How Vance Thompson Vision Cultivates Culture

Written by: Nolan Schmidt

By Nolan Schmidt \ Photos by Hillary Ehlen

Vance Thompson Vision has blossomed from a Sioux Falls-based medical office to regional business. With offices sprouting up across the Midwest, the growth of the business has no doubt had its challenges for founder Vance Thompson. However, with the idea of a “work family” in place across the entire company, the various offices are tied together. 

The Fargo office just opened a brand new space, one that was a full team effort. Dr. Michael Greenwood and Clinic Director Amy Joy, who head up the Fargo office, have their team in mind every step of the way. With an already well-established workplace culture, the Fargo branch of Vance Thompson Vision has only seen workplace happiness grow in their new office. 

1. Collaborate with your employees on a potential new space. 

A new space is key in workplace happiness and productivity. When Vance Thompson Vision was looking to move their Fargo office, they wanted one that would continue to uphold their culture and cater to their patients. However, goal number one was creating a space that employees wanted to come to five days a week. 

“If you are at a place that you don’t want to come to, then you’re not going to be thrilled to be there and then you’re not going to do a very good job. Then the people who are down the line, in our case patients, aren’t going to have a good experience and then they’re going to leave and then that’s going to trickle down to the people that they run into,” said Dr. Greenwood. “On the flip side, if you’ve got a place that’s warm, welcoming and fun to go to, you look forward to it. I love this new space because the staff just has everything that they want. And you can see it on their faces, they have a bounce in their step and they can actually take steps now where before they couldn’t do that. Now that they feel great, then they can trickle that down to taking great care of patients and having a good experience.”

Founder Vance Thompson is based out of Sioux Falls but has played an integral role in selecting the new space. A workplace culture guru, Thompson knows just how impactful the people in a workplace can be. 

“It’s really all about people and that, on a great team, the sum is greater than the parts. So when you create a great culture, the power of people really starts to show through. And I think that great businesses realize that it takes a great team experience to create a great customer or patient experience. I always knew that the people part was really important. So we’ve always worked really hard on loving our team. We love the phrase ‘work-family,’ work brothers, work sisters. So this idea of a culture of caring for each is one of our guiding principles,” said Dr. Thompson. While he has always focused on people, he underestimated the impact a building has on people. 

“I was never fascinated with buildings. I was more fascinated with the people and technology end of it. I underestimated the power of the building, workspace or the physical environment. When you combine those things, a great culture with advanced technology with a wonderful space, workplace joy and satisfaction is very high. When the patients come, they can tell how these people seem happy and they treat each other really well. I trust them to do my surgery because people want to know how much you care before how much you know.”

With that “people first” mentality in mind, the team at Vance Thompson Vision wanted to fully collaborate with their entire office in picking and designing the new space. Dr. Greenwood admits it was extremely important to include employees on that discussion.

“When we built the one here, we said, ‘Hey team, here’s what we’re thinking. What are your thoughts on it?’ Because it’s going to affect them the most. So they had great input on every little detail of everything we did,” he said. “Every time we had a new sample or something, we’d lay it down on the floor and say, ‘What do you guys think of this?’ or, ‘Do you like this better?’ So the team had a huge input on this space. Deciding what’s going to work best for them, not only from a workflow standpoint but how it makes them feel.”

Clinic Director Amy Joy adds to that, stating that employees had a hand in every single detail inside the building, from light fixtures to ceiling tiles. “We did that with every design in this new space and every little light fixture. We just had them come in and mark what their favorite one was,” Joy said. “Whether we went with their decision or not or their first pick or not, they felt like the space was something that they had a part of. There’s a ton of ownership that comes with that joy that they have every day coming into work because they feel like they had a say in this space.”

Business Check:
If you’re planning a new office space, do your employees have a say? Are you having those discussions with them?

2. Caring for your team trickles down into daily business.

The medical field is often seen as its own subdivision. However, there is a business side to medicine and many medical offices are ran like businesses. While the problems Vance Thompson Vision faces on a day to day basis are different from your traditional business, they are not wholly unique. They still wrestle with company culture and client (patient) satisfaction. 

The Fargo office is able to provide that satisfaction because they first focus on making sure their team is satisfied. 

“In the medical field, we’re dealing with real problems that affect people’s lives every second of the day, especially when you’re talking about their eyes. From the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed, that’s something that they’re focused on. And if it’s not right, then it’s a crisis, and we feel that way too. So we’re dealing with really serious problems. When we’re trying to get to that point, we want the patient to feel comfortable and know that they’re taken care of,” said Dr. Greenwood. “By taking care of the team first and putting the trust in them and giving them the skills that they need to be successful and investing so much of our time and energy and teaching the team, they feel comfortable and confident that they can help take care of these patients. So when the patients are in their moment of need, they can feel comfortable knowing that these guys know what they’re doing. When the team feels taken care of and the patients feel taken care of, they feel safe.”

