Communication Conundrums: Instructor Issues

by Shannon Fable on Jan 31, 2011

Communication

Streamline staff correspondence and watch employee satisfaction improve.

As we discovered in the previous installment of this column, group fitness managers (GFMs) are the communication hub connecting instructors, upper management, owners, members and others. This can leave you, as a GFM, overworked and misunderstood. It can also lead to major issues with instructors—issues that, if not addressed, can have a significant, negative effect on your program.

The GFM’s position is unique from facility to facility (pay, hours, authority and job description). The instructor’s job is equally varied. At one club, an instructor may be paid well and have little accountability. At another club, the pay may be low but the perks outstanding. One aspect of the job, however, is universal: expectations about communication. Instructors are expected to know what’s going on in the facility, and they're expected to disseminate that information to every member they touch. Instructors are your number-one “billboard.” Besides the front-desk employees, they touch more people in a day than any other staff member. How well they communicate messages is of utmost importance to the success of your club. How do you, the GFM, help or hurt this process? Following are obstacles that stand between your messages and your instructors, along with tips on how to clear those hurdles.

The Contact List

When it comes to communication, the contact list is like a holy grail. This list helps instructors (and you) keep track of the current roster. Of course, if your team changes as often as it does at most clubs—with instructors coming, going, adding formats, deleting formats, changing Internet providers, changing cell phone service, moving and more—the chances that the contact list is up-to-date are slim. Your list may be up-to-date, but the contact list your instructors reference may not be the same as yours.

Think back to when you were an instructor and you needed a substitute. How frustrating it was to send e-mail messages to folks you thought taught your format, only to have half of those e-mails come back to you as “undeliverable” or with the surly request to “Please remove me from your list. I no longer teach there.” If this scenario plays out among your staff, the sub pool is dramatically narrowed solely because of an outdated contact list. The result: desperate instructors reach out to the people who have always helped them in the past or the people who are desperate to teach. Neither of these options may be the best fit, but the path of least resistance is easiest when you’re frustrated. Unfortunately, the program is weakened because there aren’t as many options for backup. Many times, you are left to find subs for your instructors.

To compound the contact list challenge, most people have multiple phone numbers and e-mail addresses. How do instructors know which number to call first, especially in an emergency? Or do they end up calling all of the numbers and leaving multiple messages that seldom get returned? It’s no wonder instructors get frustrated and give up on communicating. When communication is overly complicated (wrong numbers, wrong people, wrong e-mail addresses), community is hard to foster and teamwork is nearly impossible.

Solution: Set your expectations early. During orientation, detail your contact list protocol in writing. Ask new hires to fill out a short form on which they provide all the necessary contact information (preferred phone number, e-mail address, etc.). Schedule a date for updating the list, and put this date on your calendar so you don’t forget!

Too Many Streams

When they're not sure how to get a message across, some GFMs resort to the “more is better” technique, communicating via e-mail, over the phone, in person, in the sign-in book, through notes in mailboxes or file folders and signs. We all know how this works in our personal lives with snail mail, e-mail, cell phone, home phone, texting, social media sites and so on. Communication is overwhelming. You either let people know your preferred method and hope they pay attention, or you spend hours checking all sources for messages and trying to prioritize whom to get back to when.

Put yourself in the shoes of part-time instructors (or full-time instructors who teach at multiple locations or who have different roles within your facility). Is it possible for them to give each communication method equal attention? Probably not! So they choose the one that meets their communication style best, and you hope that something will “stick.” When there are multiple communication sources that are not in the instructors’ hands (sticky notes on the stereo, scribbles in the sign-in book, etc.), retaining the information is complicated further. How can instructors remember the information, store it or pull it out for later use? Do you trust them to make notes in their diaries, on their to-do lists or on their calendars? Instructors may miss the information, misinterpret it or (even worse) disregard it completely.

Solution: Figure out the method for communicating that best fits instructors’ needs and yours, without exception. Instructors need a communication method that clears up potential problems while simultaneously being easy to store and retrieve when necessary. Electronic communication is best, as it allows you to store, resend and review information as needed. Ensure that you have the best e-mail address for each employee, and set expectations at the beginning of employment: how often you will e-mail, under what circumstances and what you consider an appropriate turnaround time for a reply.

Subbing Protocols

Securing and finalizing subs can be an arduous process for everyone involved. Here’s how finding a sub happens in many facilities: The instructor secures a sub and copies you on the e-mail. Once the substitution is finalized, everyone receives e-mails again. You put it on the calendar and you hope the person subbing puts it on the calendar too. You then trust that as the class time draws closer, the original instructor and the sub will double-confirm. What a nightmare! If these steps are taken, the number of e-mails or phone calls is mind-numbing. It’s amazing that instructors have time to find subs at all or that GFMs have time to do anything else. Many times, instructors just give up and skip the steps altogether, which leads to missed classes, double-covered classes and headaches for everyone involved.

Solution: To ward off potential issues, simplify the communication involved in the subbing process. Continue to use e-mail or work with a paper system at the club. Either way, lay out the system in detail from the moment someone is hired. Remove yourself from the “back and forth” while someone is trying to secure a sub. Instead, give approval to the original instructor and then confirm directly with the selected sub. For example, if Kelly needs a sub for Monday, she starts the process by e-mailing and calling to find a suitable sub. Once she thinks she has someone (or she has multiple people lined up), she e-mails you for final approval. You choose the best fit, then reach out to the selected sub and double-confirm. It’s also a great idea to copy the sub when sending the the final confirmation to the original instructor. Keep a master calendar for all subbed classes.

Information Overload

As a GFM, you probably never lack information to share with staff—something is always going on. Many managers prefer to collect information and deliver it via a Monday morning staff e-mail. The thinking behind this is that the one e-mail is less overwhelming than multiple e-mails throughout the week. However, Monday is the busiest day of the week for most people, who start the week with a very full inbox. The e-mail you slave over, which is full of brilliant nuggets, gets pushed further down, and when it's finally read it’s probably just skimmed. Instructors look for the highlights and for information pertaining to them, and consequently they miss crucial facts.

Solution: When you have to communicate with so many people, it’s tough to specify content for different sub-groups all in one e-mail. Find a way to break out communication to specific groups. For example, the cycling instructors probably don’t need to know that the microphone is broken in the dance studio. Likewise, the group exercise team doesn’t need to know about the bike maintenance log. Develop quick reference e-mail lists to send separate messages to only the affected parties.

Managing Multiple Roles

Instructors play several roles in life. Perhaps they instruct at multiple facilities. Or, within your facility they train, work the front desk and teach. More often, they are full-time employees at another company or full-time mothers running a household. You are competing for airtime. Very rarely will you manage instructors who work for you the same number of hours they work for someone else. While the information you have is of utmost importance, it may not carry the same weight as other pressing deadlines.

Solution: Respect the roles each instructor plays inside and outside the facility. Find ways to meet them where they are, not where you wish they were.

Now that you have a better idea of how complicated communication is for instructors, in the next article in this series we’ll look at manager meltdowns. In the meantime, be empathetic with instructors’ communication needs.

IDEA Fitness Manager, Volume 23, Issue 2

© 2011 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Shannon Fable

Shannon Fable IDEA Author/Presenter

Shannon Fable, Top 3 Finalist for 2009 IDEA Instructor of the Year and 2006 ACE Group Fitness Instructor of the Year, is the founder and CEO of Sunshine Fitness Resources, a fitness consulting firm ex...

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