Psychological safety is one of the hottest buzzwords in HR. The concept is not new, but the seismic shift in how and where employees work has challenged organizations to be agile and establish virtual, psychologically safe work environments. The intentions behind an employer’s approach are crucial. Poor execution can damage the organizational culture and employee trust and devalue the employer brand.
So, how can companies and HR create psychologically safe virtual work environments? Valuable lessons can be learned from earlier pioneers of “remote-first” working cultures that blazed the trail to achieving happy employees and thriving businesses.
Understanding the Issue
Psychological safety is “a shared belief that a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” In other words, employees feel confident and secure in their workplace, knowing they will not be punished, embarrassed or rejected for speaking up, sharing ideas or making mistakes.
Harvard professor Amy Edmonson pioneered the concept of psychological safety in 1999. She found that it is a critical factor in team learning and innovation. Since then, research on this crucial area of organizational theory has exploded and been embraced by such forward-thinking organizations as Google, Gartner and Microsoft. Norges Bank recently announced joint research with the Stockholm School of Economics to evaluate the importance of psychological safety among its investment employees.
The benefits of creating a psychologically safe workspace are significant and essential for organizations that want to maintain a competitive advantage. Employees who feel psychologically safe are more likely to:
- Speak up and share ideas.
- Take risks and try new things.
- Be creative and innovative.
- Collaborate effectively with others.
- Feel satisfied with their work.
- Be productive and successful.
These outcomes contribute to a magnetic company culture and help organizations achieve the utopia all teams seek: a positive work environment where attraction, retention and engagement levels are consistently high. However, achieving these outcomes requires employees to be vulnerable, and working virtually can create many situations where uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability may be amplified.
New hires to virtual teams, for example, may experience challenges trying to find their feet and build rapport. Departments often grapple with the great “camera on or off” dilemma, and taken-for-granted acts such as speaking up and sharing ideas, admitting mistakes, giving challenging feedback, or disagreeing with another’s suggestion or point of view are just a few examples of changing vulnerabilities. Additionally, proximity bias has emerged, where preferences may be given to those in the office over those who are remote, further impacting psychological safety. Ultimately, employees can thrive when organizations consciously embed psychological safety into their culture and within each stage of the employee life cycle journey, benefiting everyone.
The Winding Road to Remote Work
Chris Dyer, founder and former CEO of PeopleG2 in Yorba Linda, Calif., transitioned his company to fully remote during the 2009 economic downturn to reduce operating expenses and prevent job cuts. Dyer explained this was a very challenging journey. Still, he learned many valuable lessons that can be applied today, some of which could directly or indirectly impact employee psychological safety.
- The CEO is a CPO. Dyer found that the CEO’s role should be to solve problems for their employees rather than solely focusing on the business’s day-to-day operations. By trusting and empowering his leadership team to do what they do best, Dyer was able to focus on understanding his employees’ challenges and finding solutions. He could prioritize ensuring his employees had the tools and resources to succeed. The adoption of a weekly single pulse-check question provided insights into the team’s struggles, and Dyer was able to take action quickly. His efforts aligned with those of a chief people officer rather than a CEO, as his primary mission was to help his employees.
- Hire the right people. Dyer found that a defined list of nonnegotiable competencies was essential for the talent acquisition process when hiring remote managers and individual contributors. He concluded that candidates who were action-oriented, able to prioritize and had strong written communication skills were best-suited for the business. Additionally, a clear demonstration of trustworthiness was critical. Hiring people you trust and trusting the people you hire shows respect, he said, which is a crucial component of building a healthy culture. Trust building and feedback activities support the foundations of psychological safety, as employees need to feel comfortable sharing their ideas and concerns without fear of judgment or reprisal.
- Build strong working relationships. Dyer could tell that one of his leaders had developed a strong, psychologically safe remote-working relationship with his team, given their rapport and apparent mutual respect. Employees need to feel comfortable taking risks and sharing their ideas, which can be done by creating a culture where employees feel like they can be themselves, are supported, can reflect and give feedback, and have their contributions valued.
- Understand that the remote employee’s hierarchy of needs is opposite to an in-office employee. A 2018 study by Aaron Lee of Walden University in Minneapolis found that in-office employees overwhelmingly rank personal connection as their top priority, and work/life balance as their lowest priority. In contrast, remote employees are the opposite, with work/life balance as their top priority and personal connection as their lowest.
Fast-forward to 2023, when many business leaders want employees to return to the office and develop strong interpersonal relationships. However, after working remotely for some time, employees place more emphasis on work/life balance. This disconnect and lack of fundamental understanding of the workforce can strain the relationship between employer and employee, eroding trust. Dyer saw that he could improve morale by fostering personal connections, providing opportunities for employees to socialize virtually and in person, and offering flexible work arrangements that address employee scheduling problems. These should not be empty gestures enforced under the guise of “win-win,” he said.
- Communication should be intentional. Dyer noticed his company’s traditional communication methods were ineffective as the remote-work journey progressed. It was difficult to tell if an employee was struggling or having personal problems because the in-person visual cues were no longer there. It also became clear that some employees had difficulty getting information from others efficiently, impacting productivity. And weekly one-on-one meetings between managers and employees proved ineffective, as they slowed down productivity if the employee had to wait until the next meeting for direction.
To address these issues, the company introduced “bonding,” which many teams adopted as a daily routine. This involved a 30-minute meeting in which employees took turns answering two simple questions posed by their manager: “How are you showing up today?” and “How are you leaving the meeting?” This quickly led to employees sharing, and the group naturally began supporting, coaching and mentoring each other. Genuine empathy developed within the group, and their shared sense of psychological safety improved.
A culture that encourages trust is essential for creating psychological safety among virtual teams. Companies must be intentional, have total organizational commitment and, most importantly, take action. Equality of experience across the organization is paramount, and stakeholders should ensure all groups are included. Employees will feel more psychologically safe and help the company sustain a competitive advantage if leaders consistently demonstrate that they care about the employees’ needs and well-being.
Marion Anderson is a fractional chief people officer and a Ph.D. student in Palm Desert, Calif., researching the intersection of employer attitudes toward remote and hybrid working and employees’ psychological safety.