How to foster psychological safety in remote teams

Trust and communication are even more important where staff are physically separated from each other, says Alistair Shepherd 

The principle of more flexibility in where and when you work is worth championing. Not least because employees are asking for more control over this; a Gallup survey shows the majority of employees (51 per cent) would change jobs to gain a more flexible schedule.

The benefits 

It could be really good for society too. Flexibility means Dad can change nappies and do the school run rather than Mum. It means Mum doesn’t need to commute while heavily pregnant. It means aspiring homeowners don’t need to choose between a good job and affordable housing. It means brain drain won’t deprive neighbourhoods or nations of talent. So flexibility is good; but it comes at a cost.

The downsides 

A ‘bums on seats’ policy, like that championed at Yahoo when Marissa Mayer took over as CEO, is often well-intentioned. It’s designed to drive up communication and engagement. As Google showed, affinity through proximity really does improve employee performance; the firm found long lunch tables encouraged conversation between disparate employees, which not only spurred new products but also improved engagement.

Being physically separated from your colleagues not only means you cannot benefit from the ‘long lunch table effect’ but it also disrupts natural communication in the office. As Alex Pentland wrote in his book Social Physics, poor communication is crippling for performance and productivity.

The ugly side 

And if being separated from others is bad for performance, it’s potentially even worse for your health. According to a meta-analysis co-authored by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, 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 an alcohol-use disorder. The study also found loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity.

We do not 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. 

The key to making remote work, work

One of the biggest mechanisms affecting the way teams perform is the degree to which they have psychological safety. Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School academic who can be credited with pioneering our understanding of this principle, defines this 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 among those who work remotely is much lower than those who work in the same location. The good news is there are a few reliable ways to build psychological safety in a remote working environment:

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 they can really maximise the flexible element of remote work rather than just enjoying the freedom to work 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 social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s research indicates 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 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 using leadership development software, designed to help managers improve the way they engage and develop their teams, improved psychological safety in remote teams by more than 40 per cent in less than six months. 

Remote work is going to be the new norm. But the benefits are just as big as the risks. It is up to us as business leaders and HR professionals to make sure we consciously act to ensure psychological safety among our remote workforces remains high.

Alistair Shepherd is founder of Saberr