October 29th, 2021

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A 5-Minute Return-To-Work Plan For HR Leaders

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Even high-performing teams can't reach their full potential unless something else is established first: Psychological safety at work. When that exists, people feel free to bring the best versions of themselves to the workplace and contribute to conversations without fear. 

Workplace leaders can empower the workforce today by building psychological safety at work — even against the backdrop of evolving business priorities, employee expectations, and return-to-office plans. 

It’s time to replace the traditional way of thinking about workplace wellbeing with a more human-centered approach — one that takes psychological safety into account.

What is psychological safety?

According to Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety at work means eliminating interpersonal fear.

When an employee feels psychologically safe at the workplace, they're more likely to innovate, contribute, and take risks that benefit the company. But when psychological safety is missing from the workplace, the fear of being punished for mistakes can stand in the way of performance and creativity.

There are many interwoven factors that influence your ability to bring the best version of yourself to the workplace. For employees, there's a rather complex web of individual, cultural, and organizational factors that interact to shape how each person shows up and engages each day.

Is psychological safety slipping away?

Human resources teams are wrestling with a broad range of new responsibilities related to COVID-19 — including several concerning physical and psychological safety at work.

Most of the workforce intends on staying remote at least on a part-time basis. Updating the workplace for our times is critical, particularly at a time when employees would rather leave their jobs than work for a company that doesn't align with their values and expectations. 

They're having to balance strict budgetary pressures and time constraints while the ongoing crisis makes it difficult to get a clear idea about what the organization's next steps should be. By switching to a hybrid work model, employers hope to ease some of their current hiring and retention challenges and appeal to modern professionals.

Is there a way for leaders to help alleviate the anxiety and uncertainty people feel about the transition to a hybrid workplace?

Yes, but it will require leaders to take a fresh look at their workplace priorities, explore technology options, and remember that the search for new ways of working starts with creating psychological safety at work.

What is psychological safety in the workplace?

What happens when the work environment fails to support people and their psychological safety? When psychological safety isn't nurtured, the workplace loses its magic. Without that foundation, individual employees can't bring their best ideas to the table which can cut down on innovation and slow the momentum of the entire organization.

So, what is psychological safety in the workplace, and how do you nurture it? It comes down to providing an environment where employees feel valued, supported, enabled, and comfortable — which is why having diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility policies in place is a key piece of psychological safety at work.

Here's an example to illustrate how the environment can influence an employee's psychological safety at work. Your employee — we'll call him Joe — is reluctant to come into the office each morning. Leaders may start to take notice, chalking his lack of enthusiasm and tardiness up to poor performance and a bad attitude. But what they can't see is the difficulty Joe has paying attention, his struggle to focus, or his preference for quieter spaces to work. Turns out he's not reluctant to be at work, just the distraction of the noisy workplace impacting his psychological safety.

HR leaders can remedy this psychological safety issue by implementing hybrid-friendly seating arrangements. For instance, if Joe's company switched to desk hoteling, he would benefit from having agency over his own workday. With the freedom to book a workspace that's conducive to what he needs to accomplish that day, it takes some of the hassle out of the workday and frees Joe up to focus on the tasks at hand.

Opportunities for improving psychological safety at work

In the current climate, there are additional factors such as employee burnout, feelings of isolation, lack of face-to-face interaction, and concerns about health and wellbeing that can all influence someone's perception of psychological safety.

Feeling socially isolated

Virtual meeting experiences have changed how people work, what they feel comfortable contributing, and their relationships with colleagues, management, and company leadership. There are not many chances to run into a coworker at the water cooler these days, so social interactions have had to become scheduled and highly structured.

To combat the lack of organic connections, some organizations have tried implementing online team-building exercises to offer more opportunities for collaboration and connection. But it's not a perfect substitute and it requires learning new ways to communicate effectively, work efficiently, and connect to the collective success of the company. For some employees, it's just not the same from behind a screen.

Lack of face-to-face interaction

There's something about collaborating with people in the workplace that really drives creativity. Taking big ideas to new heights by sharing information, brainstorming together, and building momentum.

