Imagine you’re the only remote employee on an otherwise co-located team. It’s time for the weekly team meeting and you’re Zoomed in as a giant face on the screen while the rest of your teammates sit together around a conference room table. A topic of debate emerges from the team conversation and, for the first time, you decide to be the voice of dissent amongst your team members.
Time flies by, the meeting ends, your teammates walk out of the room, and you log off the Zoom to get back to your workday. But, instead of feeling panicked that everyone is talking about what you said as they walk back to their desks, you return to your work day, feeling confident in your ability to trust that your team members understand and appreciate your view – even if it wasn’t in line with theirs.
This feeling is what we call “psychological safety” and it’s something we take very seriously at HubSpot. It’s the feeling of safety for anyone on the team to appropriately speak up, admit you don’t know an answer, ask “silly” questions, respectfully challenge an idea, offer a new perspective, and/or share your personal experience without the fear of being judged, embarrassed, or shamed. And, it’s a key ingredient in creating a successful, inclusive, and high-performing team, regardless of where your team members are sitting around the world.
Although we’ve always been huge supporters of remote work at HubSpot, we’re not a 100% remote company. Our 300+ remote employees are, for the most part, on “hybrid teams” where a portion of the team is co-located in an office and one or more employees are working remotely from another location. Creating an environment of psychological safety within a team of unique individuals is no easy feat. But it’s made even more complicated in the context of a hybrid team that is balancing a team of office-based and remote employees.
What we’ve learned over time is that creating psychological safety in a hybrid environment takes time, intentionality, and buy-in from all team members in order to create an authentic environment of trust. We recently had the chance to hear from Khalil Smith from the NeuroLeadership Institute, who came in to talk to our entire employee base about creating a feeling of inclusion amongst diverse and dispersed team members. And as Khalil put it, if you’re not being intentionally inclusive with your team members, you’re most likely being accidentally exclusive.
This feeling of exclusion can cause remote employees to feel “less than” their office counterparts and can be detrimental to creating the psychological safety that leads to high performance. Teams need to be thoughtful and intentional to make sure they aren’t accidentally excluding their counterparts. As the leader of the team, managers are often tasked with the responsibility of creating an inclusive environment and maintaining psychological safety within their teams, but it can’t be up to them alone to be successful in this effort. We believe it is everyone’s job to create an environment of psychological safety and it takes the full team to make this effective, especially in a hybrid team.
As our remote population at HubSpot has grown from a handful of individuals to over 300 remote employees globally over the past several years, we’ve had our share of trial and error when it comes to building a psychologically safe environment in a hybrid team. We’re lucky to have a remote community that is patient, thoughtful, and always willing to provide feedback on what’s working, what isn’t, and where we can do better. Based on our experiences so far, we’re happy to share seven ideas to try out with your hybrid team to help build an environment that promotes psychological safety:
- Friday Failures: Innovation comes when we try something new and different to grow better. It doesn’t always work the way we expect – and by creating an environment where failure is celebrated as an effort to grow, your team will learn from their experiences and others. To create this type of failure-friendly environment, encourage a “Friday Failure Forum” within your team Slack room or in a weekly virtual stand-up if time zones allow. Encourage each team member to bring an example of one moment this week where they could have done better, and, more importantly, what they learned from the experience so that everyone can share in the lessons. This exercise reinforces the idea that everyone makes mistakes, but everyone similarly has the opportunity to grow from each other’s mistakes.
- Rose, Bud, and Thorn: In the office, it’s easy to casually share how your weekend was or what’s going on with you personally amongst your teammates. For remote folks, however, communication tends to be centralized around work and it’s not so easy to share what’s going on in their lives without feeling like they’re making an unsolicited announcement on Slack. This can be even more challenging with teams distributed across time zones, who are often only communicating asynchronously. To help teams create a channel to share more about what’s going on with them personally, we encourage teams to create a regular opportunity where everyone has the chance to share what’s going on in their lives and learn about their teammates as well. One technique that’s worked for us? Each Monday, ask the question in your team Slack room, “What is everyone’s rose, bud, and thorn for last week?”
- Rose: What is one thing that went well for you last week?
- Bud: What is one thing you’re looking forward to in this upcoming week?
- Thorn: What is one thing that didn’t go well last week.
