The DOs, DON'Ts and WHYs of Psychologically Safe Remote Teams
A primer on the mental and emotional safety of employees
Psychological safety has become a big buzzword, especially since COVID shook up the entire world and led to “The Great Resignation.” People are empowered and enticed more than ever to move between jobs due to remote work availability and changes in market salary. They are choosing to work for companies that are stepping up to the plate, during what I once heard called “The Human Revolution.” At its core, psychological safety is about people feeling safe to be human, unafraid to err, or admit to it.
But WHY should teammates and leaders care about psychological safety?
Many of the standard American work practices were formed during the Industrial Revolution, and put in place to increase the output of physical labor. Even though the Technological Revolution has drastically changed the nature of a large percentage of American jobs, work practices have been slow to catch up.
As technology and society continue to progress, jobs are requiring more and more mental labor, and there are ever increasing demands on people’s mental energy outside of work.
The output of mental labor is drastically affected by an individual’s feelings of psychological well being (or lack thereof), meaning that:
Promoting psychological safety not only benefits people’s overall happiness and quality of life, it also increases teamwork, productivity, and quality. It’s a win for everyone involved.
But psychological safety doesn’t magically exist. It takes work to create a space that is psychologically safe. And fully remote work adds yet another layer of complexity to the mix.
If you want to start increasing the psychological safety of your remote team, follow this list of things that psychologically safe remote teams DO and, more importantly, DON’T do. Everyone on the team can and should participate in making the workplace a safe space for everyone, but these tips include some additional notes for leaders.
- DO expect and plan for humanity. If computers can do a job cheaper or faster, then companies typically employ a machine for the job (think self-checkout registers), meaning the most basic requirement of the job someone is in is that they are a human being.
- DO prioritize getting to know everyone. When you get to know your teammates, it becomes easier to understand their work, easier to discover blockers they have, and easier to empathize with anything they might be experiencing. This makes teamwork all but natural, and much more likely to be successful. Especially as a leader, it's important to create a space where it is comfortable for people to open up. But, keep in mind that some people are more reserved than others, so never demand transparency into anyone’s life.
- DO protect everyone’s privacy. If anyone on your team opens up to you about something personal, be mindful that you do not share information that they intended only you to know.
- DO model the behavior you want to see from others. Admit when you are wrong, ask questions when you don’t know the answer, show how to learn from your mistakes. We can show others that it is okay to be human, and to be imperfect, by being human ourselves.
- DO tell people when they are wrong. Wrong does not mean bad, and you don’t have to be mean or rude to tell someone they are wrong. Telling people when they’re wrong helps them figure out what is right, and wrong answers often mean people are trying. Wrong answers can also help us learn (often more than right answers do), and often wrong is encountered many times before discovering what is right.
- DO understand that the human brain has limits, and DO encourage people to prioritize their physical and mental health. Pushing past limits and not prioritizing health almost always leads to burnout.
- DO understand if a situation at home takes away your teammates’ attention. If issues at home begin to affect someone’s work, try to help them. This is easier (and often more appropriate) if you’re in a leadership position, but anyone can help others find ways to set physical, mental and time boundaries on work and in life, or direct them to resources that can help.
- DON’T be punitive. This goes for everyone. When people are punished they close themselves off personally, and punishment can very easily lead to feeling unsafe.
- DO be careful how you talk to other people. When you are rude, criticize (without being constructive), or ridicule others, they can internalize it, which leads to countless negative side effects. And leaders, it is your responsibility to create a boundary between your team and anyone who might be doing this.
- DO control any reactions you might have. This goes for everyone, but is especially important for leaders. You are human too, which means that you will occasionally have reactions to situations. It is your responsibility to control that and, when you inevitably slip, admit to it. Taking time after a situation occurs to consider words before you speak them, and actions before you take them, will enable you to choose to be the leader and teammate you want to be.
- DO hire the best people you can find, give them the tools they need, and trust them to deliver.
- DON’T micromanage. I shouldn’t have to say this, but unfortunately, I think I still do. Micromanagers are not psychologically safe managers. One must be truly honest with themselves and have both awareness and control of their words and actions to avoid becoming a micromanager. Don’t do it.
- DON’T abandon your team members, either. The pendulum can swing too far in the other direction, which can lead to colleague abandonment. Lack of direction and interaction from a manager can lead to feelings of psychological unsafety. What defines abandonment varies between people, as does micromanagement. It’s important to learn what works best individually, for everyone.
One of the key tenants to understanding psychological safety is that everyone experiences situations in their own world, through their own lens. Regardless of your position on your team, try implementing (or stopping) some of these behaviors and you will almost certainly see positive outcomes. You can’t create or destroy time, but more can be done in less time if you employ these strategies that can help increase mental output – oh, and work can become fun and enjoyable as a side effect!