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There is arguably only one factor that all companies have in common — they rely on people to make them successful. And conclusively, people — both as individuals and teams — require psychological safety to perform (perhaps now more than ever before with distributed and hybrid work environments). A common definition of psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, concerns, questions, or for making mistakes. As this article will show, the definition takes on different flavours for different leaders and organizations.

Psychologists, consultants, and leading management thinkers have continued to study psychological safety, how to build it, and how it has evolved during and coming out of the pandemic.

To better understand it in 2022, Lainie Yallen — a former student of mine who is now head of growth at TriplePlay — and I interviewed seven top people leaders about their perspectives on psychological safety, the role of relationships in building and maintaining it, and strategies they’ve tested in the new working world. Through their experiences, we identified four key themes that emerged across organizations.

  1. The role of psychological safety at work has been redefined, and now has renewed importance

A confluence of historical, social, and economic factors has led to a renaissance for the workforce, redefining the role and importance of psychological safety.

Bhushan Sethi is the joint global leader of the People & Organization practice of PwC, which is among the leading professional services networks in the world.He set the context that we are existing, working, observing, and commenting on psychological safety during a renaissance for the workforce.

The role of business has evolved in society. Business is more trusted than government. Its role is beyond profits and extends to purpose and trust. Stakeholders are arguably more important than shareholders.

Confidence of employees has given rise to more of them to speak up more often. We are witnessing the “great resignation” where employees have more work opportunities and fewer incentives to put up with “bad” conditions. [Note: this is somewhat generational and industry-specific.]

The role of workplace leadership in the lives of employees has changed since the pandemic. Leadership has morphed from “How do we show up as caring and compassionate leaders?” to “How do we care about wellbeing and societal justice?” For the first time, leaders are navigating bringing people back to physical spaces, answering questions around how and when to do this, maintaining inclusive work cultures, and allowing remote work while ensuring equity for their employees.

Psychological safety has different meanings now that we are not always together in physical spaces

The chief people officer at the leading digital employee health benefits platform League, Kim Tabac, explains that culture was virtually embedded into their offices. “You could feel the energy when you walked into our downtown Toronto and Chicago offices,” she said. Since transitioning into a hybrid model, Tabac said League has implemented programs to connect employees and reinforce values and culture virtually. They are constantly programming ways to re-create the “in-office energy” while in a virtual space. We believe this is going to be a big challenge going forward for many organizations.

Psychological safety is a critical piece of the “S” in ESG

ESG outcomes are becoming broader — Leadership is an important component and companies are accountable for their human capital reports and outcomes, said Sethi.

So, it’s no surprise that the topic has been moved up on many CEO agendas

PSP is one of Canada’s largest pension investment managers. Its senior vice-president, Giulia Cirillo, suggests that psychological safety and culture have always been a high priority, but now that leaders have had to navigate leadership in a “new normal,” a lot of CEOs have added them to their agenda. A “silver lining” of Covid-19 is how leaders have shifted their mindset around the importance of psychological safety and culture — and focused on it.

  1. Fostering connection is at the core of psychologically safe organizations

A second major theme has to do with how connection is important in all directions. According to Tabac, there are three main ways that League brings connection to life for their employees:

  • Employees connecting with each other through employee resource groups, employee interest groups, starting with a buddy and mentorship programs
  • Employees connecting to the company’s mission and values
  • Connecting employee performance to the performance of the organization

Leaders having 1:1s is more important than ever

At the start of the pandemic, when the global employee experience team at the multinational professional services company Accenture undertook deep ethnographic research through focus groups reaching 1,000 people in the matter of weeks, one of the most highlighted practice that was helping people feel safe was “leaders checking in and asking me how I’m doing”, according to Stephanie Denino, global employee experience manager at Accenture. She described that the act of the most senior leaders checking in, not only with their direct reports, but those across their “pyramid,” sent a signal of genuine care. Psychological safety requires that we deliberately tend to relationships — even more so now in a virtual world of work in which it is easy to not feel seen.

Establish and support affinity groups

PSP uses affinity groups both to promote employee connection and advance their diversity objectives, said Cirillo. Gender dynamics, LGBTQ+, Anti Racism, culture and religion, Indigenous peoples, Veterans, People with disabilities, and Diversity of thought and perspective.

Blending the digital and physical will play a role in building social connection.

While virtual socials abounded in the first months of the pandemic, energy for them is difficult to maintain indefinitely. While well intended, they don’t manage to replicate the same levels of fun and ease of interaction as in person gatherings (e.g., how does one leave appropriately? How does one manage taking turns speaking without imposing too much formality?), and can sometimes end up feeling like another video meeting.

Accenture has used virtual reality to replicate some in-person experiences. The ability to be in a group and step aside with someone into your own conversation quite naturally, and rejoin — this kind of fluidity is increasingly trying to be replicated and is important for connection.

More insights

Additional themes that we discerned to understand psychological safety in the contemporary moment relate to how rewards and recognition shape psychological safety, and how it heavily relies on leadership. Find out more about these insights in Part 2 of this series, to be released next week.

