Looking to improve team engagement, productivity, retention and happiness? Studies show that you shouldn’t just focus on offering pay rises or incentives, providing free pizza on Fridays, or investing in a swanky office renovation. According to Google’s Project Aristotle, the single factor that's key to achieving all this is psychological safety at work.
If employees feel psychologically safe, it means they feel safe enough to take risks and to speak openly without worry or fear of retribution. It also means feeling respected and valued, and knowing that your wellbeing genuinely matters to your employers. Psychological safety has been tricky enough to achieve in the traditional office-based workplace, where employees could speak face-to-face and build trust and rapport more easily. But when the world was sent home to work in 2020, things became more problematic.
Now, as we turn the corner on Coronavirus and companies head back to the office, things become even more challenging. Hybrid teams are the new norm, but when half your team is office-based and the other half is remote, how can you ensure equal experience, value and visibility? How, exactly, does psychological safety work in a hybrid workplace?
How hybrid work affects psychological safety
In many ways, psychological safety has hinged in part on the idea that employees are working across a level playing field – that a company respects all its employees equally, and that everyone is fairly respected and valued. Physical offices can act as social levelers by guaranteeing a certain degree of equity between employees; everyone accesses the same equipment and the same benefits, comforts and environment.
Right off the bat, hybrid work poses a risk to this idea of fairness. If employees are working in two very different situations, with varying levels of autonomy, opportunity to socialize, and access to management, then it can lead to a feeling of exclusivity and inequality, which can soon erode employee trust. This means it becomes even more essential to treat employees equally, regardless of their working situation – but of course, this is easier said than done.
Another way that hybrid work may affect psychological safety relates to the gradual, yet continual, erosion of boundaries between work and home. While encouraging honesty and dissent has been encouraged by managers hoping to improve psychological safety, in the past it’s only related to work matters: whether someone agrees with an idea for a pitch, for example, or feeling safe to correct a colleague or manager if they have inaccurate data. But in a hybrid workplace, a new type of candor will be required – one that revolves around an entirely different domain: our personal lives.
Where personal meets professional
Traditionally, keeping our personal lives away from work has always been seen as desirable. Any issues we may be facing – whether it’s mental health troubles, looking after children, or caring for an elderly parent – should be “left at home” before we step into the office. But when we’re working where we live, our personal situations can’t always be shrugged off. If something is affecting our work-life balance, it becomes relevant and important to discuss at work – and it must be discussed in a psychologically safe manner.
But the problem is that having honest and open discussions about these types of issues – ones that are deeply personal and sometimes even painful – can be extremely difficult. Employees may (very understandably) feel reluctant to speak openly about their mental health, or any challenging situations at home, worrying that it might affect how their employer views them. Yet if teams are to succeed, we need to eradicate the idea that “work” and “non-work” conversations are detachable.
Without being aware of the constraints and responsibilities faced by remote workers, managers simply won’t be able to structure and schedule work effectively. Workflow coordination can’t occur unless you know when people are available and present to work, and when they aren’t. And since, legally, employers can’t demand personal information from their team, it becomes vital to create an environment where employees feel safe to volunteer any personal information that’s relevant to their working experience, scheduling availability and work/life balance.
Building psychological safety in a hybrid workplace
So how do we create such an environment? According to psychological safety expert Amy Edmonson, there are several strategies managers can employ. These include:
1. Setting the scene
The first step is speaking openly with your team about these matters. It’s important to acknowledge that in a hybrid office, the work environment has changed, and teams need to recognize not only the challenges they may be facing, but the challenges management will face too. To succeed, managers and employers must figure out new ways to work, and understand that being honest and transparent is key.
2. Leading by example
You can’t expect employees to go out on a limb and be open about their vulnerabilities without doing so yourself. Psychological safety is about feeling secure enough to be honest, so start off by sharing some of your own hybrid work challenges. It can also be helpful to be honest about the things you’re worried about moving forward, and if you don’t have a clear plan, to admit that. This can also help employees realize what’s at stake, which might encourage them to be more transparent themselves.
3. Taking baby steps
No matter how positively you try to frame it, it’s unreasonable to expect all employees to be instantly forthcoming about their personal challenges. Even if you feel you’ve always had a psychologically safe culture at work, bear in mind that it’s one thing to raise an issue about a technical difficulty at work, and quite another to speak up about a difficult situation at home. Once you’ve divulged a few of your own challenges, encourage others to share too, and stress the fact that admissions will never be penalized.
However, it’s important that managers view these types of conversions as just the first step. Achieving psychological safety in a hybrid workplace will be a continual work-in-progress, not something you can achieve simply after a few days of honest talk. For most companies, adapting to hybrid work is unchartered territory, and there’s no roadmap for success. Ultimately, though, encouraging employees to speak openly about their experiences and struggles can go a long way in building trust and connections – and this is something that will only help to bolster psychological safety.