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Bringing Psychological Safety and Teaming to the Post-COVID Office

A safe workplace will require open dialogue, a shared mission and employee empowerment, says Harvard’s Novartis Professor of Leadership.

As offices begin to reopen across the world, physical safety will be a top priority for companies everywhere. Part of making the workplace safer will be getting people to be much more comfortable with speaking up and creating something called “psychological safety,” according to Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson.

“It’s a small thing, but it is not to be taken for granted,” says Edmondson, who as the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, studies psychological safety and organizational learning. She is also the author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth. 

When people bite their tongue and hold back in an organization, she says, everyone is at risk. Big ideas are missed but so too are pressing concerns and questions. In a pandemic, that can hinder physical safety. 

Provide explicit invitations to speak up

Now more than ever before, this kind of candor is vital. Ahead of reopening, leaders can set the stage and make it crystal clear that they genuinely welcome the crazy ideas, the tough questions, the bad news. Bringing in the hand sanitizer and social distancing rules are easy, but encouraging honest dialogue is difficult. The best thing leaders can do is to explicitly and genuinely invite—and expect—people to speak up. Also important: perpetually asking good questions that are open-ended, giving people room to respond, even if management disagrees. 

No more top-down management 

That kind of empowerment and honesty is the cornerstone to something called “teaming,” another area of study by Edmondson. Teaming involves communicating and coordinating with other people across boundaries, whether it’s distance, expertise, status or vertical hierarchy. There’s no top-down management style, but rather a central hub of communication and structures that empower teams to collaborate independently.  

Organizations create a central hub of messaging and data gathering, such as a daily briefing that has the latest up-to-date data for workers. Next, they put into place rules, structures and protocols that teams will take seriously, but that don’t tie peoples’ hands. They’re the front lines to make decisions and collaborate. You don’t want to fail, but you don’t want people to be punished for failing.

Edmondson’s research shows that effective teaming can fertilize creativity, clarify goals, achieve accountability, redefine leadership and more. And today, teaming can position a company to not only weather the pandemic but to thrive in 2020 and beyond. 

So what does teaming look like exactly? Look no further than the really well-run urban hospitals in New York and Boston in the midst of the pandemic. They each operated with clarity about the mission, and then enabled and empowered those on the front lines to do what they needed to do, to speak up, to ask for help. The model would work the same for a tech company, an auto company, a retail company. “It is up to the top, the senior executives, to get super-clear about the purpose and super-clear about the mission. ‘What is it that we will try to do given what we’re up against?’”

Edmondson calls hospitals the “fruit flies of management.” Nurses, doctors, radiologists, surgeons and medical technicians all collaborate across departments with various levels of hierarchy, and they do it in an intense period of hours and days. There’s a centralized message and greater purpose, and there’s a system that empowers workers to collaborate and solve problems.

Another example is the U.S. military. After decades of being the ultimate top-down command and control structure, the military moved to a decentralized network to defeat Al Qaeda in 2004, according to Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. The old-school management model was too slow for today’s modern warfare.

“They needed fast-moving agile teams on the ground with the training and brains to make decisions and a shared mission about where they’re going,” Edmondson says.

Edmondson also explored how teaming played out in controlling the Ebola outbreak in 2014.  She published a piece in the Harvard Business Review that explained why traditional top-down management didn’t work for those collaborating at the Center for Disease Control, the U.S. military, NGOs and university researchers. 

And, today, just like that outbreak, traditional top-down won’t work in the post-COVID office. 

“There is this funny combination of top down and bottom up,” she says. “Almost like a biological system.”

When reopening the office, begin with unity 

So how should leaders in all spheres think about teaming now? What strategies should they be putting in place amid uncertainty? 

Begin with unity in your messaging, says Edmondson. In the coming weeks and months, leaders should openly state their goals for returning to the office, which should be simply getting together safely. Communicate that mission with clarity and passion—and do it often, even though it might seem obvious. “You need to say it daily because people are busy and distracted and must be reminded,” says Edmondson. 

Admit that you’ll be writing the playbook as you execute it, and even admit when you don’t know the answers. While some may assume saying “I don’t know” looks like weak leadership, Edmondson says it actually shows strength, because there are no clear answers in the current environment. Encourage people to bring their ideas, worries and questions to the table and to think like a scientist, and admit that mistakes will be made.

Learn from COVID lockdown

While there’s a lingering question of how we get “back to normal,” Edmondson believes we will never go back to how we operated inside offices previously.  “Like it or not, we’re going forward, but some aspects will resemble the past,” she says.

Instead, bring lessons from COVID-19 to look ahead. Ask employees to think about what they’ve learned about themselves, customers and products, that they wouldn’t have otherwise. Use those lessons to build your organization going forward.

For instance, during lockdown, many work-from-home employees found it easier to be open than in the past. When a child walked in on a Zoom meeting, it was noted, accepted and even joked about. That moment turned into connection, bonding and openness among colleagues. If you take some of that open mindset back to the office, it could drive creativity and innovation, says Edmondson.

In the end, a safe workplace and one that rises above the chaos of the world will require transparency and fierce communication. Leaders must extend a clear invitation for employees to express their ideas and concerns, regularly take the pulse of how people feel, reiterate the shared mission of the organization, and empower people to solve problems. By learning and finding those very thin silver linings of the pandemic, leaders can work to reinvent their organizations for the future.