Fear is rising in workplaces around the world — both for those working from home and in offices. A recent study shows 63% of South Africans are concerned they may lose their jobs in the next 12 months. Reassuring employees and creating psychological safety at work is one way to support and strengthen teams in these highly uncertain times.

In a busy South African hospital recently, teams of nurses and doctors were given an unusual task — figuring out who could build the tallest, freestanding structure out of nothing but sticks of spaghetti and then balance a marshmallow on top. They had 20 minutes to achieve this.

These were stressed individuals, not used to working together or communicating this much under normal circumstances, let alone on such a seemingly random task, and they were feeling somewhat tense. But this would soon change. Their manager said afterwards: “My staff all went into it with apprehension and anxiety and fear of the unknown, and all of them without fail came out of it with a different vibe. They just had energy. It changed them. I don’t know how in less than half an hour, but they definitely came out with a positive outlook.”

The marshmallow challenge is a well-known design thinking challenge used to foster team cohesion and communication. In this instance it formed part of a University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business study into how the creation of psychological safety in workplaces can improve team morale and performance. Research has shown that creating a space where people feel safe to voice opinions, make mistakes and risk ridicule when offering an idea can have a significant effect on teams. Quite simple, an environment of trust and mutual respect is crucial if you want to get things done. 

Anyone who works with teams will know that building these kinds of safe spaces can be difficult at the best of times. And the challenges of Covid-19 have arguably made it even harder. As workplaces have migrated to virtual platforms, team cohesion has taken a knock. One study has found that up to 45% of people working remotely in teams feel less connected to colleagues.

An expanded skills set needed for 2021

As managers and leaders look to the year ahead, they may need to expand their skill sets to include a specific focus on psychological safety, specifically how this pertains to new structures and operations. A good place to start is to focus on virtual meetings and interactions between colleagues.

“Detecting social cues or non-verbal agreement [in virtual meetings] is nearly impossible,” writes Amy Edmondson, author of the book: The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. In a recent article, she notes, “Team members may feel isolated without the natural support of an ally nodding from across the table. And distractions (emails, texts, doorbells, children, pets) are everywhere.”

Fortunately, she says, there are simple ways to ensure all voices are heard. Encouraging the hand raise in a virtual meeting, using yes/no answers and anonymous polls in an online meeting can help elicit responses to perhaps sensitive questions. Creating smaller breakaway groups to discuss issues can also be helpful. Team leaders need to familiarise themselves with their meeting tools and use them to their advantage.

After a virtual meeting, managers can also talk to participants who were quiet during the session. There is a host of communication tools, from phone and email to WhatsApp that can be used to check in and give feedback. The important thing is to keep the lines of communication open and free-flowing — in both directions.

The quality of interaction is important

One study on Google’s Project Aristotle revealed that the best teams were not necessarily more skilled, nor did they have smarter people. What they did have was higher-quality interactions. This can seem problematic for those managing remote teams, but in most cases, it really means getting people to talk more, to be genuine and authentic when communicating with each other, and investing time and effort into finding out how colleagues are doing.

Harvard Business School’s Professor Tsedal Neeley believes communication between colleagues should not decrease just because they are working remotely. She notes that scheduled virtual coffee breaks are a great way to communicate and should be done regularly, as if people were at the office. She says, “There’s ample research showing that virtual teams can be completely equal to co-located ones in terms of trust and collaboration.”

GitLab, a company that has only remote-working teams with employees in 39 countries, had put virtual coffee breaks in place before Covid-19. Chief executive Sid Sijbrandij believes that face-to-face interactions are perhaps even more important in a remote environment as they “help prevent potential burnout and isolation”.

The investment in developing safe and trusting workspaces, whether remote or otherwise, is undeniably worthwhile. A 2017 Gallup report showed that if organisations improve psychological safety, it could lead to a 12% increase in productivity. A practical example of what this looks like in the real world can be seen in supermarket chain Tesco in the United Kingdom, where a cashout staff member 20 years ago felt confident enough to voice a new idea to a visiting board director — the concept of cash back at the check-out. In the space of only a few months, the supermarket chain saved millions by cutting down on funds sent to banks while increasing customer satisfaction. 

The UCT hospital study adds to this existing field of knowledge by establishing that not only do performance and team learning behaviour significantly improve with psychological safety, but stress and anxiety are also reduced. After the intervention, teams at the hospital communicated better and staff interacted more freely and felt more involved and less anxious. This is especially significant, given the current context.

As the pandemic continues to cause uncertainty and upheaval in professional as well as personal lives, leaders and managers can play a key role in helping to reduce anxiety by consciously building more psychologically safe workplaces. This will benefit both their individual team members and the organisation, and could prove to be a key differentiator in helping to build organisational resilience. 

This is an adapted version of an article that appeared on The Conversation.


  • Dr Hamieda Parker is an associate professor at the UCT Graduate School of Business. This study draws on a paper co-authored with Dr Earle du Plooy. The paper is titled:Team-based games: Catalysts for developing psychological safety, learning and performance.


Hamieda Parker

Dr Hamieda Parker is an associate professor at the UCT Graduate School of Business. This study draws on a paper co-authored with Dr Earle du Plooy. The paper is titled:Team-based games: Catalysts for developing...

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