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How to Increase Psychological Safety in a Virtual Team

Promoting psychological safety has become challenging for remote teams, but there are many ways to create a safe virtual space.

By Gustavo Razzetti

February 3, 2021

Working remotely puts your team culture to the test, especially collective trust

Remote work is here to stay. As most teams continue to work from home – either by chance or design – communication, collaboration, and interpersonal relationships take a toll. Virtual practices undermine psychological safety, requiring teams to pay attention to how to (re)build collective trust.

At the beginning of the pandemic, organizations were worried about productivity and making sure people were actually working (from home). However, taking care of the technology and process side of remote work was just the beginning – building a thriving remote culture will make or break most teams.

The good news is that virtual environments have as many opportunities to build stronger teams as they do challenges.

In this article, I will share actionable steps and methods to promote psychological safety in remote teams based on our work leading hundreds of virtual team sessions.

Why Psychological Safety Is Vital for Remote Teams

Psychologically safe team members feel confident to speak up, admit they don’t know something, share their ideas, ask questions, be themselves, and even challenge their managers – all without the fear of being ignored, judged, or punished. Psychological safety is the secret to high-performing teams, according to Google research.

Psychological safety is similar to, but not the same as trust. While the latter happens between two people, the former is something that the team provides. Everyone contributes to building a safe environment – it’s not something that a manager can provide.

Promoting an environment of psychological safety is easier said than done. In the context of hybrid or fully remote teams, it’s even more challenging. Building strong interpersonal relationships has become more difficult without room for impromptu encounters. Cues are challenging to read when people are not in the same room.

I've written several pieces on building psychological safety and specific exercises to promote it at work.

Following, you will find simple and actionable tactics and methods to start implementing right away – some are simpler than others. I've categorized them in the most critical issues affecting remote teams: increasing participation, dealing with silence, building interpersonal relationships, promoting courageous conversations, and other areas.

How to Increase Psychological Safety in a Virtual Team - Illustration by Sheel Majumdar

1. Increase Participation in Virtual Meetings

Conversational turn-taking: Give each person equal airtime; avoid letting just a few control the conversation. The facilitator protects the introverts from the extroverts by keeping loud, dominant voices for last.

Pass it on: Similar to the previous, but facilitated by team members. After one person responds to a prompt or question, they choose who goes next until everyone has had their turn. This technique increases awareness, making people more mindful about who has or hasn’t participated in a team activity.

Seed Volunteers: It takes a spark to start a fire. If your team is suffering from the ‘no one wants to be the first to talk issue, seeding a volunteer will help you break that pattern. Look for team members willing to step up and model the right behavior. Someone has to pave the road; find the right advocate.

Coach Leaders to Being Challenged: Building on the above, it’s hard for people to be candid when the rules don’t apply to their leaders. Preparing leaders to embrace their vulnerability is crucial to building psychological safety. People need to see that their managers are willing to take risks before they can take the leap, too. Leaders must be coached to learn how to listen and avoid reacting when people start sharing sensitive things – body language is even more critical in a Zoom call where facial gestures are more evident.

Make It to Ask Anything: Encourage your team members to ask questions, even silly ones, in Slack. Make sure someone will address those without judgment. This will reinforce that it’s okay to ask anything, creating a virtual culture that helps each other.  

Polls: I’m not a fan of anonymous practices, but polls are great for getting quick feedback on how people feel about a topic without making it personal. It encourages immediate participation in little time. Use thought-provoking questions that encourage reflection.

Breakout Rooms: Smaller groups feel safer, providing a natural space for deep conversations or brainstorming. Divide people into smaller groups of 5-7 team members to work on similar challenges. You benefit from different perspectives, but when it comes to sharing with the larger team, people feel more confident talking about something that has already been discussed with their peers.

2. Dealing with Silence During Virtual Meetings

There are two types of silence: reflective or detached. The first is when someone opts to stay silent to pay attention to others, to think before speaking, or to wait for a safe moment to express their thoughts. The latter is when people don’t talk because they are either too afraid or have stopped caring.

Both types of silence are interconnected. If we don’t provide the right conditions to shift from reflection to action, people can quickly fall into a pattern of detachment.

