I stepped into the full conference room to see 10 tables packed elbow to elbow. I found a spot at the front of the room near the speaker. I hope I don’t get called on, I thought to myself as I picked up the literature at the center of the table. Ironic for a session dedicated to emotional safety.

The lighting at the 2019 Sustainable Brands Conference was notably grim, but our speaker, Susan Hunt Stevens, CEO of WeSpire, was warm and kind. Five minutes into her talk, I started feeling safe, supported, welcome and validated.

My fellow tablemates were smartly dressed in blazers and ironed blouses with lanyards looped around their necks, proudly displaying badges with fancy titles from fancy companies. They watched the speaker with intrigue in their eyes. In this room, they were just people with open minds, sharing a sense of connection with total strangers.

A year ago, the concept of psychological or emotional safety in the workplace sounded so progressive. As Hunt Stevens explained, it’s a precondition for highly productive relationships. Research on the whys behind high-performing teams shows that one of the most important keys to team productivity and harmony is psychological safety—a sense of assurance that the team will not reject, punish or embarrass anyone for speaking up or being themselves. Basically, a work environment defined by interpersonal trust and mutual respect.

Fast forward to July 2020. I’m in my home office staring at a screen of colleagues and clients in a variety of athleisure wear. The lighting is warm and packed conference tables seem like a distant memory, but what I learned in that room couldn’t be more relevant.

We’ve seen companies like Google and lululemon put psychological safety at the forefront of their Diversity Equity and Inclusion and Environment, Health and Safety work for years. But now everyone is talking about it. This includes leaders and companies that have historically regarded these “softer” considerations unprofessional. No workplace is untouched by the effects of COVID-19 or the recent surge of attention toward the Black Lives Matter movement. Physiological safety and mental well-being have become essential everyday workplace issues.

For companies that want to improve their DEI programs and create a more sustainable workplace, WeSpire recommends starting with a few key questions to help inform their strategy:

  • Do employees in your company feel psychologically safe?
  • Are employees happy?
  • How do people in your company feel who are not in the majority group? Do they have friends, role models, champions, mentors?
  • Do older employees feel valued?
  • Does your company provide more than just a linear career track?
  • Do people feel promotions and hiring are fair?
  • Has your company clearly identified the behaviors that they want to change?

But that’s at the company level. What about you? Me? The employee on the other side of the screen who can’t wait for a robust program to be assembled? Without the ability to connect in person, each screen-to-screen conversation we have and each IM we hastily tap out carries more weight. What we say and don’t say as individuals is more important than ever when it comes to building a psychologically safe workplace—even at a distance.

Tips you can use today to build a safer workplace

Normalize stress

Research on mental well-being in the workplace shows that combating the stigma of stress, anxiety and depression is the most important step in creating a more emotionally healthy workplace. Try acknowledging the stress. Talk about it. Name it. Share it. Everyone is feeling it today, and a shared understanding of what each person is going through can ease anxiety.

Use the “platinum” rule

I was raised with the golden rule, but today it’s been updated. When it comes to psychological safety, it’s no longer good enough to treat others as you’d like to be treated. Instead, we’re now being called on to treat people as they’d like to be treated. Try asking your co-workers how they like to receive communication. One size doesn’t fit all.

Give employees a voice

It might seem awkward at first, but try establishing and practicing a cadence of open communication. This should be regular and predictable and work both ways. Keep people up to speed about important issues, and ensure that leaders are accessible for employee Q&A. Some companies address this need with weekly pulse surveys or informal videos featuring employee-generated content and messages.

Be OK with difference

Difference is OK and so is conflict, but we’re programmed to avoid hard conversations for fear of rejection or ridicule. Try not to get personal. Debate the idea rather than passing judgment on the person. Doing so promotes healthy conflict and fosters creative thinking.

Plan for the unplanned

Clear meeting agendas are great. They say, “We know your time is important.” But these days, the definition of what’s important has shifted a bit. Try dedicating a portion of your meeting to unplanned time. Ask about the kids, the garden, the dog or just last night’s dinner. Every moment of genuine connection can increase people’s sense of well-being.

Remind employees about resources

Not everyone wants to ask for help, but everyone should know where to look if they need it. Try providing a list of mental health, medical and financial resources available to them in a biweekly email. Better yet, post resources to a webpage that can act as a repository for ongoing communication.

Today, we are the company culture. And we can’t rely on office banter, bright affirmations posters or breakout spaces with soft seating. It’s all about us—the face on the screen, the email from leadership and the way we treat each other from day to day. Each of us is responsible for the sustainability of our workforce. Are you ready?

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