Are your employees ready to return to work?

Covid-19 has introduced drastic changes to the workforce in the United States during the last few months.

As states begin to turn their attention to re-opening spaces, including offices, I've been reflecting on what this means for employees - at all levels - who may not feel comfortable or safe returning to their offices (assuming, of course, that they have been privileged enough to work remotely throughout social distancing measures).

What are we doing to promote the psychological safety of our employees as we look to come back from the collective experience of quarantine?

Let’s start with the idea of psychological safety. This concept was first introduced by organizational psychologist Dr. Amy Edmonson in 1999 and is defined as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” You can learn more about this in her excellent TEDx Talk from 2014.

Have you ever been the employee with tons of questions during a meeting where everyone else seems to know exactly what is being discussed?

If you've ever been hesitant to ask those questions for fear of seeming incompetent or being embarrassed by your team, you've experienced a lack of psychological safety at work. Feeling secure enough to bring up concerns or to point out mistakes - hallmarks of psychological safety - is a crucial part of building a high performing team at work (Google's Project Aristotle provides more insights).

You might be thinking to yourself, this is all great, but how does this relate to Covid-19?

Covid-19, and the ensuing quarantines and social distancing measures experienced throughout the country, forced public health and awareness into our collective consciousness. Companies nationwide were forced into changes in how they conducted business. Any employee who had the ability to work remotely was suddenly doing exactly that, with little to no preparation. As a result, the narrative around Covid-19 and returning to work has been framed in terms of how (and when) we can expect to "get back to normal". But - and here is where psychological safety comes into play - what if there are employees who are not ready to do this?

Have we created the type of environment where employees can share their anxieties around returning to close proximity to the office? What about workers who rely on public transportation and may not be ready to expose themselves to that many people right away? It's not uncommon for workplaces to confuse physical presence with productivity, even though that's an outdated measure of an employee's work (It's Time to Stop Measuring Productivity in Hours). Is there going to be a stigma against people who want to exercise their abilities to work remotely now that they've proven themselves to be fully capable of doing so over the last 3 months? What about the inherent power imbalance between direct reports and managers?

If you're not sure about whether your team feels secure enough to raise these questions, run through this quick assessment:

  • Is participation in meetings low? A lack of participation means that employees are feeling out of the loop somewhere. They may not understand what’s happening, they may be the wrong stakeholders, or they may feel as though it doesn’t matter whether they voice their opinions.
  • Does your team take ownership of failures? When employees don’t feel like they have the security to say that they have made a mistake, you’ll often see things turn into the blame game.
  • Are you being asked for feedback? This is a tough one. It takes a lot of security for employees to ask for feedback directly because they are making themselves vulnerable in an effort to learn. If your employees are silent on this front, there’s a good chance they don’t feel secure in opening up this way.

If you’ve realized that your work environment may not be the most psychologically safe workspace, there’s a silver lining: this is something that can be fixed!

You can find resources for how to work on this all over the internet, but I’m going back to Dr. Edmonson. In that same TEDx Talk, Dr. Edmonson recommends the following steps to build psychologically safe workplaces:

  • Frame the work as a learning problem (not an execution problem)
  • Acknowledge your own fallibility as a leader
  • Model the curiosity you want to see — ask lots of questions

What are your best practices for creating psychological safety at work?

Let’s work together to make work environments better for everyone.

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