Building Psychological Safety in a COVID World: Exploring the murky waters of vaccines, hybrid teams and learning to thrive in the new world of work.

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By Serendis

September 21, 2021

Without realising it, we are all constantly managing interpersonal risk at work. This inhibits the open sharing of ideas, questions and concerns. Now more than ever we need Psychological Safe team environments where we are able to air our concerns, ideas, objections, and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution.

Just yesterday I was pitching for a piece of work with an executive team and without hesitating, the CEO asked, ‘Are you fully vaccinated?’ I am and it wasn’t an issue for me, but his expression suggested he was thinking it might not have been okay to ask – or was it?  This is new territory for all of us, so let’s dig in together, forgive each other if we make missteps and as a leader of people ask yourself regularly ‘Am I really hearing new ideas and dissenting voices?’ If not, ask for them, again and again and again.

Let’s take a look at the current challenges to creating Psychological Safety and how you can enhance team members’ ‘voice’ in virtual and hybrid environments.  Firstly, there is a misconception that Psychologically Safety in generally healthy teams is a natural progression. It is not! This is because we all automatically hold ideas back that are different, sensitive or controversial. We want to fit in and belong. (even if we don’t realise it.)  The real challenge is that it’s against our natural human instincts and many of our learned beliefs to speak up.

What are the new challenges we are facing?

Having some level of interpersonal fear is normal but we now have to overlay a number of other generalised fears (contracting COVID, social distancing, deciding on and getting vaccines etc etc) which can tip our brains into overdrive and create significant anxiety.

On top of this, traditionally people managers have aimed to create opportunities for voice on issues related to work, but with work and life boundaries blurring more and more, team leaders need to tread new waters with their people.

Having conversations about where and when your team works can be more emotionally charged because it touches on an employees’ identity, values and life choices. For example, Australian companies are facing into the challenge of having to make policies around vaccinations and team managers have to then implement these policies which will come with a range of tensions.

In order for managers to really understand the needs and wants of their people, they need to provide an environment where it is safe for team members to speak up about their more personal choices and fears. Hence, the need for high levels of Psychological Safety has been amplified.

Here are three suggestions that may help you and your team to drive high performance in this messy new world of work:

  1. Share the load by setting the stage together As the leader of people, by acknowledging your own uncertainties about the best model for the team going forward you allow others to offer ideas. Have an explicit discussion on how the team will be most productive given the new constraints we are facing. Allow space for each person to express where they stand in terms of being in/not being in the office and work through the implications together. Focus the discussion not on how the team can make each other ‘feel safe’ and allow each person to express their view on how you can drive performance and get the most out of each other collectively.
  2. Invite participation often and in new ways The idea of proactively seeking candour is at the heart of Amy Edmondson’s (Harvard Business School) work on Psychological Safety.  What we have lost in not experiencing those casual interactions in the hallways and coffee rooms is an opportunity to ask each other what’s on our mind, to detect social cues, read body language and to connect personally. So, we now have to be more deliberate to uncover what’s really going on across the team. On the positive side of the ledger, the new environment has equalised some previous asymmetries between the dominant voices (read everything from being in the more populated Head Office, being more hierarchically senior or even being more extraverted in personality)  team members and those in the minority. Now that there is often a large proportion of people on screens it allows for greater space for everyone. There are a number of technology tools you can utilise to invite participation in an efficient manner such as digital whiteboards like Miro ( and Mural ( in which team members can all contribute and anonymously vote for the best ideas. You can also create breakout discussions when in larger groups, use anonymous polls or the chat line for those who prefer to contribute their thinking in writing.
  3. Keep your radar on to consciously include we are experiencing this ever-evolving situation. The rules of how to live and work with COVID are not set, and our brains hate that uncertainty. So, keep an eye out for team members holding back information, saying one thing but doing another, or showing signs of anxiety. For example, if one team member has jumped at the chance to come back to the office, they may not have empathy or understand why others don’t want to. Watch out for innocent comments like ‘We’d love to see you soon, we miss you!’ This could easily result in that person feeling excluded without any intent in that direction.

The good news is that the fundamentals for creating Psychological Safety have stood the test of time. It’s about setting expectations together, inviting participation and to always always remember, if you are not consciously including you are probably unconsciously excluding.