Psychological Safety has been researched for almost 30 years and yet it seems like only the last few years have companies really put a focus on it. Why? Maybe it’s because the idea can feel too abstract at first. Naturally, there’s an academic definition to psychological safety, but what does it really mean in action? And how can you foster psychological safety when teams are dispersed across the globe?

According to Amy Edmondson, a leading Harvard Business School researcher coined the phrase, and defines psychological safety is “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking and an implied sense of candor.” 

Psychologically safe team members feel confident to appropriately speak up, admit you don’t know an answer, ask any questions, respectfully challenge an idea, offer a new perspective, and/or share your personal experience without the fear of being judged, embarrassed, or shamed. And, it’s the key ingredient in creating a successful, inclusive, and high-performing team, regardless of where your team members are sitting around the world.

Creating an environment of psychological safety within a team of unique individuals is no easy feat. But it’s made even more complicated in the context of a hybrid or fully virtual team. As the leader of the team, managers are often tasked with the responsibility of creating an inclusive environment and maintaining psychological safety within their teams, but it can’t be up to them alone to be successful in this effort. It's everyone’s job to create an environment of psychological safety and it takes the full team to make this effective.

As our remote population at HubSpot has grown from a handful of individuals to over 300 remote employees globally over the past several years, we’ve had our share of trial and error when it comes to building a psychologically safe environment in a hybrid team. Here are some ideas to try out with your hybrid or fully virtual team to help build an environment that promotes psychological safety.

Just Ask

Encourage your team members to ask their questions (especially the “silly” ones) in Slack and, more importantly, answer them in Slack. This allows remote employees to learn from the conversations that would normally happen on the floor. Be sure to celebrate when questions are asked publicly. This positive reinforcement will make it easier for everyone to speak up and feel included.

Mix It Up

Encourage your team members to get to know each other by using an app like Donut or Shuffl in Slack to automatically pair individuals on a regular cadence. Give them time to talk about nothing in particular - if that feels scary, give them a topic to discuss like; dream travel locations or what they would do with a month long paid sabbatical.

Make a Playlist

Create a collaborative playlist on Spotify and allow everyone on the team to add to it and listen to it. This allows us to share our go-to GSD tunes and learn more about each other in the process.

Share a Meal

Schedule coffee, lunch, happy hour, or just time to chat about anything but work with your team over Zoom. Eating over a virtual meeting can feel awkward - encourage your team to choose foods that are easy to eat. I once tried to eat soup during a virtual meal - not the best choice on my end. If preparing a meal doesn’t sound like your team, a virtual delivery-pizza party is just as fun.

Learn How to Work with Each Other

It can be challenging to pick up on an individual’s work style if you’re not working alongside them - but it’s just as important to understand. With this in mind, we encourage team members to create a “How to Work with Me” document to better understand each others working style as well as learn about the person behind the laptop. We ask team members to outline everything from how they like to communicate, to what their pet peeves are, to what they’re passionate about outside of work. 

Share What Shapes You

No matter what role you’re in, we’re all people working with people. So, beyond an individual’s work and communication style, it’s also important to understand what has shaped each of us into who we are today. We encourage teams to participate in a  “What Shaped Me” exercise where each team member shares pictures and stories that contributed to who they are today. We encourage teams to do this either 100% virtually to ensure equal footing in the conversation. The way we show up in a team has an impact and simply being transparent about our pet peeves, working preferences, and life experiences can reduce friction on a team and increase inclusion.

Get Personal

Since we can’t see the pictures and mementos on each other’s desks, create a virtual way of doing the same. Try a “Family Photo Friday” in Slack or a virtual meeting. Ask each team member to share a photo of their family and share something about the picture. They can choose to define family in whatever way is comfortable - some folks might share a photo of a child or a partner, some might share a photo of a pet, and some might share a photo of a community they’re close with.

