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Hybrid Work Won’t Succeed Without Psychological Safety


By Jordan Lin, Manager, JFF, and Surabhi Lal, Senior Advisor, JFF

Today’s employees place a premium on hybrid work, and employers who aren’t building hybrid work opportunities risk losing access to diverse pipelines of talent. 

In a recent global survey of 1,345 people, McKinsey & Co. found that 85 percent of employees who are currently working in a hybrid environment want to continue to do so. And of those who prefer hybrid work, 71 percent said they’re likely to look for other opportunities if their employers decide to abandon the hybrid model. That sentiment was especially strong among younger workers (those ages 18 to 34), people with disabilities, and those who identify as Black or LGBTQ. 

But hybrid work isn’t just about offering flexible opportunities for employees to work offsite some or all of the time. It requires new structures, norms, and customs to create more inclusive work policies that ensure that everyone knows that their voices are heard and their contributions are appreciated no matter where they work or what their role is. For that to happen at a time when many organizations are experimenting with new ways of working, employers must build workplace cultures that emphasize psychological safety. 

Psychological safety has been defined as a shared belief among members of a team that anyone can speak up and to raise questions or concerns or point out mistakes without risk of punishment or humiliation. Guaranteeing psychological safety wasn’t easy in traditional in-person office settings, and it’s even more difficult in hybrid settings, where people may have differing levels of visibility, depending on their role and whether they work in an office or are fully remote.

Over the past several months, Jobs for the Future (JFF) talked to corporate leaders who shared strategies for creating connections, fostering psychological safety, and building trust among team members to better ensure that employees have equitable opportunities to succeed on the job and advance economically in a hybrid environment. 

Here are the top strategies they highlighted, organized according to three of the six levers of JFF’s Impact Employer Talent Framework: talent acquisition, corporate culture, and talent development.

Talent Acquisition

The central tenet of the Talent Acquisition lever is “Build diverse talent pipelines and embrace unbiased hiring.” To do that, you need to look at your hiring process to make sure that it emphasizes psychological safety from the start. 

Here are four steps you can take to achieve that goal:

1. Diversify your talent pipelines. Ensure that even a small percentage of employees aren’t always recruiting from their existing networks. Those small percentages add up over time, and as a result a large percentage of your employees may come from similar schools, programs, and backgrounds.

2. Provide candidates with clarity about your processes from the start. Demonstrate a commitment to transparency by offering all candidates guidance as to what you’re looking for and how they will be assessed. Give them recommendations about how they should prepare for interviews and share any details about the company that they should know. Include salary ranges in job descriptions, or at least mention pay early in the process, and be open about your compensation philosophy and benchmarking principles.

3. Coach interviewers to ensure that they have solid interview processes and will be able to push beyond assumptions and stereotypes. Devise a common rating scale and adopt a rubric for evaluating candidates against critical responsibilities of the roles they’re applying for. If you start tapping new, geographically distributed and innovative talent pipelines, steps like these can ensure that the interview experience is consistent for all candidates and interviewers.

4. Invite the most junior person in the room to speak first. This mitigates the impact of power dynamics during the evaluation process. It also helps ensure that everyone will have opportunities to share their views without self-silencing based on what others have said. 

Corporate Culture

The Corporate Culture lever calls on Impact Employers to build purpose-driven, employee-centric workplaces that are based on trust. That’s more important than ever now that organizations are increasingly moving to hybrid work models, which requires having confidence in employees to make the right decisions for themselves and their teams. The question is: How can you build trust into your culture?

Here are three steps you can take to achieve that goal:

1. Listen to and engage with your employees to understand their realities. Go beyond employee surveys and your own assumptions and observations. Not only will you get useful information about your organization’s culture; you’ll also create stronger and more trusting relationships with your employees and increase engagement.
2. Use meetings differently. Find ways to schedule meetings to promote well-being or give employees opportunities to build relationships. Give employees time for a break between meetings by starting them five minutes after the hour or ending them five minutes before. You could also start on the hour but use the first few minutes to allow employees to connect with one another. This type of approach is especially important in hybrid environments, which may require more frequent—albeit shorter—meetings to help people update one another about projects and create deeper relationships.

3. Use scheduling tools to give frontline workers more flexibility. Frontline workers typically don’t have the same scheduling options as their colleagues in other departments. But there are ways to use workforce management systems to give them some flexibility about scheduling their breaks and time off. That degree of choice can help improve morale because it accommodates the preferences of those who like stable schedules and those who want some flexibility.

Talent Development

The primary principle of the Talent Development lever is providing employees with opportunities to develop new skills and advance in your workplace. In a hybrid work environment, managers need support to find and implement new approaches to successfully develop their teams. 

Here are three steps you can take to achieve that goal:

1. Invest in manager training that supports equitable decision making for managers and their direct reports. Among other things, this training should cover the skills one needs to identify bias in a hybrid environment, especially when some employees will have more visibility than others. Give managers the ability to make decisions that are right for their specific teams. 

2. Acknowledge that everyone, regardless of role, will need new skills in a hybrid setting. Your employees will need your support as they work to build new hybrid muscles, such as the agility to adapt quickly to new topics, challenges, and working styles, and the ability to collaborate asynchronously, listen and communicate with care and compassion, and manage conflict when it inevitably arises.

3. Recognize employees’ accomplishments. Offer recognition regularly, not just on an ad hoc basis, and take notes about who is recognized for what—and then revisit those notes when it’s time for performance reviews. Providing ongoing recognition directly to employees not only boosts morale by ensuring that people get credit for their accomplishments; it also provides employees and managers with valuable information about individuals’ performances and plays an important role in pathways to promotion. 

Small Steps Can Lead to Big Changes

Not everyone has the power to create change in all of the areas discussed above, but everyone can do something. For example, individual contributors can advance psychological safety in a hybrid environment by actively modeling vulnerability and flexibility or advocating for one of the changes above. Actions like those can help build organization-wide momentum that leads to positive change. 

Taking advantage of small opportunities as they arise can have an outsize impact on the workplace—positive behavior is contagious and inspires others to do the same. 

Workplaces are active organisms, and they are now evolving even more rapidly as employers strive to find a hybrid model that works for their organizations and their employees. By advancing one or more of the strategies discussed above, you can help create a more expansive, welcoming, and inclusive atmosphere that fosters psychological safety in your hybrid workplace and allows everyone to fit in and thrive. These steps will help build meaningful pathways to economic advancement for everyone.

Learn More and Get Involved!

If these themes resonate with you and you want to learn more or get engaged in the movement we’re building, sign up to join us for our next Action Collaborative, The Secret to Building Inclusive Corporate Culture: Worker Voice, which kicks off this fall.

Curious to learn more? Here is how our experts define psychological safety.