Accept silence: It’s okay if no one has anything to say, or people are in reflective mode. Embrace silence as something beautiful. Avoid the urge to jump into a conversation just to fill up space.

Be patient: Silence could be the beginning of something else. Don’t rush through it. If someone stopped talking, don’t complete their sentences or push them. Don’t interrupt people when they are thinking. Breaking silences sometimes requires more silence.

Address silence collectively: Rather than making it about those who are not talking, shift the conversation. What does silence says about how we're doing as a team? What are the things that we aren't talking about and which need to be addressed?

Make outliers feel welcome: Teams tend to default to the lowest common denominator. It makes it difficult for an outlier to speak out, as no one wants to be seen as the oddity. Every team member is a sensor; welcome those who see what most don’t.

Explicit the implicit: Avoiding conflict feels easy, but it’s an unhealthy practice. What happens in the watercooler conversation is not discussed in the open. Invite people to make explicit what everybody is thinking, but no one is saying.

Reward participation from quiet people: When people participate more than usual, show them appreciation. If they post a question on Slack, use emojis to acknowledge your attention.

Silent Meetings: Ask for input from each member individually ahead of the session. Alternatively, provide time before the meeting starts to reflect and capture everyone’s thoughts before sharing them out loud with the group.

3. Building Strong, Trusting Relationships in Remote Teams

Getting to know your team members increases heart trust (the idea that you believe people will have your interest at heart).

Building strong relationships requires getting more personal with your coworkers, but it shouldn’t be limited to fun team-building activities. Rituals help build strong virtual teams.

Code of Conduct: Culture is the behavior we reward and punish. Successful teams establish clear rules that define what’s okay and what’s not okay within the group. Start by building a safe space agreement. Clarify desired mindsets and behaviors, including respect, confidentiality, and other topics.

An example of a code of conduct I use in some of our workshops

Kryptonite and Superpower: A team is a collection of everyone’s personalities, perspectives, skills, experiences, and powers. Invite each team member to share their superpower (the unique strength that makes them powerful) and kryptonite (what paralyzes or hinders their abilities).

Address Individual Working Styles: People’s personalities and working styles shape their preferences, especially in remote environments. Use the following questions and prompts to better understand your colleagues:

“I’m good at…”

“What’s your preferred communication method?”

“Early riser or night owl?”

“Talk to think or think to talk?”

“I get angry when…”

“When I get pissed off, I…”

Build a Team Map: When we start working with a new team, we love to create a visual team map in MURAL that captures the keys aspects of each team member. Start with the basics: name, personal picture, title, etc. but don’t stop there. Ask people to share a photo that captures one of their most important moments in life.

Of course, include people’s Superpowers and Kryptonite as well as their answers related to their personal workstyle. Also, “The best thing about being me…” and “Where do you go when you want to recharge yourself” will not only reveal surprising sides of your coworkers but also build more profound empathy.

Update your map with new hires and use it to help them familiarize themselves with their colleagues.

Celebrate Diverse Perspectives: Being the challenging voice is intimidating – people worry they will be labeled as negative. Successful teams benefit from multiple voices; diversity of thought, not groupthink, drives innovation. Encourage team members to play such roles as outsider, devil’s advocate, analyst, etc. Roles should rotate to help practice people.

Collective wisdom requires combining everyone’s view; problems change when we switch from a 2D to a 3D perspective, as well as vice versa.

4. How to Promote Courageous Conversations

The purpose of increasing psychological safety is to make remote team members feel safe and encourage courageous conversations. You want your team to address pressing issues or uncover new solutions.

Beef Time: This one is inspired by Slack’s “Beef Tweets” channel, where employees share everything in the open – especially issues with its own product. This not only makes it safe for people to speak up, but it also encourages colleagues to offer to help.

We introduced the idea of Beef-Time to some clients. During that time, people are allowed to vent in the open without fear of retaliation. Everyone must listen without reacting or judging. At the end of the session, everyone proposes solutions to eliminate the frustrations and issues that were made public.

Voice of the Employee: Raising issues individually is hard, but it feels easier when everyone is in it together. Zappos implemented the Voice of Employee (VOE), a bi-weekly meeting to uncover and address tensions across the organization.

The Voice of Employee is not an HR committee but an open space that allows randomly selected representatives from all departments to get together to “bubble up and bubble down concerns, feedback, and ideas.” The group ensures that courageous conversations happen by sharing uncovered issues with the company leadership.

