Safe and Respectful – Virtually

Fran S.

Fran S.

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Perhaps you’ve been working virtually for years, or perhaps you have just moved to WFH.  The novelty of videoconferencing, chatting on multiple Slack channels, and clearing more emails than you’ve ever received might just be wearing off.  The COVID-19 crisis has changed the way many of us work, and today I ask that you, and perhaps your entire team, take a pause to remember that even when we are not co-located, respect and safety are essential to our productivity, engagement, resilience and endurance in these challenging times.

Psychological Safety

Characterized by Amy Edmonson as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, or concerns, or to point out errors,” has been shown to enhance learning, engagement, and innovation in organizations overall.  Significantly, it has also been demonstrated to increase cohesion in the virtual workspace. 

Respect – the sense that one matters to those around them and that they are valued – is also an essential component of high performing organizations. 

A surprising degree of our assessment of whether we are safe and respected (or not) traditionally comes from nonverbal cues – the casual bits of behavior that we exchange in day to day physical workspaces.  Whether it is a simple acknowledgment and greeting or a casual compliment, these respectful cues keep our brain away from the perception of threat and allow our cognitive load to focus on our work and relationships.  In an environment without the opportunity to incidentally absorb those cues, we have to be extremely mindful of the importance of creating safety and respect for our teams in different ways.

To mindfully build respectful, safe virtual workplaces, we need to focus on several important principles:

·      Productive engagement: Communicating and signaling positive intention and appreciation

·      Strong relationships: Avoiding a strictly transactional virtual environment and deepening trust

·      Feedback rich environment: Building capacity to address small problems early and to be self-correcting

Productive Engagement

One of the fundamental principles that emerge in the research on virtual team climate is the more visual engagement during team interactions the better.  A team covenant that all team gatherings will be done by video creates a far more robust opportunity to convey nonverbal information (including respectful cues) and to demonstrate productive engagement.  Mandatory video engagement eliminates the passive participant who mutes their phone or multitasks while sort-of-listening.  By asking everyone to be on video, the team is setting an expectation that all members be fully present.  When we are fully present, listening to one another and reacting in real-time, we have the opportunity to give those nonverbal cues that create safety.

Team norms that are collectively developed and explicit are important.  When a team has moved from collocated to virtual, expectations about how the team will function might be widely divergent.  During what hours is communication expected (especially across time zones?)  How soon should one expect a response to a text?  How forcefully can a team member assert their need to work uninterrupted?  What are check-in and course correction strategies?  How should engagement be sought and framed?  What preparation is expected before a team meeting?  How much accommodation should be given to the stress and unpredictability of the moment?  How can we support each other?

Strong Relationships

It goes without saying that virtual teams live on trust.  Without co-location, we must rely on others to be putting in effort, meeting deadlines, and following up on commitments in an unstructured environment.  Maintaining a social space of some kind – whether non-work-related Slack or Basecamp channels, video conference “happy hours” or lunch chats –is more important than simply “getting to know each other.” It is building social capital.  Predictable and safe personal communications are part of creating perceptions of safety and respect.  Rather than being frivolous “add-ons,” team-building activities such as sharing information about personal preferences, answering questions that help team members share information about themselves, and creating opportunities to develop shared understanding (there are many resources available for conversation prompts) are the raw material of the relationships and trusts that fuel productivity and engagement.

Given the chaotic and unpredictable nature of the world at this time, empathy and compassion are particularly important.  Team members may be juggling family life and work in unprecedented ways.  Chances are that illness has affected the lives of some team members.  Fear and anxiety are normative in these circumstances, and may especially affect the mental health of colleagues.  Taking the time to acknowledge and share perspectives on the loss of normalcy and the constant adaptation necessary in our lives will increase respect and safety for teams and reinforce that they are valued as people, not just human capital.

Feedback Rich Environment

When the bulk of communication is via text, email, and other digital modalities, the opportunity for miscommunication and misunderstanding increases exponentially.  When there has been miscommunication, it can spark conflict, and because of distance, it is easy to avoid dealing with the conflict rather than taking it on. Conversely, a phenomenon called “online disinhibition effect” can lead us to respond aggressively in a heated written communication without contemplating the consequences for relationships.  Virtual teams must have explicit expectations about dealing with problems when they are small and have a protocol for the methods likely to be most effective.  A simple way to set this up might be to have each team member identify their communication preferences if someone wants to discuss a concern.  Some team members might want a heads up prior to an in-person conversation.  Some might want to have the concern laid out in writing.  Others might want the person with the concern to ask for a phone or video chat asap to keep the concern from growing.  Most importantly, virtual teams must commit to, when possible, attempting to provide constructive feedback prior to triangulating the issue and sharing perspective with others[1]

To create an environment where fewer problems occur, leaders must foster an environment of candor and full participation.  Often issues arise from false consensus.  Using team norms such as NOSTUESO (no one speaks twice until everyone speaks once) can help ensure that all voices are heard.  Displaying vulnerability as a leader by acknowledging mistakes or doubts signals to the team that speaking up is valued. 

Providing and receiving feedback is not a skill most people are born with.  Critical feedback can feel like a threat, and without significant practice, most people will become defensive and resist the feedback.  One simple way to normalize feedback is to have a check-in at the end of any conversation — whether a chat between two people or a group video meeting – in which each participant can get feedback on how they showed up.  By normalizing quick feedback in a low-risk situation, team members will build skill and comfort.  To make feedback less threatening, it is helpful to practice offering the feedback first, and letting the recipient of the feedback establish a time and mode best suited to their being able to fully hear the feedback without defensiveness. 

Life will change again.  We will return to our social world with, no doubt, new norms and new experiences to share.  In the meantime, we owe it to each other to each day be mindful of our responsibility to preserve and create respect and safety for everyone we share space with – whether our colleagues across the digital room, or our communities.

[1] Of course, this does not apply to behavior that would constitute ethical or policy violations, which should be reported according to organizational protocol.


Fran S.

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