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Shaping better times: The importance of psychological safety and inclusion.

The past year has been a tough learning curve. We have learned that we are all in the same COVID storm together, but not everyone is in the same boat. The adaptability of organizations and the great efforts of employees soon resulted in new working methods that saw working from home as the mandatory norm. However, no one-size-fits all approach was available to make this actually work. Even now that the curve is going up again and restrictions are tightening once more, we are already thinking together about how we are going to shape better times ahead. The two principles of psychological freedom and inclusion will definitely get us off to a good start. And yes, some generous doses of creativity and technology can also give us an extra boost. 

It soon became clear to organizations that the impact of all having to work from home was experienced in a very individual way. For some, it opened doors to an unprecedented work-life balance but, for others, it felt like a one-way ticket to a continuous feeling of failure that, in turn, led to even more work in order to compensate for that feeling. Some people – usually those with introvert tendencies – enjoy the peace and quiet. Others – perhaps those with more extrovert characteristics – were soon climbing the walls due to the lack of social contact. Some colleagues work at the kitchen table with their toddler nearby, while others use a perfectly organized home desk. Some have experienced separation and loss. Others are going through an extremely intense period together with their partners, family or pet cat.

Hygiene stations, signs indicating one-way walking systems and lots of other do's and don'ts emerged in offices everywhere. However, physical safety guarantees were not enough to make all employees feel really comfortable at times when the conditions permitted a return to the workplace. And it seems that each and every well-intended initiative taken under the applicable coronavirus restrictions put someone at a disadvantage. For example, a carer would probably love to attend some COVID-secure outdoor initiatives, but decides not to do so in order to protect his fragile family member. Each person's individual standards and values may also cast the same facts in a different light.

Employees assess each other, but they also assess their employer’s actions, standards, values and corporate culture. People ask themselves the question: “What does my employer's handling of this crisis teach me about this organization?” Confidential advisers across different sectors have also noticed how we have all become a little bit sensitive and a little bit more likely to blow up. We miss our trusted ways of release. We now need to get by without frequent interactions with others who tend to calibrate our own ways of thinking. We can no longer recharge our batteries the way we used to in an environment that has become unpredictable with several extra stressors ("Oh no, schools are shutting yet again!"). This can be very demanding on some critical minds. 

How can we apply these lessons learned to the next challenge ahead: the return to “the workplace”? What should we do with those buildings, that workplace where we do so much more than just work? What will happen in terms of working from home in the future? Various surveys show that employees' expectations are high. And hugely inconsistent. Using the two principles of psychological safety and inclusion as a guideline will certainly get us off to a good start. And yes, technology can also lend us a helping hand.

Besides physical safety, we need to ensure a framework for psychological safety (Edmondson, 2008) to ensure that motivated teams stay out of the anxiety zone and are able to flourish. This means that we do not go out looking for some holy grail or one-size-fits-all measure. We need to make time and space to ask questions about the specific situation and experience of each individual. It is probably a good idea for existing teams to take a step back. There is probably no need to refer to psychologist Bruce Tuckman's group development model to understand that simply picking up where we left off is not the best option.

Psychological safety means that there is openness to discuss all views and personal situations. What concerns are there in this team? How do we ensure that the next step is inclusive? Human relations, connection and arrangements about where and how we will be working are made transparent and specific. Unfortunately, a well-intended check of everyone's opinion at the beginning or end of the umpteenth team meeting will not be enough. Structural meetings to determine the rules of the game have become a necessity. 

Psychological safety and inclusive considerations about how to shape better times ahead also mean that we need to think creatively and use the available technology. Everyone will also experience the return to the workplace differently. Each situation will be different. And how can we make sure that employees, who are currently not participating in the hybrid working model for individual reasons, are involved in the formal and informal group interactions? 

This blog is accompanied by a short video testimonial as a source of inspiration, but there is so much more that we can do together. Let us turn employee expectations into opportunities. Let us shape a new vision for the workplace, an inclusive vision that offers physical and psychological safety for every employee. A new way of working with enough mental and physical space for everybody to shine. 


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