Blameless Postmortems: This exercise, practiced by Etsy, Atlassian, and Google, helps shift the conversation from “Who’s going to be fired?” to “How can we improve as a team?” Rather than finding the culprit, this type of postmortem focuses on improving the system – the team culture.

A Blameless Postmortem is not about removing accountability. On the contrary, it encourages people to have tough conversations, identify errors, and take ownership of improving their operating system.

Follow these guidelines to facilitate a blameless postmortem.

Uncover the Stinky Fish: The issues that affect your team won’t go away just because you don’t address them – they will worsen over time. The Stinky Fish is a metaphor for the problems that start to smell and soon contaminate everything.

We use this tool to help teams address the issues they can’t get over, problems that are increasing anxiety, or what everybody’s thinking but no one is saying. People love getting their stinky fish out of the system. However, driving open and productive conversations requires not only the Stinky Fish Canvas, but also proper facilitation.

5. More Ways to Increase Psychological Safety in Remote Teams

Create Impromptu Encounters

Successful organizations realize the power of random interactions to solve problems or foster innovation. Apple’s restrooms are inconveniently located so people have to walk more and, hopefully, meet people they would never run into. Zappos designed its lobby for impromptu collisions. IKEA’s offices have a central staircase for employees to hang out and have short talks with their colleagues.

Recreating those random collisions in a virtual environment is critical to both drive innovation and build strong relationships. Have a dedicated Zoom channel that people can join at any time and see who’s there. Encourage people to invite colleagues for a virtual coffee or peer learning groups using Starmeup or Donut. Recreate the “Bring your kids/ pets to work,” but virtually, fostering camaraderie.

Make a Team Playlist

Create a collaborative playlist on Spotify and have each team member contribute with one song. Make it meaningful by finding a theme. It can be a song that represents what everyone brings to the team, or just their favorite tune. You can create various team-inspired playlists for different occasions, like “music for brainstorming”, “songs for deep work and concentration”, or “songs to celebrate quick-wins.”

Avoid Burnout

This has been a recurring theme among most of the teams I coached during 2020. Managing the demands of remote work, plus the pandemic and homeschooling, have drained most teams’ energy – especially in controlling environments or managers.

Encourage no-meetings days or hours, like Assana’s no-meeting Wednesdays or how Patagonia has blocked everyone’s calendar from noon to 1 PM.

Add breaks in between meetings to give people time to breathe, take bio breaks, or just to prepare for what’s next.

Monitor your team’s energy level regularly. Use emojis on your Slack channel to track how people are feeling. Alternatively, run a simple color-coded weekly assessment to monitor workload: Green is good, Yellow is not so good, and Red means people are overloaded.

Increase Mistake-Tolerance

IKEA’s founder believed that only those who are sleeping don’t make errors. Mistake tolerance doesn’t mean lowering the bar but understanding that mistakes are stepping stones rather than the end of the world.

People learn by experimenting and making mistakes while trying something for the first time. Mistake tolerance means innovating with a learning mindset, not a blaming one.

Addressing mistakes in the open prevents other people from repeating the same mistakes. Attend a F@ck-Up night event or invite your team to host a Church of Fail session. Leaders should address their mistakes in front of others first, encouraging others to follow their example.

Reframe 1:1 Conversations

Traditionally, most one-on-one talks were used for grievance purposes. Turn 1:1s into coaching sessions; ask questions and listen to what’s going on before jumping to conclusions. If an issue involves another person, facilitate a chat between those involved to help them express their tensions constructively.

Key Takeaways – Building Psychological Safe Virtual Teams

Agility and innovation depend on experimentation and diversity of thought. To get the best out of your team members, people must feel that everyone has each other’s back.

Promoting psychological safety isn't an easy task, but there are many opportunities to test new methods in virtual environments.

Now more than ever, organizations need a leader with the integrity to tell the truth, the vulnerability to say “I don’t know”, the courage to accept being challenged by others, and the guts to act fearlessly.

Do you need help building psychological safety in your remote team? Reach out.

Related Post

The Psychological Safety Ladder Canvas – a framework and tool to map, assess, and improve psychological safety in remote teams.

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