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When Silence Isn't Golden: How To Balance Conversation and Productivity in Your CS/SPD Department

A few months ago I saw a post floating around Sterile Processing circles asking whether or not technicians should be allowed to talk while on the processing floor. There were a number of comments from CS leaders and technicians on both sides of the debate, and I'm sure a couple of ruffled feathers along the way. After all, the work that's happening in the Prep/Pack area of your CS department is some of the most critical and intricate inspection and testing done during the entire workflow. I mean, we're not hanging out in our backyard shooting the breeze with our best buds. But neither are we pre-programmed automatons, without any need for human interaction and professional relationships.

So what is the answer? How then shall we talk?

Let's briefly discuss the two extremes that commonly show up in CS departments, and then zero in on how we can keep this conversational car on the road to success --between the guardrails of CS professionalism and the reality of relationships.

1) The Clubhouse

This example almost needs no explaining. We've all seen it. Second shift clocks in, gets the shift report, then 30 minutes later they finally begin making their way to their assigned stations, after having caught up on the twenty-four hours of gossip they missed since yesterday. Once logged in and at their Prep/Pack table, they settle in for the remaining seven and a half hours of "Did you see that game last night?" and "I can't believe Johnny hasn't asked Suzy out yet." Instruments? Yeah, I mean their hands are technically moving, but not nearly as fast as their mouths. Depending on how loose the department policies are on personal cell phones, there may be huddles around someone's "cutest grandson ever" video or so-and-so's graduation pictures. Yes, there are sounds of humming sterilizers and clanking stainless steel on nearby tables, but it's the chorus of conversation that pervades the SPD clubhouse in this scenario.

Upside to the SPD Clubhouse: Man, this team gets along GREAT! They love coming into work. Who wouldn't love 8 hours a day of friendship, fun, and a paycheck at the end? The technicians tend to "have each other's back" when work gets out of hand, and there's not a lot of needless turnover of staffing. People like it here. It's kind of like home.

Downside to the SPD Clubhouse: Well, for starters, this clubhouse culture is only sustainable for certain types of personalities. Those who have a strong, inner-drive to produce no matter what the incentives can typically float through these conversations without a big hit to their processing numbers. However, for those folks who value relationship more than self-motivation, constant conversation becomes an overwhelming temptation to stop moving their hands and start moving their mouths. On a similar note, even those with personalities who are driven enough, must also have the ingrained knowledge and muscle memory necessary to carry on in-depth conversations without making a processing error. This means clubhouse cultures are especially dangerous to new employees who lack both the knowledge and the habits to keep them from making needless mistakes. Oh, and did I mention that all this means work takes longer to get done and get done right?

2) The Courtroom

On the flipside, there are some CS departments that eschew the clubhouse culture, and instead, have all the solemnity of a courtroom, with just as much joy. These ships are typically run much tighter than our first example. Folks arrive on time, get their assignments, and then get to work. The clatter of pans and familiar beeps and whistles of machinery fill the air, but very little conversation is heard. Folks take their jobs seriously, give their trays their full attention, and save the chatter for the breakroom. Depending on the context, there may be a department radio controlled by management or by Ms. Margaret, whomever has more seniority. Communication is constrained to the bare essentials - What's the priority for tonight? Which case cart is the Mida