Return to the Workplace: Perceived Safety May Be Your Achilles Heel (Part Two)

“The office appears ready for the first wave to return. Sneeze guards are up; I've completed the daily health check survey to make sure I’m symptom-free and adjusted my schedule to be ready for the ‘morning team’ hours. So, why can’t I concentrate?”

Although these questions represent a hypothetical scenario, feeling safe is about much more than being prepared. Reactions of disbelief, fear, and even anger may be commonplace as employees transition back to the office. Overcoming these adverse feelings starts by building workforce confidence, which in current times, is imperative. People—supported by just, inclusive, and empathetic actions—are what make organizations thrive. Unlocking the full potential of your people rests upon a foundation of psychological safety, recognizing the full identity of each employee.

Providing psychological safety means addressing emotional barriers and concerns while supporting employees through the behavior and mindset shifts crucial for successfully returning to the workplace.  An employee who perceives psychological safety feels heard, included, capable of learning and contributing, and able to speak up without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or reprimanded. Psychological safety can meaningfully impact engagement, mental health, and employee turnover. Fortunately, there are behavioral and neuroscience techniques available to support your staff’s well-being in the transition back to the workplace. There are a few key actions that can help you apply these strategies:

  1. Understanding and supporting each employee's emotional needs
  2. Soliciting and responding to feedback
  3. Applying neuroscience-based strategies to facilitate sustained behavior change

Supporting Emotional Needs

How do you make progress when employees’ reactions can be varied and unpredictable? Support individual needs with tools and techniques that promote certainty (i.e., our ability to predict the future), autonomy (i.e., our sense of control over events), and relatedness (i.e., how safe we feel with others). Provide the workforce with self-serve tools that supplement communications and feedback loops. Empower employees to pitch a new idea, find a buddy, become a mentor, self-evaluate their performance first, confirm expectations more frequently, or manage their own working hours. All these tactics can shift one’s mindset to a more positive state.

Employee perceptions shape the reality of the workplace’s health and safety culture. As such, consider employing buffer tactics to amplify emotional support and lower employees’ perceived threat level. Examples of buffering include building daily routines (reinforcing certainty), acknowledging opportunities to make choices (reinforcing autonomy), and camera-on events (reinforcing relatedness).

Managers can support their teams by inquiring about their perceived level of safety during check-ins and providing information that reinforces the available tools and techniques. We recommend working with Employee Resource Groups to support communities within the organization, such as Black Alliance Networks, Inclusion & Diversity, PRIDE Alliance Networks, Women’s Leadership Networks, etc. The COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing events of racial injustice are deeply affecting employees and their perceptions of psychological safety. As a result, leadership must provide space to educate, act, and recharge. By applying the principles of certainty, autonomy, and relatedness, leaders can deliver flexible, adaptive emotional support tailored to individual employee needs.

Acting on Feedback

Employees want to be heard and see their concerns addressed. Craft a two-way communications approach that invites input and feedback while facilitating the associated follow-up actions. It's essential to frame messaging properly, as the same communications can be perceived differently when presented in varying contexts. Develop a communication plan that includes the appropriate message owner, medium, and the details that will be shared pre-return, first day, and on an ongoing basis to reinforce key messages and subsequent behaviors. Create open and varied channels for feedback so you can keep a pulse on the interpretation of the messages, questions, and employee sentiment (e.g., safety perception surveys, check-ins with leadership, open rates on communications, etc.). Communicate feedback results and additional steps taken authentically, showcasing the appreciation for employee involvement. These approaches further solidify engagement and build trust.

When responding to feedback, avoid relying solely on data and statistics. In addition, identify opportunities to relay messages through storytelling. Stories make messages more convincing and easier to remember and recall. A quick leadership video, manager anecdote, or even a written story utilizing company personas that correspond to your measures of success can be a relatable and informative way to convey changes in thought or action directly related to the feedback received.

Behavior Change by Appealing to the Principles of Neuroscience

Finally, focus on changing behaviors that increase safety, both physically and psychologically. Rewards and recognition are great tactics, as people respond positively if their behavior is acknowledged with gifts or appreciation. Help to instill the newly introduced behavior changes through other behavioral science techniques. For example, if people now need to consistently de-clutter their workspace for more frequent cleanings, you can create a playful infographic as people are more likely to remember information and key messages when they find them amusing. Enlist your influencers to perform the behavior, as people tend to emulate the actions of others to fit in with accepted social norms. Or, run an idea tournament inviting employees to contribute to ideas on promoting office cleanliness. When we are involved in shaping the path forward, it is much more valuable to us.

By requesting and responding to feedback, providing coping techniques that meet employees where they are, and building on the science of human behavior, your organization is sending a clear message that the psychological safety of your workforce is a priority. In return, your employees will be better equipped to engage and adapt, knowing their voices are heard and their actions matter.

Click here to read part one in our series.

In addition, check out this blog to learn more about unlocking workforce potential through inclusion and diversity, and visit North Highland’s Insights Portal for more thinking on this topic in the coming weeks.