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Leadership calendar    Jul 15, 2021

The Hybrid Workplace: Do Your Employees Feel Psychologically Safe?

As organizations open up, invite, or order employees back to the office, the employee-employer relationship is rapidly changing.

As organizations open up, invite, or order employees back to the office, the employee-employer relationship is rapidly changing, characterized by growing turnover risk, wage pressure, and a buyers-market driven by demands for greater employee freedom, flexibility, support, and control of one’s work, workplace, and workday. Those demands are juxtaposed by some CEOs who seek a return to regular and more consistent in-person engagement, even with a “new-found” recognition that flexibility is a strategic talent lever (especially in a tight labor market).

It Really Does Start from the Top

Consider three recent CEO workplace declarations.

  • Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman said about their US-based employee experience: "By Labor Day, I'll be very disappointed if people haven't found their way into the office and then we'll have a different kind of conversation.” "If you want to get paid New York rates, you work in New York," Gorman said. "None of this 'I'm in Colorado...and getting paid like I'm sitting in New York City.' Sorry. That doesn't work." “While there is recognition of flexibility it will not be the same as we have experienced more recently”.

  • Despite some employee concerns, Apple CEO Tim Cook, established his own version of return to office clarity by stating that employees should expect to be back in the office at least three days a week by September. Specifically, they are telling employees to work in the office Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday.

  • In a recent post on LinkedIn, Flint Lane, CEO of Billtrust (a former Edison portfolio company), shared their philosophy on return to workplace practices: “If you can and want to get your job done from home, great news, we want you to do that. If you’d like to get your job done from one of our offices, great news, we have several to choose from. We will not be mandating people work from an office unless your job can’t be done in any other way”.

Three different companies. Three different approaches. All intended to set expectations that employees may or may not agree with, as they carefully enter the age of the hybrid workplace. It is clear this age will alter the workplace far more than the previous seventeen months. The hybrid age is new and uncertain. And one immediate challenge that will require on-going attention is the pressure on people leaders at all levels to carry out and sustain team and individual performance while navigating their next phase personal challenges. The truth is we have all changed since last March. The workplace is just catching up.

A Differentiating Skill for People Leaders in the Hybrid Age
People leadership in the hybrid age will require a blend of quantitative leadership (understanding culture data and insights to clarify signals from noise) and qualitative leadership (clarity of purpose and values, organizational astuteness, and increased self-awareness). In some ways, most importantly, is the ability to enable a culture of psychological safety.

  • According to the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), psychological safety “is found when a team or organizational climate is characterized by interpersonal trust and a climate of respect where members feel free to collaborate and they feel safe taking risks, which ultimately enables them to implement rapid innovation”.

  • In their HBR article on psychological safety and the hybrid workplace, authors Amy Edmondson and Mark Mortensen share that “since the pandemic changed the landscape of work, much attention has been given to the more visible aspects of WFH, including the challenges of managing people from a distance (including reduced trust and new power dynamics). A far less visible factor may dramatically influence the effectiveness of hybrid workplaces. “… sorting out future work arrangements, and attending to employees’ inevitable anxieties about those arrangements, will require managers to rethink and expand one of strongest proven predictors of team effectiveness: psychological safety”.

The Opportunity
In his book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, Dr. Timothy Clark, shares 4 stages of safety that employees need to pass through before they feel free to make valuable contributions.

Framed for the hybrid age, these stages take on a new level of importance.

  • Stage 1, Inclusion Safety: The safety to be yourself and accepted for who you are, including your unique attributes and defining characteristics.

  • Stage 2, Learner Safety: The safety to exchange in the learning process, by asking questions giving and receiving feedback, experimenting, and making mistakes.

  • Stage 3, Contributor Safety: The safety to use your skills and abilities to make a meaningful contribution.

  • Stage 4, Challenger Safety: The safety to speak up and challenge the status quo when you think there's an opportunity to change or improve.

As a high growth company CEO or executive leader, consider the application and challenge of these stages while leading a blended team (or organization) of employees who work remote, hybrid, and fully in-office. You have the ability to make a difference in the life of your team members and the broader organization in your charge. Making psychological safety a priority and modeling that behavior is an essential building block for leadership success in the hybrid age.

What can you do to set a path forward in the hybrid age?

  1. Establish a clear why and POV on workplace expectations (how work gets done, where work gets done, and when work gets done) connected to the rhythms and patterns of your business and customer expectations as you grow and scale.

  2. Become a culture facilitator (potentially with the help of a third party) and engage your executive team around the four stages as a means to understand and diagnose the current dynamics and needs of the team.

  3. Support your leaders to engage in similar processes with their teams. And while culture matters, so does the way you conduct your business. Help your teams understand that the workplace is dynamic and changing as the business demands, and the goal to sustain and adapt our culture will require everyone’s commitment.

  4. Begin to re-evaluate and engage your leaders and staff around organizational norms that help support psychological safety in the context of your version of the hybrid work environment. For example, embracing and encouraging a culture of ideas, experimentation and failure in the hybrid world will require a focus on productive conflict, dialogue and debate to resolve issues proactively.

  5. Pay close attention (and empower your leaders to do the same) to the tension points that may be exacerbated in this new phase and work to mitigate issues swiftly (culture and business performance are not disconnected ideas). Be prepared to pivot on your initial assumptions as you test and learn what works and what does not.

  6. Consider embedding a coaching culture where leaders at all levels must become better coaches, listeners and communicators with clarity. In a hybrid workplace maximizing team and individual performance will require the discipline to be a better coach, starting at the top.

The age of the hybrid workplace is not a replay of the flexible workplace espoused pre-COVID. Thus, my advice to any high growth company CEO is clear: regardless of your bias or interest to run your company in the way you and your executive leadership team see fit, the psychological support structure you create for the organization and the leaders who follow may be your most important decision for the long term.

Steve is an accomplished and mission-driven business leader, 2x former chief people officer, and trusted partner with the board, CEO, and executive team.  Known for his intentional, pragmatic, and values-driven leadership, Steve is a highly effective executive and team coach, advisor, and facilitator.