensive care unit was one of the most inspiring – yet stressful – patient care units I’ve ever been in. The staff was going through an especially tough time with high volume, increased acuity and open positions.

During a unit staff meeting I volunteered to attend, several nurses broke down in tears. I struggled with how to respond, not wanted to minimize their pain or overpromise with naïve, simplistic solutions.

I stayed after the meeting to debrief with NICU Director Laurie Vasquez, who was one of the best clinical leaders I’ve ever worked with. My immediate reaction was to apologize for asking to attend, fearing that my presence had worsened rather than helped the problem.

“No, I’m glad you were here,” Laurie reassured. “You listened and that’s all you could do. We’re working on these problems. Let’s give this a little time and see what happens.”

I left skeptical.

A couple of weeks later while I was rounding in the NICU, one of the nurses pulled me aside. First, she apologized for getting emotional in the meeting. (I assured her no apology was necessary). More importantly, she said the team was working on the problems I heard about in the staff meeting and that things were getting better.

Staff meetings can be turning points

In some small way, I believe that difficult NICU staff meeting was a turning point. And that’s exactly what an effective staff meeting should be.

During the stress of the pandemic, staff meetings may be uncomfortable. But because team members need to talk and to connect with one another, there has never been a time when they’ve been more important.