At the beginning of this year, we wanted to know more about employees' expectations for meetings after the pandemic. In our search for understanding, we uncovered some surprising statistics about the future of in-person meetings. Not only did our findings show the majority of employees look forward to talking face-to-face, but there's also reason to believe that these meetings are more effective for building trust among teams.

That's great news for companies planning to return to their workplace. Just don't forget that a hybrid workforce means office attendance will vary day-to-day and the demand for space will fluctuate. That means employees need a way to check which meeting spaces are available so they can organize their schedule and plan which days to work on site.

Modern technology makes it possible to avoid losing out on valuable collaboration time. If you already have a conference room scheduling system, booking meeting space is easier, safer, and an all-around more positive experience for your employees.

Concerns about health and safety

For many employees, fear and burnout are defining factors of the day. They may hear news of an outbreak, building closures, changes to health and safety recommendations, or an announcement from public health officials about a new surge or variation.

That's a lot to digest and it's no wonder some employees are hesitant about returning to the office.

To build trust and cultivate psychological safety, HR leaders should evaluate employees on an individual basis when making return-to-office plans. Keep in mind there may be many personal reasons for staying home right now. Between pre-existing health conditions, complicated circumstances, and other personal situational factors, there's a lot to consider in regards to what affects their psychological safety. 

Before you welcome the workforce back, a little preparation is in order. So ask yourself: How will our team nurture psychological safety at work?

How to nurture psychological safety at work

Through physical safety measures, a human-centric approach, and flexible work arrangements, there are many ways for HR leaders to address the need for psychological safety in the workplace.

Introduce physical health and safety measures

When you do start your return to office process, it's a good idea to use wellness questionnaires to gauge the health and wellbeing of anyone who enters the premises. That'll help encourage those with symptoms to stay at home and reassure on-site employees that you're keeping them safe.

With touchless technology, such as Teem's mobile employee app for room and desk booking, employees are able to reserve seats from their own devices. That way, your facility teams know which spaces need to be sanitized and employees feel more comfortable knowing their space has already been cleaned.

Bring employees back - Teem Blog

Talk about wellbeing

Employees have been forced to contend with major economic, social, and technological disruptions caused by the pandemic. HR leaders shouldn't shy away from a discussion about the challenges people are facing every day.

Before reopening, you have to protect against physical and psychological safety risks. But as you're implementing new safety measures, it's important that you consider how these actions will impact employees today, tomorrow, and in the future. 

For instance, if you plan to go from having assigned seating to an open floor plan with shared desks, you should involve your employees in that process. Open up the conversation with people to discover how they feel about the changes you're making. People who have to give up having a designated space might feel anxious or upset. If you notice any signs of hot-desking anxiety, there are newer, more modern flexible seating options that tend to work better for everyone.

The key to successful change management is to always keep the end-users in mind. From the evaluation and decision-making phase to implementation and training, employees need to have a voice throughout the process.

As an advocate for your employees, it's critical that you use your voice to reinforce what you already know: The importance of their health, psychological safety, and wellbeing can’t be overlooked.

Remove the barriers to workplace flexibility

The second step: help your organization adapt to the hybrid workplace by removing the barriers to flexibility. Remember how disruptive the shift to full-time remote work was? Rather than experience the reverse effect, consider a gradual, less jarring transition.

Companies that mandate coming into the office will likely encounter reluctance, possible resistance, and cause the employee-employer relationship to sour. With "the great resignation" raging on, that's a big concern for HR leaders today.

The future is here. It’s hybrid. And employees expect leaders to get on board.

Set up your workplace for success

Great workplace software can help make the workplace a better place to work by helping HR leaders support psychological safety. That's good news for employees, teams, and your business.  After all, teamwork makes the dream work.

As your workplace evolves, an employee experience app is one way to meet all the flexibility, technology, and social needs of your distributed workforce. That way, your employees have what they need to book rooms and desks, schedule meetings, navigate the workplace, and enjoy their time in the office.

Do you know how to recognize the key signs of employee burnout? Get the e-book.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Teem

Teem by iOFFICE provides enterprises with space scheduling and management, workplace analytics, building, and campus wayfinding, and visitor management to help cultivate workplaces that fuel productivity, efficiency, and creativity.

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