How Remote Workforces Thrive: Enable Psychological Safety


By Maria Geokezas, VP of Client Services

More organizations, like Microsoft and Google, have recently extended their work-from-home mandates into 2021.  There are many others, who like us, have decided to adopt a broader policy to work remotely indefinitely as the new normal.

Ensure Remote Workers Thrive

When business leaders decide to pursue a remote work environment, initial considerations focus on protecting or enhancing productivity and communication for co-workers who are not in the same physical space.  Leaders first focus on ensuring employee productivity through tools and technology that aid communication.  The thinking goes that with intentional processes, strong communication and the right digital tools, teams can maintain productivity levels no matter where employees work.

Beyond Remote Work Process and Tools

Process and tools that enable report workforces are table stakes decisions that keep a team operational – not necessarily productive or effective.  What will make the difference in our new normal of remote work is leadership? The current trend toward remote work puts organization’s health and long-term growth at risk if leaders do not also pay attention to the company’s culture and the impact their personal values and traits have on it.  The initial bump in productivity employers saw at the beginning of the pandemic will quickly fade without a deeper, more empathetic commitment to creating a remote work culture where employees can thrive.

How Remote Workforces Thrive

The sudden change to working from home has put more pressure on organizational leadership to be in-tune with their teams and ensure a psychologically safe workforce.  Psychological safety is about removing fear from human interaction and replacing it with respect and permission. It describes environments where it is ok to be vulnerable, where mistakes happen and creativity flourishes.  Psychological safety has been an important discussion in the field of psychology, behavioral management, leadership, and teams since the 1960’s.  This is not a new concept, yet this pandemic has afforded us what may be the first opportunity to apply the concept in a holistic, massive way.

Psychological Safety Helps Workers and Employers Thrive

Psychological safe work environments typically produce higher-performing teams and are led by people who have higher levels of emotional intelligence.  A Harvard Business Review study uncovered a link between leaders’ emotional maturity, like empathy and self-awareness, with his or her financial performance.  The same study found high levels of emotional intelligence create climates in which information sharing, trust, healthy risk-taking, and learning – key characteristics of psychological safety – flourish.  Conversely, the study also found low levels of emotional intelligence create climates rife with fear and anxiety.

Create Psychological Safety in Your Remote Team

This is all well and good if your company’s leaders are in-tune and you work in a company that supports a psychologically safe culture.  But what if you don’t?  How can you influence and enable a psychologically safe environment with your remote team?  Start by modeling the traits you want to see in a psychologically safe environment.  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Work hard at listening. Focus on what others are saying instead of what you are going to say in response.  Do more listening than talking.  To make sure you captured the information accurately, sum it up and repeat it back to the person.
  2. Start each meeting by checking in with everyone. Reserve the first 5 minutes of every scheduled team meeting to hear from each individual team member.  Simple questions like “How’s everyone doing this morning?” or “How was your weekend?” should get the conversation flowing.
  3. Make sure everyone gets heard. Because of the nature of video calls, there are so many more ways to miss what someone is trying to say.  To make sure you captured each participant’s ideas, end the meeting with a round-robin type of roll call.
  4. Praise new ideas and keep the conversation going. Use “and” instead of “but”.  Don’t evaluate new ideas, instead explore them.
  5. Acknowledge and thank team members for their unique contribution and abilities.
  6. Engage with team members on a personal and professional level, outside of regularly scheduled team meetings.
  7. Don’t allow negative back-channel comments or gripes to spread. Nip negative comments in the bud before they spread by speaking directly with the person about your concerns.
  8. Be open to feedback. Actively ask for feedback and demonstrate flexibility when presented with better options from you teammates.  Showing that good ideas comes from all levels of the organization will eventually provide more and better solutions.
  9. Be generous with your time. We all have our own deliverables to worry about.  Spending a couple extra minutes with a colleague to help them learn and grow benefits everyone on the team.

Last, give yourself and others some grace.  Working from home was suddenly thrust upon most of us.  Some remote workers must juggle meeting times with their roommates, partners or spouses.  Others are trying to balance their children’s online school schedules and the resulting internet bandwidth issues.  Still some struggle with operating new tools that are supposed to bring remote workforces together.  All this is layered with the very real, and at the same time, existential threat of the COVID virus.  Mistakes and awkwardness will happen.  Be patient with yourself and with others, don’t take yourself too seriously.  Be the role model you want to see in creating a psychologically safe place to do your best remote work – others will follow your good example.