Creating psychologically safe spaces for employees during COVID-19

COVID-19 has given way to a new era of how we communicate – virtually. For us internal communicators who find ourselves thrown into a panicked frenzy of figuring out what to do without the usual town halls, middle manager stand-ups or even those purposefully placed notice boards around offices which were key channels for that vital change communication campaign – don’t panic.

There is a way to turn this around and still communicate with your employees, perhaps even better than before, by enabling them to connect with each other on a more personal and community level. The key? Psychological safety.

Psychological safety refers to the process of providing safe spaces for employees to challenge and ask for help without repercussion.

Usually, this can be done in the form of one to ones or small team meetings in the physical workplace. In our current situation, however, we have lost that facetime and we need to find new ways in which to create it.

There can often be a sense of mistrust that comes with virtual or home working. This may lead to our employees feeling worried that they cannot step away from their laptop for a minute to help their child with schoolwork or care for their neighbour without their manager inflicting consequences. This creates a stressed-out state that will affect their ability to concentrate, make decisions or control their emotions (Radecki and Hull, 2008). If this rings true with your ‘virtual’

Communication style, it’s likely that you have inadvertently created a psychologically unsafe space.

As internal communicators, we need to instead be acknowledging that the new structure involves the ‘home lives’ of employees.

This is the time to embrace that side, not try and keep it at arm’s length. Just think for a moment of how the world’s attitude has changed from this initial clip of a BBC journalist going viral as he was interrupted by his family video conferencing, with it seen as unprofessional albeit a little funny, to currently, where he returned to do a conference with all of them together (see clip here).

We can harness these ‘home interruptions’ to create a psychologically safe space for employees. How? Here are some of my tried and tested approaches:

  1. Start by asking them to submit their very own ‘day in the life of’ videos which include their kids, dogs and cats, exercise etc- elements that show the other side to them. These can then be shared widely to create a culture of acceptance for the new way of working and help to bring on board those who are a little less convinced. Ask them to comment and share the stories amongst each other to create a community. Once they see that these disruptions are accepted across the workforce, as individuals they will be more likely to feel psychologically safe- leading to more innovative and creative mindsets. 
  2. Another approach is to create new communities for your employees that are outside of their direct teams. This occurs naturally in the physical workplace but may need a little nudge right now. Start with creating randomised and closed video links to connect employees each week or bi-monthly. Make them friendly in tone and name them something along the lines of ‘coffee mornings’ or ‘happy hours’ so that employees know from the outset their purpose- safe spaces to connect and communicate with those outside of their teams. Because there is no one in these video groups they work directly with, employees can feel safe in the knowledge that what they say will not affect their work. You may also find these are useful for new employees as part of their virtual onboarding to minimise isolation.

Of course, we can’t expect everyone to be performing at 110% when the threat of a deadly virus is just around the corner, but what you can do is make your employees feel psychologically safe and supported throughout the lockdown which will lead to lower stress levels and better output. Creating these spaces, however you choose to do will build their levels of community and trust that will carry through to the physical workforce once lockdown is over.

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Gihan Hyde
Gihan Hyde is an award winning corporate communication expert with a deep passion for internal communication. Her roles spanned different organisations including HSBC, Barclays, M&S, and Department for International Trade, and the Riyadh Metro Project.
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