Sophie Aylett’s practice, Meadows Farm Vets, was the first farm animal winner of the Vet Wellbeing Award (small practice) in 2017 and is the only farm practice to hold three Practice Standards Awards at Outstanding. Sophie is an RCVS PSS assessor. At the SPVS/VMG Congress, she talked delegates through the methods her practice uses to maintain a happy, efficient team. She introduced her process of considering the four “c”s: construction, communication, conflict and catastrophes.
At the heart of Sophie’s practice is a focus on recruiting and retaining staff with the right qualities that fit the team. She emphasised the importance of personal qualities and utilising the probation period when you hire someone – if you have doubts that they will fit the team, don’t let them stay beyond probation. The temptation to accept anybody with an MRCVS, particularly in farm animal practices, is significant, but one new person can have a very negative impact on the whole team, Sophie said, stating that it is much better to “get by” with a reduced team until a good fit comes along.
The communication between vets, other practice staff and clients is very important and can be difficult to maintain – particularly in an ambulatory practice. Sophie is an advocate of utilising modern methods of communication. In particular, she encouraged the use of social media to highlight good work from team members and the use of WhatsApp groups for keeping everybody in the team up to date. She also noted that vets very rarely talk to vets from other practices and recommended joining vet groups on Facebook and speaking to VetLife if you need to discuss a problem with somebody outside the practice team.
More traditional means of communication used by the practice include making sure you say thank you (be that in person, on a Post-it note or with cake) and sharing positive feedback from clients with the whole team. Sophie also thinks it can be important for vets to work together on a farm; this is a good opportunity to share experience and for senior vets to give direction to junior vets, allowing them to develop their confidence in a safe environment.
The major lesson here, Sophie said, is that if you don’t deal with conflict at an early stage, it will escalate. Common conflicts she has experienced within her team include staff changes, people leaving, people being promoted and flexitime. Issues can also arise from poor communication and personal issues at home, as well as more common factors such as tiredness, stress and hunger.
One method Sophie uses at Meadows Farm Vets is to allow people the chance to write a letter, sleep on it and hand it to Sophie the next day. In the letter they can express themselves freely and this can prevent a discussion becoming aggressive.
There are also lots of tools that can be used to tackle the blame culture, she said. The one they have chosen to adopt is the fishbone diagrams provided by VDS, which allow the whole team to work through an issue together and learn from the experience.
Make sure you conduct exit interviews, Sophie urged. Though they can be very uncomfortable, they are important and can highlight key areas for improvement that you may otherwise have never known were an issue.
Catastrophes on-farm are not uncommon for the ambulatory practice; Sophie’s advice for these was to keep things simple, make sure junior vets are prepared to deal with catastrophes and always say thank you once you have made it through a difficult situation.
Managing a farm animal practice team can be challenging; with most of the team on farm visits most of the time, it is rare to have everybody in the office at once. This makes it hard to maintain relationships and provides the perfect environment for miscommunication. It is extremely important in these practices to ensure you hire people that are the right “fit” for the team, encourage communication through less traditional means, provide the time for team members to work together, tackle conflict at the earliest stage possible and ensure all members of the team are prepared to deal with catastrophes.