As more and more people are choosing to return to the physical office, it can be hard to get everyone on the same page. Hybrid schedules are wonderful in theory, but what if three people on your team want to come in on Mondays, two prefer Thursdays, and three want to keep working from home indefinitely? Even when a company institutes hybrid work policies, it still falls on individual managers to determine their team’s needs and figure out how to ensure that they’re met.
In our latest look at how Covid-19 has reshaped the way we work, we’re exploring psychological safety in the hybrid workplace. (If you missed the first article in the series, find out more about the 5 models one expert has identified for the post-pandemic workplace.)In an article in the Harvard Business Review, two workplace experts offer a detailed roadmap for building psychological safety in the hybrid workplace. Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School and author of The Fearless Organization, and Mark Mortensen, an associate professor of Organizational Behaviour at INSEAD, share actionable strategies for initiating difficult discussions as a means to creating a truly inclusive environment.
You may think that you know what psychological safety means, or at least what it feels like, but the reality is that this is a fragile concept. Edmondson and Mortensen define psychological safety as “the belief that one can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation.” In terms of the hybrid workplace, this effectively means that employees feel comfortable enough to share their often very personal reasons for preferring to work from home on certain days or even all of the time.
At a deeper level, if an employee isn’t comfortable sharing why she wants to work from home on Mondays, she may also not be comfortable speaking up at a critical time for the company. “[Psychological safety] has been well established as a critical driver of high-quality decision making, healthy group dynamics and interpersonal relationships, greater innovation, and more effective execution in organizations,” according to the authors.
The pandemic has added a whole new wrinkle to how, when, and why we might speak up at work:
“When it comes to psychological safety, managers have traditionally focused on enabling candor and dissent with respect to work content. The problem is, as the boundary between work and life becomes increasingly blurry, managers must make staffing, scheduling, and coordination decisions that take into account employees’ personal circumstances — a categorically different domain.”
In other words, uncomfortable conversations are usually the ones most worth having. Being vulnerable is never easy, but most people are especially hesitant to share their needs in the workplace, given our ever-shifting cultural norms around professionalism. Companies that promote — or even fail to admonish — presenteeism will struggle even more to retain employees who feel their psychological safety is not secure at work.
Another line that the Covid-19 pandemic blurred was the one between physical and psychological safety. A year ago no one would question why someone might feel safer working from their den instead of the company office. But just because your employees are able to get vaccinated doesn’t mean the “problem” has been solved. The sea change brought about in March 2020 has ushered in the age of the hybrid-first workplace. Many, if not most, employees make the decision about where to work based on personal wants or needs, rather than their company’s preferences.
Edmondson and Mortensen identified a whole host of reasons for preferring remote work among the people they talked to as they conducted their research:
“For one employee, the decision of when to work from home may be driven by a need to spend time with a widowed parent or to help a child struggling at school. For another, it may be influenced by undisclosed health issues (something Covid brought into stark relief) or a non-work passion, as was the case with a young professional who trained as an Olympic-level athlete on the side.”
Before Covid-19, we might dismiss the person with a widowed parent, the immunocompromized employee, or the Olympic hopeful as suffering from “personal problems” that had better not interfere with their productivity. But that worldview is ableist, elitist, and sorely outdated, per the authors.
“In the past, we’ve approached “work” and “non-work” discussions as separable, allowing managers to keep the latter off the table. Over the past year, however, many managers have found that previously off-limits topics like child care, health-risk comfort levels, or challenges faced by spouses or other family members are increasingly required for joint (manager and employee) decisions about how to structure and schedule hybrid work.”
In other words, now that employees are “allowed” to work from home, their reasons for doing so are no longer potential inconveniences for their employers, but rather valid concerns that fall within the purview of the employee-employer relationship. And Edmondson and Mortensen don’t see this attitude shift reversing itself anytime soon:
“While it may be tempting to think we can re-separate the two once we return to the office, the shift to a higher proportion of WFH means that’s neither a realistic nor a sustainable long-term solution. Organizations that don’t update their approach going forward will find themselves trying to optimize extremely complicated scheduling and coordination challenges with incomplete — if not incorrect — information. Keep in mind that hybrid working arrangements present a parallel increase in managerial complexity; managers face the same workflow coordination challenges they’ve managed in the past, now with the added challenge of coordinating among people who can’t be counted on to be present at predictable times.”
Ensuring psychological safety in the workplace is critical for retention as well as workplace morale. But we’re all navigating this new landscape together. Even if an individual employee is more productive than ever working from home, she may hesitate to share the reason behind her preference with her manager simply because of the pre-Covid divide between “work” and “life.”
There’s also a structural power imbalance that’s inherent to any manager-employee relationship that can get in the way of a fruitful and honest conversation:
“Sharing personal information carries real and significant risks, given legal restrictions related to asking personal questions, the potential for bias, and a desire to respect employee privacy. The solution thus cannot be to demand greater disclosure of personal details. Instead, managers must create an environment that encourages employees to share aspects of their personal situations as relevant to their work scheduling or location and/or to trust employees to make the right choices for themselves and their families, balanced against the needs of their teams. Management’s responsibility is to expand the domain of which work-life issues are safe to raise.”
Issues this complex can’t be tackled with a team survey or a series of one-on-one meetings between managers and employees. In order to ground team members with a sense of psychological safety, Edmondson and Mortensen propose a multistep approach to negotiating hybrid schedules:
Rather than meeting with employees one on one, Edmondson and Mortensen suggest framing the hybrid schedule discussion as a problem to solve with equal table stakes all around. “As a group, you and your employees must come to recognize that everyone must be clear and transparent about the needs of the work and of the team and jointly own responsibility for succeeding, despite the many hurdles that lie ahead.”
Start by sharing your own challenges with the team, whether it’s something personal or professional. It’s best to share something that is truly a barrier to your being able to move freely between home and the office. For example, if your partner is immunocompromized you may be far more leery of a 10-person in-office weekly meeting than someone who lives alone.
Edmondson and Mortensen caution against tackling the whole issue in one talk: “It takes time to build trust, and even if you have a healthy culture of psychological safety established around work, remember that this is a new domain, and speaking up about buggy code is different than sharing struggles at home.” If you share something personal and one or two team members are also moved to share, you can be sure that other people will come around with some time.
One of the benchmarks of psychological safety is feeling supported after speaking up. The only way to ensure this environment of safety is by policing it — even if that can be awkward:
“As a team leader, you need to be vigilant and push back when you notice employees make seemingly innocent comments like “We want to see more of you” or “We could really use you,” which may leave employees feeling they’re letting their teammates down. This is a really hard thing to do and requires skill. The idea isn’t to become thought police or punish those who genuinely do miss their WFH colleagues or need their help, but rather to help employees frame these remarks in a more positive and understanding way.”
Psychological safety is a nuanced and complex issue, so don’t expect the same approach to work for every team member. While many people could enjoy sharing their challenges with the group, others may approach you privately. The important thing is that each employee feels supported and empowered to choose the work setup and schedule that meets their needs.
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