Celebrate  different ways of thinking

It can be intimidating to be the voice of dissent in a group meeting. In order to combat groupthink and reinforce your team members to voice their own opinions, assign one team member to play devil’s advocate each meeting, poke holes in a theory, or ask the question “how else might we do this?” on a regular basis. Alternatively, try using the "Six Thinking Hats" methodology to look at the problem from various angles. Assigning these roles to each individual reinforces the idea that everyone is capable of critical analysis, helps each team member learn to flex this muscle, and democratizes the effort amongst the whole group.

Make Time for Each Other

When onboarding a new remote employee, ask each existing team member to schedule time with that employee in the first few weeks to get to know each other. To make it more formal, set up a buddy system so that the remote employee feels like they have someone to lean on. We all need a little help sometimes and normalizing this makes it easy to ask for and give help when needed. To go one step further, some teams have created “office hours” in the first month or two, where there’s an open Zoom for a period of time each day hosted by current team members. Remote employees are encouraged to join and simply work alongside their teammates or use the time to easily ask questions that have come up.

Give a Virtual Nod

In an office environment, if you were to stand up and announce to your team that you’re not feeling well and will be heading home for the day, your teammates would likely react, send you off with well-wishes, and offer to help. For a remote employee, announcing something in a team Slack room serves the same purpose, but doesn’t often elicit the same response from the team as it would in person. No one likes to feel ignored, so try using your team Slack room the same way you would use a team space in person and acknowledge when someone is sending a message out to the group.  Even if a message on Slack doesn’t require a response, let your remote employees know that you’ve seen it by using a system of emojis. For example, some of our teams use the eyes emoji to let others know that they’ve seen a question and are looking into it, others use the thumbs up emoji in place of a head nod. 

Level the Playing Field

In a hybrid team, it can often be the case that a majority of team members will be together in one room while remote team members are dialed in virtually. While it may be the easiest approach, it can create a feeling of imbalance and make it challenging for remote employees to fully engage in the conversation as it can be hard to see and hear the team members in the room. To solve for this, level the playing field in team meetings by encouraging every team member to dial in individually from their laptop rather than having a bunch of folks in one room and a few folks dialed in on their own. This allows for better communication amongst the group and builds empathy for the remote experience in the process. If this is not possible and some folks must be in a room together while others are dialed in individually, the moderator, manager, or leader of the meeting should be remote as well. This intentionally reduces the implied power of the room and balances the power dynamic to allow for better engagement across the team.

Failure Fridays

Innovation comes when we try something new and different to grow better. It doesn't always work the way we expect - and by creating an environment where failure is celebrated as an effort to grow, your team will learn from their experiences and others. To create this type of failure-friendly environment, encourage a “Friday Failure Forum” within your team Slack room or in a weekly virtual stand-up if time zones allow. Encourage each team member to bring an example of one moment this week where they could have done better, and, more importantly, what they learned from the experience so that everyone can share in the lessons. This exercise reinforces the idea that everyone makes mistakes, but everyone similarly has the opportunity to grow.

Rose, Bud, and Thorn

In the office, it’s easy to casually share how your weekend was or what’s going on with you personally amongst your teammates. For remote folks, however, communication tends to be centralized around work and it’s not so easy to share what’s going on in their lives without feeling like they’re making an unsolicited announcement on Slack. This can be even more challenging with teams distributed across time zones, who are often only communicating asynchronously. To help teams create a channel to share more about what’s going on with them personally, we encourage teams to create a regular opportunity where everyone has the chance to share what’s going on in their lives and learn about their teammates as well.  Each Monday, ask the question in your team Slack room, “What is everyone’s rose, bud, and thorn for last week?” 

  • Rose: What is one thing that went well for you last week?
  • Bud: What is one thing you’re looking forward to in this upcoming week?
  • Thorn: What is one thing that didn’t go well last week.

This post was created in collaboration with Meaghan Williams, HubSpot’s Remote Work and Inclusion Program Manager. Nick and Meaghan work together often and share a passion for leadership at all levels, remote work, and dogs.

Originally published Apr 15, 2020 11:00:00 AM, updated April 15 2020