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How Your Digital Workplace Design Can Support Psychological Safety

March 15, 2021 Digital Workplace
Laura Pike Seeley
By Laura Pike Seeley

An atmosphere of psychological safety is essential for organizations who seek to foster innovative, happy, resilient teams. Members of psychologically safe teams and organizations are comfortable sharing ideas and doubts, trying new things and requesting feedback, knowing that their candor and enthusiasm will not negatively impact their careers. This atmosphere supports an open-minded culture, which encourages members to own and reflect upon failure, allowing for everyone to benefit from lessons learned. Ultimately, organizations that foster psychological safety are more resilient, innovative and inclusive. This theory, introduced by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson in her 1999 article “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams,” was notably supported by the findings of a landmark 2012 Google study of high-performing teams.

As work becomes increasingly virtual and questions about the future of work loom large, efforts to remove barriers to an open and equitable digital workplace culture are timelier than ever. When set within a leadership and cultural framework that centers the employee experience, digital workplace tools can support and maintain psychological safety across the organization through design strategies that encourage candor and equity.

Enable Two-Way Communication

Provide a mechanism for clear communication from leadership, while allowing employees to share opinions and thoughts.

Messaging from leadership should arrive through familiar channels in a predictable cadence, and employees should be able to easily browse recent and past communications. Two-way communication, in which employees can respond to messages from leadership, is key to allowing employees to feel heard. You may consider offering both open communication tools like Yammer as well as platforms that offer true anonymity, together with the polling functions that often exist within them. Leaders should be expected to respond to questions, concerns and criticisms in turn.

Related Article: What's Trust Got to Do With It?

Make it Easy for Everyone to Give and Receive Feedback

Offer a formal but low-pressure way to request feedback from and offer feedback (and praise) to others.

Quality performance management tools will offer this function out of the box. Performance management teams may consider encouraging feedback delivery during annual review sessions in particular, but the ability to offer and receive feedback should not be limited to a specific season. 360-degree feedback, in which leaders receive feedback from their reports, is critical to empowering employees at all levels of the organization. Using communication tools like Yammer or Teams to offer public praise should also be encouraged at all levels.

Related Article: How to Cultivate a Culture of Feedback in Your Workplace

Don't Reinforce Hierarchy With Your Digital Workplace Architecture

Strongly consider audience targeting across your digital workplace tools, including your intranet. This improves the relevance of content while also limiting visual cues that emphasize hierarchy of status within the organization. If employees below a certain rank are denied access to certain tools, dashboards or caches of information within the digital workplace, those should not be presented to them.

Related Article: Poor Information Architecture Is Hurting Your Business

Let Justice, Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Guide Content Strategy

Justice, equity, inclusion and diversity should be centered in your internal content and employee data strategy.

Consider whether employee data points like alma mater are useful to surface or if they reinforce exclusionary behaviors. If you use staffing tools, could markers of gender, age and ethnicity be concealed in favor of information about past project work or skillsets? Does your organization have a standard email signature, and could it be modified by employees who would like to list their preferred pronouns or the pronunciation of their names? Minimally, employees should have a way to educate others on these facts about themselves, ideally through an employee profile tool that they alone can update.

Celebrate Risk Taking and Its Inherent Failures

How do lessons learned and success stories factor into your internal content strategy? Encouraging project postmortems facilitates frank discussion of the challenges, missteps and successes of project journeys. Deliverables from these discussions could take many forms, from internal blog posts to A3s, but hosting them prominently within the digital workplace is crucial to celebrating lessons learned and the calculated risk-taking that forms the bedrock of innovation. 

Like the physical workspace, the merits and flaws of a digital workplace can impact employee satisfaction, retention, productivity and innovation. Designing your digital workplace with an eye towards building an open-minded organization will promote the types of communication and collaboration that help teams thrive. Clear two-way communication channels, mechanisms for feedback and praise, strategies for deemphasizing hierarchy, a content strategy that centers principles of inclusion and equity, and methods for hosting candid discussions of risk and failure are just some of the digital workplace design approaches you may consider as you seek to foster a psychologically safe workplace. 

About the Author

Laura is a corporate librarian and knowledge services professional currently serving as Knowledge Manager at HKS, Inc., a leading global architecture firm headquartered in Dallas. In this role, Laura helps guide the firm’s knowledge strategy by championing knowledge building and sharing, information organization and findability, and employee experience within the digital workplace.

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