The Great Resignation wasn’t created by the pandemic so much as supersized by it. The unwillingness of workers to rush back into cubicles, behind counters, onto assembly lines, and behind the wheel is a direct result of work cultures that too often default to suspicion, inflexible schedules, and unrealistic workloads. The virtual and flexible work arrangements necessitated by the pandemic were revelatory for many people, but didn’t free them from the 24/7 onslaught of tasks, back-to-back meetings, and emails created by always-on cultures and technologies. But the next wave of digital tech — what we call “smart tech” — has the potential and power to be different and to reverse these trends. Instead of dehumanizing us, smart tech can actually help rehumanize work.

In our book The Smart Nonprofit, we define “smart tech” as the AI and other advanced digital technologies that automate work by taking over tasks that only people could do previously. Smart tech makes decisions instead of and for people. While some feel that the interests of workers are at odds with smart tech — that humans and machines are in direct competition — we believe that this is a false dichotomy that’s uninformed, unimaginative, and just plain wrong. Smart tech and humans are not competing with one another; they are complimentary, but only when the tech is used well.

There will be parts of jobs that are suitable for automation, but few, if any, that can (or should!) be completely replaced by smart tech. What automation can change for the better is the experience of work. Rather than doing the same work faster and with fewer people, smart tech creates an opportunity to redesign jobs and reengineer workflows to enable people to focus on the parts of work that humans are particularly well-suited for, such as relationship building, intuitive decision making, empathy, and problem solving.

Companies will be making many choices about automation in the next few years. And those decisions will influence how employees, customers, and other stakeholders perceive your company going forward. For instance, will your company choose to institute:

  • Bossware — technology that’s lurking in the background of screens watching employees all day to catch, and presumably punish, anyone taking an unscheduled break?

Or

Organizational leaders are going to face many choices when it comes to smart tech in the near future. Commercial applications using smart tech are available off-the-shelf for every department from communications to accounting to service delivery. It will require informed, careful, strategic thought to ensure the technology is used to enhance our humanity and enable people to do the kinds of relational, empathetic, problem-solving activities we do best.

Consider the case of The Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis counseling to young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ+) people. The Trevor Project is an example of what we call a “Smart Nonprofit” — an organization that has stepped carefully and wisely into automation by understanding “cobotting,” the combination of people and smart tech that brings out the best in both. They created Riley, a chatbot that helps train counselors by providing real-life simulations of conversations with potentially suicidal teens. Riley expands the training capacity of the organization enormously by always being available for a training session with volunteers. But the Trevor Project also knows that staying human-centered and ensuring that teens are always talking directly to another human being is critical to fulfilling its mission. Riley isn’t subtracting from the human experience; it’s adding to it.

Cobotting goes beyond working with chatbots. For example, Benefits Data Trust (BDT), a Philadelphia-based organization focused on poverty reduction, integrated smart tech into their application process. Call-in center staff assist clients in navigating and completing applications for public benefits. The computer system was trained on thousands of interactions between call-in staff and clients to make recommendations among dozens of possible public benefits. The system also pre-populated forms for clients, saving staff an enormous amount of time. The pain point they were addressing was the enormous amount of time and documentation it takes for clients to apply for and receive public benefits. As BDT’s chief data and technology officer Ravindar Gujral told us, “At the end of the day, our role…is to create a human connection.”

Cobotting can also address another workplace stressor: inclusion. For example, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation uses automation to streamline the administration of patient encounters, where scheduling, diagnosis, medication orders, and patient care take place. For example, if a doctor orders a colonoscopy for a patient during an examination, the prescription for the prep medications is automatically sent to the prison pharmacy staff, and the 48-hour liquid diet instructions are automatically sent to food service staff. This is just one of the many patient encounters that can be tracked across all correctional facilities in the system. In addition to this type of automation, visually impaired employees can “hear” information on the screen via speech reading interfaces and use voice-to-text tools to input information on the screen.

Cobotting takes time and careful implementation to do well. However, the benefits to reducing staff overload are enormous. An October 2021  survey by Salesforce of 773 automation users in the United States found that 89% are more satisfied with their job and 76% say they are more satisfied with their stress levels at work as result of using automation.

So how do you get started introducing smart tech within your own organization? Here are a few initial steps you can take:

  • Identify key pain points to determine the right use cases. These should focus on areas where smart tech can take over rote tasks that can streamline unmanageable workloads and reduce worker stress. Outline exactly what tasks and decision-making people will retain and what tasks will be automated when the system is implemented. This includes identifying how automation will be supervised by someone with subject matter expertise.
  • Choose the right smart tech for the job. Make sure the product or system you choose will create the right cobotting balance. Ensure that the assumptions built into the smart tech align with your values. And be sure that the tasks that require empathy and intuition will be assigned to people, while tasks such as data entry or analyzing huge swaths of data will be assigned to smart tech — and not the other way around.
  • Create a virtuous cycle of testing, learning, and improving. Step carefully and slowly, because it can be difficult to undo the harms of automation once smart tech is in place. Pilot test the new system and workflow to ensure that your hopes and assumptions are correct.

Smart tech and automation can make work and workplaces more fulfilling and less exhausting. But doing so requires leaders to dig into the implications of automation and make smart, ethical choices about using tech that enhances our humanity and makes work better, healthier, and happier for everyone.