Remote work

How to improve psychological safety in remote teams

March 17, 2020
The principle of more flexibility in where and when you work is something that is worth championing. Remote and flexible working is great for parents and travel obsessed graduates alike. Video conferencing, instant messaging and cloud-based document collaboration have all improved significantly over the last decade and, perhaps because of this, remote work is on the rise and it shows no sign of slowing.

While this brings welcome flexibility in balancing work and life it’s not without risk. Perhaps the most obvious is the risk to productivity or performance but there’s also another, less obvious threat – a drop in employee happiness and employee engagement - which both have a knock on effect on performance. Fortunately, there are reliable ways to mitigate both and make your remote workforce your most productive workforce.

The benefits of remote work

Working from home, a cafe, a beach or anywhere that’s not your office is fast becoming an expected benefit of the modern workplace. Employees are asking for more control over when and where they work. The consensus (53%) amongst employees is that a role that allows them to have greater work-life balance is "very important". A slightly smaller majority of employees (51%) said they would change jobs to one that offered them a more flexible schedule.

It could be really good for society too, particularly in helping to close the gender pay gap and financial inequality. Flexibility in when and where you work means that Dad can change nappies and do the school run rather than Mum. It means that Mum doesn’t need to commute while heavily pregnant. It means that aspiring homeowners don’t need to choose between a good job and a place with affordable housing. It means that brain drain won’t deprive neighbourhoods or nations of talent.

Flexibility is good, but it comes at a cost.

The challenges with remote work

A office based work policy, like the one championed at Yahoo when Marissa Meyer took over as CEO, is well intentioned. It’s designed to drive up communication and engagement. And sure, mandating that people come to the office can feel a little controlling but, as Google showed, affinity through proximity really does improve employee performance. They found that long lunch tables encouraged employees to sit next to each other and that this led to a sort of cross-pollination of ideas and disciplines which not only spawned new products but also improved employee engagement.

Being physically separated from your colleagues not only means you cannot benefit from the “long lunch table effect” but it also has negative effects of its own. Primarily it has a huge impact on communication and leads to a feeling of being “out of the loop” even if there is no “loop.” As Alex Pentland wrote in his book, Social Physics, poor communication is crippling for performance and productivity.

Remote work and mental health

While there are positive mental health benefits of working form home, such as an improved work life balance, remote work brings challenges too. According to a meta-analysis co-authored by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder. The study also found that loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity.

We don't necessarily need to be alone to feel lonely. We simply need to feel like our relationships are not meaningful and that can come from physical or emotional isolation. So how do we maintain strong relationships in remote teams?

Remote work best practice: Improving psychological safety

At Saberr we’re obsessed with trying to find the underlying mechanisms which influence the performance of managers and teams. One of the biggest mechanisms that impacts the way teams perform is the degree to which they have “psychological safety.” Amy Edmonson, the academic who can be credited with pioneering our understanding of this principle, defines it as follows:

“Psychological safety is broadly defined as a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves. More specifically when people have psychologically safety at work, they feel comfortable sharing concerns or in mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution.”

You could safely summarise this as “trust.” Unsurprisingly, it turns out that trust amongst those who work remotely is much lower than those who work in the same location. The good news is that there are a few reliable ways to build psychological safety in a remote working environment.

Improving psychological safety in 3 easy steps

1. Set really clear goals.

People feel more comfortable when they know what’s expected of them and when it’s expected by. For remote teams this makes it much easier to plan work around life or vice versa. It means that they can really maximise the flexible element of remote work rather than just enjoying the freedom to work from somewhere else.

2. Get to know your team on a personal level.

People trust each other more the more intimately they know one another. You might think getting to know your colleagues more personally isn’t going to help improve your professional relationship or help you get your work done quicker but Amy Cuddy’s research indicates that trust is even more important than competence in professional relationships. Warmth or trustworthiness is the most important factor in how people evaluate you, ahead of intelligence or talent. If we don’t trust someone — no matter how competent they may be it’s harder to develop a positive working relationship.

3. Use technology that encourages conversations

Tools like that make it easier to have structured conversations can have a significant impact on the quantity and quality of conversations between peers. In a recent study NatWest Markets found that using CoachBot, a piece of leadership development software designed to help managers improve the way they engage and develop their team, improved psychological safety in remote teams by more than 40% in less than six months.

Remote work is going to be the new norm. But it comes with some risk. It is up to us as business leaders to make sure that we consciously act to ensure psychological safety amongst our remote workforces remains high.


Originally posted in People Management Magazine here.