Psychological safety in a remote environment can offer countless benefits for distributed teams. When employees feel a sense of safety in their work environment, they are able to be more creative and engaged. Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It’s the feeling that you can be vulnerable to share without judgment.
Moments in the workplace that can feel especially vulnerable include: speaking up at meetings, sharing a new idea or concern, disagreeing with senior staff or colleagues, admitting to a mistake, and asking for help, just to name a few. Vulnerability is embedded into so many elements of our work. It’s clear how creating a space where it is celebrated is important for companies to perform to their fullest potential.
In Google’s two-year study on team performance, data showed that psychological safety remained the common thread across the highest-performing teams. This outcome can be attributed to increased risk-taking and creativity—two prerequisites for innovation to flourish.
In this article, you’ll learn about the benefits of psychological safety in a distributed work environment and the strategies you can take to embed psychological safety into your company’s culture.
Why psychological safety is especially important in a distributed work environment
On distributed teams, employees don’t have access to a shared company workspace to air their problems, learn from coworkers in real time, and enjoy a sense of community.
Distributed teams can expect several benefits from psychological safety:
Some of the best ideas may seem irrational when held up against the conventional. These types of ideas are especially prone to critique, but that doesn’t mean they should be dismissed out of hand. In fact, it can be the wildest of ideas that can set your company apart from the competition and overcome long-held challenges.
In order to foster an environment where employees can think outside of the box and feel empowered to share their ideas, they need to feel comfortable being vulnerable. This is especially important to encourage those with ideas that differ from the group to speak up.
Psychological safety can also create resilience to change, allowing employees to adapt better in response to organizational changes.
Higher employee retention and lower turnover
Increased employee retention can save companies a lot of money while promoting a positive work environment. When employees feel a sense of psychological safety they are more engaged, and higher engagement can give employees a sense of ownership in their work.
Employees who feel psychologically safe are also more likely to report issues or concerns before they become unbearable. All this leads to improved employee retention and lowers costs spent on absenteeism and turnover.
Employees are happier when they don’t need to worry about workplace punishment or humiliation. Happier teams are better at problem-solving. When you feel that your work is valued, you likely also feel more connected to your team.
Psychological safety creates a safe space for employees from diverse backgrounds to share their opinions, experiences, and ideas openly. Encouraging alternative viewpoints promotes inclusive and dynamic teams that are fun to work on.
The quickest clue that a workplace does not foster psychological safety? Silence. If your employees aren’t speaking when asked for feedback or invited to a brainstorming session, it’s worth asking why. In the silence are lost opportunities and ideas.
These are some of the steps you can take to promote psychological safety in your company:
Set an honest context
Remote and distributed work is exciting, but it also comes with a unique set of challenges. As a team leader, it’s important to set the right stage and assess the current situation honestly and comprehensively.
Ask for feedback
Be open about expressing your concerns about remote work and outline the problems of the pandemic sincerely and empathetically. Your team needs to know that you are cognizant, yet optimistic, of the distributed nature of the workplace. Establishing this trust is foundational to ensuring a psychologically safe workplace.
Seek feedback and make sure employees feel heard. When employees don’t think you care about their opinions, they are less likely to share them. Check in frequently to encourage feedback at regular intervals. When giving and receiving feedback is engrained in the company culture, it is less intimidating.
Offer multiple ways to submit feedback. For some, writing feedback can feel less intimidating than speaking up in a meeting. Online tools can offer a level of anonymity that makes it easier to share feedback when challenging the status quo.
Employees should feel comfortable sharing feedback across all levels of the organization. If you’re in a leadership position, it can take some extra effort to get candid feedback. Be patient and show encouragement and gratitude to those who do speak up.
One way to make employees feel heard is by giving them undivided attention during meetings and one-on-ones.
We’ve all done it before: sort through emails or catch up on the watercooler chat in Slack when you should be paying attention in a meeting. In a remote work environment, it’s so easy to get away with being distracted. Putting in the effort to disengage from these common distractions may seem minute, but it goes a long way in promoting psychological safety in the workplace.
Demonstrate active listening by asking follow-up questions to others’ ideas and opinions. This shows that you care about what the other person is saying and want to know more. You can also repeat back what you heard by using phrases such as “It sounds like…,” and “What I heard you say is …”. This also provides the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings at the onset.
Gain awareness of how you work best and how you prefer to communicate while inviting your team members to do the same.
Behavioral assessments and personality tests can reveal differences in communication styles and preferences. Have your employees take these tests and share their results with the team. Come up with ideas on how different groups of people work best together and best practices to avoid misunderstandings.
If you manage other people, confirm with them what frequency of check-ins, style of communication, and type of feedback they prefer.
In a remote work environment, it is important to set clear expectations for employees. Offering clear and accurate information will help to build trust between managers and direct reports. When employees clearly understand what they need to do, they feel empowered to take initiative and meet their goals.
Focus on outcomes more than outputs
Distributed teams need to emphasize good communication practices to ensure that all employees are on the same page. When employees understand the expectations for their work and how it contributes to the larger company goals, they have a sense of ownership that encourages productivity.
When you focus too much on inputs (such as hours spent working) and outputs (such as logging targets hit), you can quickly lose sight of the bigger picture.
Instead, the focus should be on the impact of the employees’ work. Make sure your employees feel valued by their colleagues and managers by sharing positive feedback internally. The visibility of celebrating both big and little wins can also help employees feel appreciated, creating a psychologically safe space. Appreciation can go a long way in encouraging others to share their thoughts and opinions.
When making decisions, invite input from all members of the team. This shows that their opinion matters and is taken into consideration during the decision-making process. Transparency about how decisions are made can help gain buy-in on big changes, making them less intimidating for remote teams.
In cases where an outcome is less than ideal, do not create a blame culture. When employees feel under threat, they will not speak up when things go wrong. It is important for employees to share their mistakes in a safe environment so that issues can be addressed quickly. Blame culture also promotes indecision, lack of accountability, anxiety, and stress. Instead, reframe mistakes as a learning and improvement opportunity.
Although flexibility is a major benefit of distributed teams, having some structure is still important. Routines can provide a sense of stability for employees, a foundational component to foster psychological safety.
Kick-off calls, regular check-ins, virtual drinks at the end of the week, etc. can all be important rituals that maintain a safe sense of routine in team members’ minds while also making them feel included and appreciated.
These rituals also often extend into project management tools (e.g., following a process for project kick-offs, or using templates when assigning tasks in your project management tool), and it’s crucial to set and follow these rituals to foster a psychologically safe remote workplace.
Assume good intentions
On distributed teams, text and email are two primary methods of communication. Unfortunately,
It’s very easy to misinterpret a text or email when you lack tone of voice and body language clues. In cases of ambiguity, it is important to offer the benefit of the doubt to colleagues. Chances are that the email that might sound rude or blunt wasn’t intended to come across that way. It could be attributed to a more direct communication style—or a lack of coffee first thing in the morning.
Distributed teams should avoid speaking badly about colleagues. When tensions arise, managers should step in to facilitate understanding between the two parties. Employees that talk behind others’ backs threaten psychological safety in the workplace and discourage collaboration.
Increase employee satisfaction and unlock innovative thinking
Creating a psychologically safe space for your employees is an important investment for distributed teams. When employees feel like they can take calculated risks, share their opinions, and bring their authentic selves to work, productivity, creativity, and employee satisfaction increase.
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