For Dr. Thompson, he notes that doctors are not usually taught the ins and outs of the business side of medicine or at least it isn’t a focus. Hence, when doctors begin practice, there is a steep learning curve on the business side of things. 

“We’re taught medicine and we’re taught surgery. Then you get out into practice and you now have the business side of medicine and traditions of generations in medicine have led to some of the not greatest habits in my opinion,” he said. “Big hospitals and clinics that have generations of tradition don’t always have doctors treating staff as nice as they could be treated, not treating each other as nice as they could be treated and sometimes not having the bedside manner a patient deserves. If your team cares for each other, the patients are going to feel cared for.”

Thompson also notes that caring for employees has a lot to do with belief and allowing them to be themselves in the workplace. In a business culture where many office environments are mundane and monotonous, Vance Thompson Vision sees the importance in workplace individuality. 

“I really believe there’s greatness in everybody. If you create an environment where they feel this culture of safety to allow their opinions to come out and allow their inner greatness to show that sometimes they didn’t even realize that they had. Can you imagine how purposeful that makes them feel about their work journey and the atmosphere that it creates?” Dr. Thompson said. “This power of people is what I would suggest, whether it’s a small business or a big business in this digital age where there’s so much commerce that happens without personal interaction. If you can get your team to spend time together, develop a relationship and have it not be just about work, it is okay to be friends at work, to actually promote it.”

Business Check: Are you cultivating a “culture of safety” or do you feel your office has been suppressed in some ways?

(Left to right) Fargo Clinic Director Amy Joy, Dr. Michael Greenwood and 
Dr. Vance Thompson

3. Take extra steps to ensure you’re communicating properly.

With several different offices in different states, Vance Thompson Vision goes the extra mile in ensuring everyone is on the same page throughout the company. In each of their offices, there are video cameras in every one of their partners’ offices so they can communicate freely at any point during the day. They also have daily team huddle meetings where the entire company gets together via video chat. 

“It starts at the top and trickles its way home, so making sure that Vance and I are on the same page, or Matt Jensen, our CEO or any of our other partners. As long as we’re in communication and on the same page and can communicate that clearly down to our teams, then I think it works well,” Dr. Greenwood said. “Vance and John [Berdahl] share an office together. They can ping pong ideas off each other nonstop. That was the one thing that I was worried about missing when I came up here. What we did is we got a video in every room and we got good speakers and we weren’t cheap about it. We did everything we could to make it feel like we’re in the room.”

The structure is a key piece to proper communication according to Dr. Thompson. When you have a proper communication structure, it solidifies a company and office. 

“To me, it’s about communication and structure. When your family’s having a get-together, you prepare and you think about the food and you think about what you’re going to set on the table and what you’re going to do and you’re excited. If you have this work-family feeling and you truly do care, and that word ‘care’ shows more in actions than words, you will prepare in the same way for your teammates,” he said. “By doing a daily huddle, that takes work for our leaders and getting together and socializing with our team and their loved ones. We want to know whom they love or when a team member does get married or when someone passes away in their family that we either show up like family shows up or we will have a very good reason why we didn’t, cause that’s the way family is.”

Business Check: What is your communication structure? If you do not have one, ponder some steps you can take to get one in place.

4. Create a “work family”

This idea of a “work family” is something Vance Thompson Vision pins their entire business upon. However, how do you do it? One part is communication and another is going out of your way for employees. 

“Every Christmas, we get all the centers together. We communicate more than we do with our own siblings. We’re very connected that way and we show up in person for the things that really matter,” said Dr. Thompson. “That’s how you can have a great culture, by truly caring and creating a structure of time for breaking bread and spending time together and communicating very well.”

One of those team-building events is something Vance Thompson Vision calls the “12 Months of Christmas.” Each month, there is an event for employees and their families to attend. It could be building a house for Habitat for Humanity, an Easter egg hunt in April or a Halloween dress-up contest in October. Regardless of the month, there are events like this over the course of the entire year. That gives the Vance Thompson Vision team a chance to connect and grow with one another. 

“It’s all these things that you love doing with the family that you love doing with work family. When I hear someone say they want to develop a great culture in their business, I say get prepared to do a lot of work and never have it perfect and have it become a part of your daily journey because it’s extra work,” said Dr. Thompson. “Boy does it bring so much joy. The employee satisfaction, the customer satisfaction to shareholder satisfaction, it helps reduce early burnout and creates business leaders.”