It can be awkward to jump into a personal question, so lead the way by sharing your own to start before inviting each team member to share theirs as their time zone and schedule allows. The hope with this format is that it allows an opportunity for all team members to get to know each other on a more personal level in order to better support each other. Better yet, as this can be done via Slack, individuals can respond whenever their time zone allows, take some time to think about their answers, and follow up with each other individually.
- Encourage different ways of thinking: It can be intimidating to be the voice of dissent in a group meeting. In order to combat groupthink and reinforce your team members to voice their own opinions, assign one team member to play devil’s advocate each meeting, poke holes in a theory, or ask the question “how else might we do this?” on a regular basis. Assigning this role to a different individual each time reinforces the idea that everyone is capable of critical analysis, helps each team member learn to flex this muscle, and democratizes the effort amongst the whole group.
- Level the Playing Field: In a hybrid team, it can often be the case that a majority of team members will be together in one room while remote team members are dialed in virtually. While it may be the easiest approach, it can create a feeling of imbalance and make it challenging for remote employees to fully engage in the conversation as it can be hard to see and hear the team members in the room. To solve for this, level the playing field in team meetings by encouraging every team member to dial in individually from their laptop rather than having a bunch of folks in one room and a few folks dialed in on their own. This allows for better communication amongst the group and builds empathy for the remote experience in the process. If this is not possible and some folks must be in a room together while others are dialed in individually, the moderator, manager, or leader of the meeting should be remote as well. This intentionally reduces the implied power of the room and balances the power dynamic to allow for better engagement across the team.
- Learn How to Work with Each Other: It can be challenging to pick up on an individual’s work style if you’re not working alongside them – but it’s just as important to understand. With this in mind, we encourage team members to create a “How to Work with Me” document to better understand each others working style as well as learn about the person behind the laptop. We ask team members to outline everything from how they like to communicate, to what their pet peeves are, to what they’re passionate about outside of work.
- Get Personal: No matter what role you’re in, we’re all working with people. So, beyond an individual’s work and communication style, it’s also important to understand what has shaped each of us into who we are today. At HubSpot, we use an exercise called “What Shaped Me,” where each team member shares pictures and stories that contributed to who they are today. We encourage teams to do this either 100% virtually to ensure equal footing in the conversation.
- Give a Virtual Nod: In an office environment, if you were to stand up and announce to your team that you’re not feeling well and will be heading home for the day, your teammates would likely react, send you off with well-wishes, and offer to help. For a remote employee, announcing something in a team Slack room serves the same purpose, but doesn’t often elicit the same response from the team as it would in person. No one likes to feel ignored, so try using your team Slack room the same way you would use a team space in person and acknowledge when someone is sending a message out to the group. Even if a message on Slack doesn’t require a response, let your remote employees know that you’ve seen it by using a system of emojis. For example, some of our teams use the eyes emoji to let others know that they’ve seen a question and are looking into it, others use the thumbs up emoji in place of a head nod.
Building psychological safety within a dispersed team requires intentionality, effort, empathy, and a pinch of creativity, but the end results are well worth the work to create a high-performing, inclusive, and diverse team. Psychological safety won’t happen overnight – and that’s okay! Just like building trust in person, it takes time, and sometimes even a few missteps to get it right. It’s also important to remember that building psychological safety isn’t a check-the-box initiative. It’s an ever-evolving work in progress as the team grows and matures over time.
While the ideas above have worked for us at HubSpot, every team, company, and setting will respond to these activities differently. However, the central theme will always be the same – be intentional with your efforts, learn more about the human behind the laptop, and always lead with empathy when working with a hybrid team.
If you’re just starting on the journey of building psychological safety within your team, try starting small with one idea at a time. Be honest about your approach as well as the goal behind it and ask your team for feedback on what is working well in the context of your team and what might be missing the mark. Moreover, ask your team to join you in the pursuit of building psychological safety so that it’s a shared goal amongst the entire group and one that everyone is bought in on. When each team member feels comfortable to offer a new idea, question a decision, and engage with each other freely, you’ve created an environment of psychological safety – one in which a diverse group of individuals can become a high-performing, inclusive team no matter how far apart they sit from each other.
Meaghan Williams is the Remote Work and Inclusion Program Manager at HubSpot in Cambridge, MA. Her role is meant to support the remote employee experience and manage the rollout of a global philosophy around remote work that includes high level company-wide guidelines, as well as team-based flexibility based on business needs.