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The Critical Role of Psychological Safety in the Post-COVID Workplace

publishedabout 1 year ago
6 min read

I recently spoke to a friend of mine, Carrie, who works as a business analyst at a financial services company headquartered in NYC. Everyone at Carrie’s company shifted to remote work during the pandemic, and earlier this year, the company decided it would adopt a hybrid approach beginning in May.

For Carrie, there was an immense sense of relief. She has two children, and working from home has made it much easier to care for them. But even though everyone at her company now has the ability to work partly from home and partly from the corporate HQ, there’s already a clear divide emerging between some employees.

“During the past year, I wasn’t shy about making full use of the remote work benefit, because everyone else was in the same boat,” Carrie told me. “But as more of my co-workers have returned to the office, I’m starting to feel like I’m taking advantage of this somehow. So I’m not really telling anyone why I’m choosing to work remotely on any given day. And I’m honestly feeling that it’s not okay to work from home more than one or two days a week.”

“It feels like we’ve gone from having an open and transparent workplace during the pandemic, back to a culture where everyone has to hide their personal lives and their true self at work.”

I know Carrie isn’t alone in feeling this way. In fact, there’s been a lot of discussion about this lately—that is, the importance of psychological safety in the post-COVID workplace. And it’s already apparent that this issue will be especially critical at companies that are adopting a hybrid approach.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is the belief that you will not be shut down, humiliated, or punished for speaking up with ideas, questions, or concerns. In psychologically safe workplaces, people can bring their whole selves to work. They’re willing to suggest an idea or opinion even when it might be wrong, and they’re also more likely to speak up when something isn’t working.

Psychological safety is a well-established driver of key business outcomes including innovation, positive team dynamics, and company performance. In fact, Great Place to Work finds that psychological safety is the biggest driver of earnings, and a two-year study from Google revealed that the highest performing teams share one thing in common: they all feel psychologically safe.

Being able to freely express your views is also closely tied to employee well-being at work, translating to less stress, more job satisfaction, and greater confidence. Yet a McKinsey Global Survey conducted during the pandemic finds that just 26% of business leaders demonstrate the behaviors that can instill a psychologically safe climate for their workforce.

The widespread lack of psychological safety in the workplace isn’t a new issue, and the way Carrie is feeling isn’t new either. But with so many companies shifting to a hybrid model of work, the topic has come back to the forefront of the conversation—and with new considerations due to the lingering effects of the pandemic.

Creating a psychologically safe workplace after COVID-19

Although it may seem counterintuitive, experts observed that employees actually felt more psychologically safe during the pandemic. First, there was a sense that we were all experiencing the same shared fear, and that we were all in this together. At the same time, the shift to remote work and video conferencing meant that many people got a glimpse (or a full view!) into each other’s lives, which made them feel more connected to each other. Finally, employees who were faced with childcare needs or other circumstances had no choice but to be more transparent with their managers and co-workers.

However, as we transition to our “new normal”—which for around 70% of companies, will involve a hybrid way of working—things are shifting in a different direction. Managers in hybrid workplaces are now being forced to make difficult decisions about employee scheduling and work location based on each individual’s unique situation.

But leaders are realizing that as we move past COVID-19, these decisions have to account for more than just childcare needs. Employees who want to work from home for other reasons (for example, to pursue a hobby) often say they feel excluded from the dialogue about work-life balance, or they’re afraid to speak up with their preferences.

And as my friend Carrie shared, there’s already a growing divide between remote workers and office workers, especially at companies where employees are allowed to choose how often they go into the office. Taken altogether, it’s a recipe for a psychologically unsafe environment, which will ultimately cause the hybrid model to fail if employers don’t take step to address this.

Even at companies where all employees will return to the office, there are valid concerns about psychological safety. Nearly all (94%) of workers say they’re stressed right now, and being thrust back into the office will surely be difficult for many people. Between safety concerns and reestablishing work-life balance, there are myriad ways employees may struggle with this transition.

With all of these factors in mind, it’s clear that managers need to prioritize creating psychologically safe workplaces for their teams. An at-scale system of leadership development may be necessary to truly move the needle on psychological safety, but to start, leaders can consider the following steps:

1. Foster a culture of openness and transparency. Now more than ever, business leaders need to create environments where employees feel they can openly share their concerns, work preferences, and more. Start by having real, human conversations with your staff about the issues that matter most to them right now. Ask them how they’re feeling, what their concerns are, and what they want their post-COVID workplace experience to look like.

For hybrid teams, it may be helpful to have them
meet together and problem solve around scheduling issues or concerns about fair treatment of remote workers. By initiating these open dialogues, you’ll not only encourage more open communication, you’ll also get the information and input you need to make the best possible decisions for your staff.

2. Set the example. As a leader, it’s critical that you model the behaviors you expect your employees to demonstrate. This means being vulnerable about your own concerns about returning to the office, the difficulties you face around scheduling, or the challenges you’re facing in your personal life.

It’s also important that you role model the new hybrid work arrangements. If employees are expected to work from home part of the week, then you should also work remotely at least one or two days, if possible—and be open with your teams about the benefits you’re enjoying from this.

3. Be vigilant about the new work culture. Establishing a psychologically safe climate will require a great deal of effort, but it can all come tumbling down in the blink of an eye. An employee who questions a coworker over their concerns about workplace safety will make the whole team shut down. Just one worker who wonders aloud why a remote colleague is missing from an office meeting will make everyone feel afraid to work from home.

As a manager, it’s up to you to stay tuned in to the daily interactions among your team members and take action accordingly. It’s not about censoring employees, it’s about educating them on how their statements might be taken the wrong way, and how they could reframe them in a way that doesn’t make others feel targeted or uncomfortable.

What if psychological safety isn’t enough?

In many cases, investing in leadership development and taking the steps I’ve outlined above will enhance psychological safety and help companies succeed in offering a flexible, employee-driven approach to hybrid. But what if this doesn’t work? While businesses may want to allow employees to make their own decisions about where and when they work, the reality is that offering this freedom will likely mean that certain groups emerge as “office workers” while others become the “home group.”

My friend Carrie is already experiencing this first-hand—and it’s a critical risk to workforce diversity. Not surprisingly, research finds that women with young children want to work from home full-time 50% more than men. And as I recently wrote about, employees who work virtually are less likely to be promoted, receive worse performance reviews, and don’t receive the best assignments. When you add all of this up, it’s clear how a flexible hybrid approach could cause women to be held back in the workplace even more than they already are.

To address this, some experts believe that managers should decide which days their teams work remotely, or they should coordinate certain teams to work in the office on the same days. I agree that it’s certainly worth considering this approach, but businesses must also address company culture; for example, by encouraging male managers to work from home, and having all managers share the positive benefits of remote work with their teams.

No matter the approach, any efforts around creating a more level playing field should be in conjunction with a strong focus on boosting psychological safety. Companies who are proactive about this will be more likely to succeed as we move into our post-COVID reality, and they’ll also be more likely to create a hybrid model that truly works—for their people and their business.