Staffing During a Pandemic

We have a hygienist with small children who has decided not to come back to work. A good friend and excellent dentist had an assistant contract the virus and pass it to another assistant. I’m sure that every office has a tale or two, or knows of one, where the virus has changed the color of the practice. It’s a different world that we must navigate. Here are a few recommendations that can help, and some general rules that work with or without a pandemic.

The team members in a dental practice are often a cross section of society in general. Many are young with young families. Others may be older and fall into a higher risk category. And they are pretty darn smart. They have compassion for patients and motivation to do a good job. Taking all of that into consideration, there are things your office can do to retain happy team members through the pandemic.

  1. Make sure that the office is a poster child for following the CDC, ADA, state society and local component recommendations for keeping everyone safe. When my friend faced having two employees contract the virus, he had the health department inspect his office. They were very impressed by his patient protocols. He didn’t even need to contact patients about possible transmission. But his staff protocols needed strengthening. The team would regularly eat lunch together in the staff room without masks or social distancing and poor ventilation. The protocols need to be ironclad at every level. It’s easy to forget how easily the virus spreads when you are around people you see all the time.
  2. The remote schooling system that families with school-age children across the country are facing is causing them to make hard choices about work and school. No one wants their child to fall behind. Offices that recognize this and consider changing hours to accommodate both team members and patients, moving to afternoon and evening hours, for instance, or straight through days, or staggered schedules might keep a great team in place.
  3. The hygienist who decided to take an extended leave was replaced by another employee who was not comfortable in the other office she worked in and asked if she could pick up additional hours at our office. Things aren’t always that simple, but there is a basic tenant of team building that says, you will attract and keep the best team members if you have an office that people want to work in.

During the pandemic it’s especially important that the practice follow important guidelines that attract quality team members. It’s important all the time, but now especially. When looking to hire new team members, recognize that the best are always looking for certain things in a practice. They are more often interviewing us than we are interviewing them. Is the practice focused on patients or is it a sideline for other activities? Does the office strive to constantly improve its quality of care? Are the dentist and the other team members excited about practice? Does the practice have a leader who knows where the practice is going? And is there an opportunity to grow? Money is important, but won’t be the biggest concern if the practice’s mission is positive and inspiring.

To keep the existing team, there are also important rules. Obviously, the same things that attract the best will keep the best. But there are additional important considerations. The No. 1 benefit of working that employees (and even employers) want is to be appreciated! And yet it’s not always a priority in a dental practice. Compliments that are sincere and public can outrank money and paid time off. Tied to appreciation is ownership. Hygienists especially are often the periodontal caregivers for our patients, and should enjoy ownership over implementation of their patients’ periodontal health plans of action. With the support of the practice they should be able to introduce patients to their individualized periodontal plans, chart out the appointments necessary to bring the patient to excellent periodontal health and address the continuing care needs as they change over time. And assistants should be given ownership of the supplies and sterilization, setups and patient comfort in the operatory. The front desk should own the welcome of every patient into the practice and own the financial plans for each patient. The more team members feel ownership and appreciation for their jobs, the more likely they will stay and even attract additional quality team members.

Team members are smart and want to help, but the practice needs to open its philosophy and willingness to let loose of control to bring out the best in everyone. Good job descriptions and effective regular positive reviews will also make it easy to move team members to constantly improve and allow them to grow to their full potential.  In the meantime they will work with the office to keep everyone safe during this very difficult time.

A photograph of Dr. William van Dyk.
Dr. William van Dyk

About the author

Dr. van Dyk practices dentistry in San Pablo, California, and teaches in the department of Dental Practice at the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry at the University of the Pacific. He lectures on a variety of practice management issues. Contact him at for more information.