How to Foster Psychological Safety in Remote Teams

Creating a high-performing, creative team is challenging enough—but how do you foster a sense of teamwork when your team isn’t even in the same timezone?

Google knew how their best teams performed—they had higher retention rates, made more in revenue, and were rated twice as effective as other teams—but didn’t know why they were able to function better. They launched a study to determine the characteristics of their best teams, but couldn’t find any correlation with personality, experience, education, race, or gender. Instead, the most important factor was the team’s level of psychological safety.

“Psychological safety” is a complicated-sounding term that simply means an environment in which team members feel comfortable discussing potentially controversial issues. This sounds like a given, but think back to a time when your team made a major mistake and executives were demanding answers. Or maybe a moment when you were skeptical about the success about a project, but everyone else was gung-ho, and you didn’t want to bring everyone down. Speaking up is difficult, so you must deliberately foster a climate in which people can speak freely, without fear of retribution.

So far, so good, but how do you accomplish it? You can’t just show up tomorrow and decree that the office is now psychologically safe. Instead, you have to build trust, interaction by interaction. (It’s even more crucial if you have a new team; discouraging dissent or avoiding risk even once can set a precedent that gets harder and harder to break). Furthermore, a psychologically safe environment isn’t something you can implement by yourself—everyone on the team must contribute and encourage others to fully participate.

While talking to your team about the importance of psychological safety is a good start, it’s crucial to model desired behavior. Google has identified five key ways managers can foster psychological safety:

  • Demonstrate engagement. When interacting with team members, be present, asking questions about the matter at hand. Don’t get distracted by gadgets or emails!
  • Show understanding. Validate comments and recap what others have said. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything, just that you acknowledge their point of view.
  • Be inclusive in interpersonal settings. Show interest in your team as people, not just coworkers. Ask about their non-work lives, share your work practices and ask them to do the same, and schedule 1:1s to discuss their progress.
  • Be inclusive in decision-making. Get input from your team before making a decision, and explain the thought process behind the final decision.
  • Show confidence while being flexible. Take personal risks and encourage the team to question your opinions, while giving them credit when meeting with senior leadership. (Hey, we never said this was easy.)

Many of these recommendation make sense whether you’re working at the next desk or halfway around the world, but a significant amount rely on in-person cues like eye contact or body language, which is far more challenging to see on a Google Hangout. Other suggestions, like holding regular feedback sessions and expressing gratitude, require more effort, as opposed to dropping by a colleague’s desk. But with more teams working remotely, leaders must quickly adapt to virtually fostering psychological safety. We analyzed some of the best-known distributed teams and found several principles that increase your odds of success:

  1. Hire people who are capable of working remotely. It might seem obvious, but make sure that you’re hiring people who don’t need an office. Zapier has found the best remote workers are action-oriented, comfortable without the social network an office provides, and good at written communication. Then, once you’ve hired people who you trust to do the work, trust them to do the work—don’t virtually hover over them.
  2. Model desired behavior from the beginning. Share your work style and vulnerabilities during the interview and onboarding process. The first time something goes wrong, frame it as an opportunity to learn rather than a blame-fest. And if someone does start to bad-mouth a colleague, cut off the discussion and redirect it to the issue at hand.
  3. Use the buddy system. To start building relationships between a remote team, rotate people through informal online chats with each other. (This is especially important when a new person joins a remote team: they won’t know the ropes and may feel more comfortable asking a colleague than the boss.) According to Robin Dreeke, lead instructor of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Training Center, you can make these chats less stressful by limiting them to 15 minutes and encouraging people to listen to the other person’s story, asking simple questions like “how” and “why” to get them to open up.
  4. Develop a communication toolbox. Remote teams like Automattic (the web development company behind WordPress), Buffer, and Zapier each experimented with a variety of communication tools before landing on their preferred systems. While yours may vary, consider:
    1. Slack, Hipchat, or another messenger app. A “virtual watercooler,” these chat apps are great for including people in conversations and building a real sense of culture.
    2. Google Docs, P2, or another system of record. For important information, weekly ship updates, or documents that are frequently referenced, create a central location for quick reference. Automattic uses WordPress theme P2 for discussions; Harvest has an internal blog called “Harvest Academy;” Zapier uses a blog modeled after P2 called Async. If you don’t want to complicate things, you could even use Google Form or Doc that’s easy to input.
    3. Google HangOuts, Skype, or other video chat program. Hold meetings with video so you can monitor visual cues, but be aware of your own body language—are you grimacing when a new idea is introduced, or nodding along in understanding?
  5. Set up regular 1:1s. Just as you would in a regular office setting, make sure you have a dedicated time to check in with your team individually. Project management software Redbooth prefers to use Google Hangouts; again, visual cues help avoid communication errors. Use the time to discuss progress on projects as well as career development goals.
  6. Be more direct. Even with the best communication habits, remote teams are more likely to deal with miscommunications. When an email or text seems rude, assume Hanlon’s razor—it’s a miscommunication, rather than a deliberate effort to be rude. Emojis and GIFs can also be very helpful in conveying emotion. Lastly, you should be more upfront about what you need or the behavior you want to see, whether that’s praise or a request for distraction-free work time.
  7. Bring everyone together on for an offsite at least once a year. No matter how good your tools and processes are, nothing beats getting people together in the same room. These retreats, lasting anywhere from a few days to a over a week, are a combination of work and play, allowing teams to tackle larger projects. Buffer, for instance, uses their offsites to reinforce values like staying open-minded, as well as telling stories about the company’s origin and its future.
Our Newsletter
How to Foster Psychological Safety in Remote Teams
Search NOBL