There is a difference among onsite workers and their remote or hybrid colleagues in how psychologically safe they feel at work, according to a survey of nearly 4,000 U.S. workers. One-fourth of onsite workers are more likely to feel their mistakes are held against them, while only 14 percent of remote/hybrid workers shared this sentiment.
A psychologically safe environment is one in which individuals feel empowered to speak up, "to demur from the dominant opinion or to otherwise take professional risks," explained Brad Smith, chief science officer at meQuilibrium, a Boston-based digital coaching platform.
"Without a sense of psychological safety, team members may choose not to weigh in with new ideas, offer suggestions for changing suboptimal processes, or raise potential concerns about a critical project," meQuilibrium says in its report, Psychological Safety at Work: The Remote Kids Are Alright (Maybe Even Better). The report, released Sept. 13, is based on a survey the company conducted in July.
It found onsite workers were less likely than remote or hybrid workers to feel safe taking risks and less likely to feel that the team respects and values each other. They also are less likely to feel at ease discussing difficult topics. In the changing workplace, sensitive topics may include issues such as caregiver responsibilities or employees' comfort level around health risks in the workplace.
[Learn more about psychological safety at SHRM INCLUSION 2022. Virtual registrations are available.]
"There is a real difference in psychological safety among work settings," Smith said in a news release announcing the findings. "In many remote-for-the-first-time environments where everybody is the same size square on the video call, it's often easier to speak up and be heard."
The survey of 3,952 U.S. workers found:
- 21 percent of those working onsite find it difficult to ask other team members for help; 15 percent of remote or hybrid workers reported feeling this way.
- 14 percent of onsite workers said people are sometimes rejected for being different; 9 percent of remote or hybrid workers said this.
Differences in psychological safety were minor among age groups, meQuilibrium found, with older employers showing slightly less favorable responses than younger employees in some cases, while that pattern reversed in other cases.
On balance, though, respondents overall reported feeling a high degree of psychological safety within their teams:
- 81 percent said team members value and respect each other's contributions.
- 69 percent said it's easy to discuss difficult issues and problems.
- 60 percent said it's safe to take a risk on their team.
There are business implications to psychological safety—or its lack. Harvard Business Review noted such feelings have been "well established as a critical driver of relationships, greater innovation and more effective execution in organizations."
It also appears psychological safety is tied to resiliency—the ability to adapt to stress, change and disruption, and to reduce risks such as employee burnout and turnover, according to meQuilibrium. For example, among employees considered most resilient, 89 percent said team members valued and respected each other's contributions.
However, 34 percent of employees with low resilience and who reported feelings of low psychological safety indicated they were considering quitting their job; only 3 percent of highly resilient employees were considering leaving their job.
Creating a Feeling of Psychological Safety
Employees can better cope with stress and change when their supervisors and workgroups practice inclusivity, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported in its 2022 Organizational & Employee Resilience report. Findings are based on a survey in March with 1,007 U.S. employees working in professional or nonmanagerial roles:
- 69 percent said they can bring aspects of themselves to their immediate workgroup that others in the group don't have in common with them.
- 68 percent said people in their immediate workgroup listen to them even when their views are dissimilar.
- 68 percent said that while at work, they are comfortable expressing opinions that diverge from their group.
Managers who support employee mental well-being create a powerful foundation for team psychological safety, according to meQuilibrium, which found most employees (79 percent) generally feel their manager strongly supports their well-being.
In teams where they felt their managers supported them, 73 percent of workers said it's easy to discuss difficult issues and problems and 87 percent said team members value and respect each other's contributions. And remote or hybrid workers were 10 percent more likely than onsite workers to say their manager looks out for their well-being.
Smith suggested employers consider using the following strategies to foster psychological safety:
"Line managers and senior leaders who prioritize developing others as employees and human beings will boost psychological safety naturally," Smith said.
- Encourage and model behaviors that support psychological safety so they become part of team culture.
Managers can invite everyone to participate, call on individuals who have been less vocal, and generally solicit people to speak up about disagreements or negative feelings.
"At the team level, in an all-remote culture where it's harder to see body language when you get only a glimpse on Zoom, team leads [at meQuilibrium] have been more intentional in one-to-one meetings on asking not only about how work is going, but in a non-prying way how things are going on in general," Smith noted.
The company also started virtual town hall meetings after moving to an all-remote culture shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
"As political and social unrest piled on top of the pandemic, the town hall became a safe place to express feelings and for leaders to model empathy."
- Measure psychological safety as part of your people analytics program regularly.
"The old adage that you can't improve what you can't measure holds true here, too," Smith said.
Other SHRM resources:
Want to Keep Your Employees? Listen to Them, SHRM Online, July 2022
Research Pinpoints Factors of Organizational Resiliency, SHRM Online, June 2022
The Safety Net Needed to Stop Employees from Descending into Isolation, Executive Network, March 2022
Fostering Psychological Safety, Express Request
Drive Innovation with Psychological Safety, HR Magazine, November 2018