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How to Create Psychological Safety in Times of Crisis

At some point in our careers, most of us have felt unsafe to behave naturally or speak freely at work. To be productive as a team, you have to be able to control your behavior, but not feeling safe to speak your mind undermines collaboration and kills innovation. In times of crisis, when critical decisions are made every day, creating an environment in which your team members feel safe to speak up and disagree could determine whether your organization survives.

Psychological Safety, a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmundson over two decades ago, is not about playing nice or pretending everything is going well when it’s not. On the contrary, it’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other—all of which are important behaviors of any successful team, and are critical to the survival of organizations during the Covid-19 crisis.

A Workplace for Extreme Use

Creating a psychologically safe environment is challenging for any organization, but moving to a fully remote model in the midst of a crisis makes it even more difficult. Being surrounded by constant fear and panic can lead to heightened stress, and missing out on daily body language cues that signal belonging can lead to heightened anxiety.

This extreme use case, with the presence of stress and anxiety and absence of in-person interactions, is exactly the kind of environment that the team at Ultranauts, a software and data quality engineering firm and a Work of the Future Solver, has thrived in for the past seven years.

Tips for Creating Psychological Safety

The Ultranauts team is fully distributed and incredibly diverse, with colleagues working in 20 states across the US, 75 percent of whom are on the autism spectrum. As a company that’s been 100 percent remote since day one, and as a team with a wide range of learning styles, communication needs, and stress triggers, the world’s new normal has been our normal for seven years. 

Over the years, we’ve developed a number of universal workplace tools, practices, and norms that we’ve codified into practical tips. We hope these tips will help other organizations keep their teams connected and empowered while maintaining psychological safety during this time of crisis.

Tip 1: Monitor wellbeing frequently. 

Not sitting next to each other means not seeing when a team member isn’t doing well or might need help. One solution is to poll team members as frequently as possible.

At Ultranauts, we poll our team daily using polly.ai, a bot that integrates with Slack, Teams, and Hangouts. It’s quick to set up and easy to manage. Our daily polls consist of statements that reflect our team values, such as:

  • “My unique strengths are understood and valued at Ultranauts.” 
  • “I do not feel lonely at work.” 
  • “I understand how decisions are made at the company, especially those that affect my job.” 
  • “I feel comfortable sharing my needs and questions with my supervisors.” 

The input is anonymous (via a direct message), and the output is public (with aggregate results published daily). The impact is twofold: it transparently highlights problem areas in real time, and it signals to the team that we care about each other’s wellbeing.

Tip 2: Multiply feedback channels. 

Being remote makes it harder to express challenges and frustrations, which if unknown can fester into real problems. One solution is to provide multiple means for sharing concerns on a regular basis, instead of waiting for Q&A forums at monthly all-hands meetings. 

At Ultranauts, in addition to our daily wellbeing poll, which surfaces problem areas quickly but doesn’t identify specific causes or actions, we set up several additional feedback channels, including:

  • A short, optional weekly survey: Open-ended questions prompt team members to share feedback and concerns.
  • An always-on “AskTheCEO” forum: Anyone can anonymously email questions, and answers are posted publicly via a Trello Board.

Tip 3: Increase check-in frequency. 

Being remote can lead to team members feeling disconnected, and being in the midst of a crisis can increase that sense of isolation. One solution is to increase the frequency of group and one-on-one check-ins so colleagues feel less alone and more supported.

At Ultranauts, our project teams use agile practices including daily standups, which help us stay aligned and productive and are a great way to efficiently connect as a group. Even for teams unfamiliar with agile, introducing a 15-minute daily standup is a better way to stay connected than scheduling lots of ad-hoc one-on-ones. 

Additionally, we increased the frequency of our Community Gatherings to weekly (from monthly), and started hosting bi-monthly open forums with our team’s life coach to provide safe spaces for team members to share and commiserate.

Tip 4: Improve decision making transparency. 

Being surrounded by fear and uncertainty can seed doubt among team members about job security and the future of the organization. One solution is to share management discussions as transparently as possible, so all team members have visibility into the current state of the company, and no one is left guessing. 

At Ultranauts, we’ve been sharing the management team’s performance dashboard with all staff from the beginning, which includes 30+ KPIs covering all facets of the business. Earlier this year, we started sharing notes on decisions and actions coming out of our weekly leadership team meetings. Interestingly, since the Covid-19 crisis began in February, we’ve seen a steady improvement in our poll that measures transparency.

The Covid-19 crisis has forced all our workplaces into an extreme scenario. To survive, organizations need to adopt practices that prioritize wellbeing, promote transparency, and protect psychological safety. Doing so will not only help us thrive after this crisis has passed, but also successfully confront the next one that comes along.

Like Ultranauts, many Solver teams are ramping up efforts during the Covid-19 crisis. Learn how you can support them by joining Solve's community as a Member.


Image courtesy of Ultranauts.

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