Business Check: Would you describe your workplace as a “work family?” Why or why not?

5. Educate your employees.

One of the keys in Vance Thompson Vision’s success is that employees and employers are all on the same page. When someone is first hired, they are required to read books and other materials to catch them up to speed. Much of these materials have to do with leadership and learning how to treat people. For Dr. Thompson, it was a lesson he learned the hard way. Thompson learned the value of education when he was struggling to become a great leader of his team early in his practice. 

“There is this whole world of courses and books on how to treat people. I learned it the hard way by just being frustrated that I could be a better leader for my team and have patient wait times be less and have patient satisfaction be even higher and finish the day feeling more fulfilled because I did a better job setting up systems with the team because you can have a group of nice people,” he said. “If a patient or customer comes through a business that doesn’t have good processes in place, that respects their flow at every touch point or that group of nice people, they may leave feeling like they weren’t treated nice.”

But why must all the employees receive this education? The doctors are usually the ones leading teams at Vance Thompson Vision. However, as Dr. Greenwood points out, the doctor is not the only person the patient sees. 

“It’s important for everybody to have [training] because, in our business, the patient doesn’t go see the doctor. They talked to somebody on the phone when they got scheduled and when they walk in the front door, they get greeted by somebody. Then the technician takes them back and then they might see another technician and then they see the doctor and then they see the surgery scheduler, and then they talk to somebody later if they have different questions,” Greenwood said.

“So you don’t just have the leaders that need to know how to take good care of people. You’ve got your whole organization. That’s all these touch points throughout the whole experience cycle for these patients. That’s why it’s important for every single person in our organization to have that education, not only on the medical side but on the experience side and the service side. One of the biggest reasons why we do it is because they spend a little bit of their time with us, but their whole time with a lot more people than just us.”

Business Check: How are you educating your employees to be better leaders around the workplace?

6. Run through walls for your employees.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Vance Thompson Vision is their lack of a true hierarchy. Yes, there are titles, but everyone in the company views Vance Thompson Vision as a level playing field in that respect. This happens because anyone from doctors to office assistants would drop everything for a fellow employee. Dr. Greenwood often refers to it as “running through a wall for someone else.”

“I know that Vance will run through a wall for me and knows that, I’m going to run through a wall for him. I would do anything to help them out, whatever phase of their life it is, whether it’s personal or professional and I know that they would do the same for me at any moment in time,” Greenwood said. “So then when a patient or one of our staff is having a tough time, another one of our staff will jump in and help them out because they’ve got each other’s backs and they know that they’ll run through walls for each other.”

Business Check: Can you say that you’d run through a wall for your employees? Or would your employees run through a wall for you?

7. Free your employees.

Working with patients on a daily basis, everyone at Vance Thompson Vision develops relationships with those patients. One thing employees are able to do for patients is to buy gifts for them. The company has a patient gift budget. That way, if a patient is celebrating a birthday, an employee can buy them lunch or any number of birthday gifts.  

“The team has the ability to spend money on a bouquet of flowers and so when someone shows up and you can tell they’re down and you’re the technician taking care of them and you call the flower shop and you get the nice note and it shows up in their office and then that person emails the office saying they’ve never been so moved by an experience,” Dr. Thompson said. 

That sort of trust is incredibly rare in any business. However, Vance Thompson Vision puts so much faith in their employees, that they are able to freely spend the company’s money on their patients. 

“It makes it such a wonderful place to work and they’re trusted to actually spend, based on their own discretion. They don’t have to ask anybody. They can use the company credit card and, usually, we find out after they’ve already done it,” Thompson said. “I was doing surgery on someone once and they said they loved Gino’s Pizza from Chicago and one of our teammates ordered it and it showed up at their home the next day.”

Dr. Greenwood says that patients give hints as to what they enjoy and the doctors and technicians are always taking notes. It goes so far as to playing a patient’s favorite kind of music in a certain room. 

“There was a patient that was convinced that we had Frank Sinatra playing in every single room all the time. That’s what he wanted to listen to. Every time he was in the new room, Frank Sinatra was playing in it,” Greenwood said. “It’s a fun little game, almost a competition that the staff has with themselves of trying to surprise and delight as much as they can.”

It all stems from employee trust and satisfaction. You can say all you want about culture, but it is directly correlated to employee happiness. Vance Thompson Vision has happy employees, happy employers and an environment of giving and care. All of that trickles down to their patients, who will remain happy for years to come. 

Business Check: How much freedom do you give your employees on a daily basis? How much trust do you have in them?

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