What WFH taught us about psychological safety

Now that many of us are heading back to the office after a year of working from home, I find myself thinking about how differently employees experience being in the workplace, and especially about what we can learn about psychological safety from our year of lockdown.

I was recently brought in to facilitate a joint conversation between two employees having problems working together after returning to the office. This is a common part of my work, but here I was struck by the role played by our time working from home.

The conflict dated to pre-Covid days but had not been tackled before mass WFH took hold. Observers and the employees involved all acknowledged that lockdown changed things significantly. They observed that when employees were working from home, they were able to control their environment and interactions in away that wasn’t possible in the office.

Most communication moved to email, and the twice-weekly Zoom team meetings were facilitated in a way that in-person team meetings hadn’t been – everyone was invited to have their say. And as everyone was on camera, undermining behaviours were controlled – eye-rolling, micro-criticisms and dismissiveness aren’t possible when everyone is watching. Plus, the informal office chatter that can lead to gossip or backstabbing simply disappeared.

These protections ­– an ‘accidental’ by-product of WFH – created a more psychologically safe working environment for employees who experienced the workplace as a conflict zone pre-lockdown. On their return to work there was a ‘welcome back’ morning tea and then… back to business as usual. That’s completely understandable: businesses are keen return to ‘normal’, regain lost momentum and re-establish revenue.

But let’s not lose the opportunity to be proactive and preventative. To bring people back together not just for social connection, but to reflect deeply on what we’ve learned and how we can replicate the positive elements of our WFH experience and bring them back into the office with us. 

For me, the stand-out experience of our year of WFH was how it taught us to be more patient, kind and compassionate towards our workmates. We saw our colleagues as we had never seen them before – maybe we learned about their caring duties for an elderly relative, or we were sympathetic as we saw them managing young kids during Teams meetings, struggling with tech issues or having a bad hair day. We were all in it together, and our humanity and kindness expanded.  

As we come back together to our workplaces, let’s not lose that feeling.

In this particular workplace, they brought me in for an early intervention. As part of the process, we shared reflections on the psychological safety experienced during WFH. That allowed them to be proactive about establishing some new boundaries – for example, continuing the closer facilitation of team meetings to ensure that all team members have a voice.

Not everyone had the same experience of WFH. For some, it may have been a welcome respite from a workplace environment that they found challenging. Especially in workplaces where there may have been division or conflict pre-lockdown, don’t expect those issues to have gone away, even if they seemed to de-escalate during lockdown. Get on the front foot and learn what you can about what worked during WFH – and act fast to replicate those things in the office, to create a safer and more compassionate workplace for the future.

If you’d like to have an initial discussion about conflict resolution or other workplace behavioural issues, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. I can be contacted by email at debbie@dksonin.com.au, on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/debbiesonin or by phone on 0413 145 925.

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