I am the founder of Planio and I’m obsessed with automating systems to make work more efficient.
May 24, 2022 · 11 min read

How to build psychological safety on remote teams

How to build psychological safety on remote teams

After running Planio for more than a decade, I’ve come to learn that managers and leaders often wear blinders. Even if we think we’re being open and understanding, underneath it all, we think we know best. And that’s a problem — especially on remote teams.

As Planio moved to a fully remote work setup, I’ve made it my mission to create more psychological safety across the company.

Here’s everything I’ve learned about how to help remote teams collaborate and communicate effectively, openly, and honestly.

When Google decided to research what quality defines the most successful teams, they ended up with an unexpected answer: psychological safety.

Psychological safety is the ability to speak up without fear of embarrassment or punishment. It allows great teams to collaborate, push each other, and create innovative products. And according to studies and psychologists, it’s more important than resources, money, and training.

So, why don’t more teams focus on providing this kind of support to each other?

My best guess is because it’s harder than it sounds.

What is psychological safety? How does it help teams collaborate?

First, let’s dig a bit deeper into what psychological safety is and why it’s so important.

Simply put, psychological safety in the workplace is the belief that you can speak up without the fear of embarrassment or punishment. When teams feel this kind of ‘safety,’ they’re able to be more vulnerable, which translates into better feedback, more creativity, and a stronger connection.

The best way to understand what psychological safety looks like in practice is with an example we’ve all experienced.

Just think back to the last job you started. You probably came in with a ton of great ideas about how you were going to radically change the business for the better. But when you started bringing them up, your manager and new teammates gave you that look. (The dirty eyes that seem to say, “Yeah right. What do you know?”)

So, the next time you were in a meeting or someone came to you with a problem, instead of offering up your ideas and solutions, you stayed silent.

That is the complete opposite of psychological safety.

The best teams don’t shut down ideas or make people feel like they’re at risk if they speak up. Instead of embarrassment, they try to make people feel empowered. Instead of fear of punishment, they build excitement to share.

Because why would you want to silence the smart people you hired to work on your project?

There’s a quote from Apple founder, Steve Jobs that I think perfectly captures this idea:

“It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

This is also closely related to the Agile idea of being a servant leader. You’re there to help guide your team towards the best possible outcome, not be a micromanaging dictator.

What are the 5 main elements of psychological safety?

Building psychological safety takes time and effort. It’s not the same as implementing a new software development process or following a checklist when you finish a project.

To build psychological safety, you need to understand what it is and then lead by example. That’s the only way.

Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School researcher who helped popularize the idea of psychological safety, breaks it down into five core elements:

The 5 main elements of psychological safety

  1. Safety to speak up: Your team members need to feel confident that they can speak up about issues or present ideas without risk of embarrassment or punishment.
  2. Openness to new ideas: You and the rest of your team need to get out of the “old ways” and be open to creative and innovative ideas. This is especially hard for leaders and founders who feel they understand the business better than anyone.
  3. Lack of pre-judgment: This essentially means going into conversations with an open mind rather than judging who it’s coming from. Who cares if the best idea came from a junior designer?
  4. Flat hierarchy: Agile promotes self-organizing teams. But someone almost always takes on the role of leader (especially when you have stakeholders and clients). To build psychological safety, everyone needs to feel like they’re on an even playing field when brainstorming and working through problems.
  5. Vulnerability and transparency for all: Psychological safety also means people feel free to ask ‘dumb’ questions and express their own needs. No one is judged harshly for wanting to clarify what’s going on.

When you build a culture that promotes these values, you see all sorts of upsides.

New processes are more successful because everyone gives feedback and is open about what’s working and what’s not. Your team is better equipped to share and learn from lessons learned. Everyone is more engaged and motivated. And you get more creative ideas.

At Planio, it took me a while to understand just how important culture is to driving business results and creativity. But just as I felt I had a grasp on it, the pandemic hit, and everything changed.

Why it’s so hard to build psychological safety on remote teams

Even before the pandemic, managing a remote team had its challenges. But with close to 50% of the global workforce moving to remote work (according to research from the OECD), those challenges started to multiply exponentially.

Don’t underestimate the psychological safety of your team. Research shows it’s more important than resources, money, and training.

Suddenly, the World swapped out in-person meetups for video calls and asynchronous project updates. Balancing home and work responsibilities pushed people to the brink of burnout. And collaborating across time zones made the workday feel like it never really ends.

But one of the underlooked challenges was how to create a sense of psychological safety when the chances of miscommunication were suddenly 10X worse.

For us, I started to notice a few specific remote work issues that eroded the psychological safety and trust we’d spent years building:

Some of these issues were solved by technology. We even built Planio Meet – a simple video conferencing tool that works right in your project management app and with the push of just one button instead of cumbersome meeting invites and cryptic links to join.

Agile board showing most issues in the closed column
Planio Meet was a massive help in keeping up morale and celebrating wins as we moved to a fully remote setup.

But as CEO and team leader, I realized that many of them came down to a lack of psychological safety. And that had to change.

7 ways you can build psychological safety on a remote team

One of the best things we did as a team at Planio was to stop trying to solve every issue with technology and instead work on our culture.

If you’re struggling to build psychological safety with your remote team, here are seven of the best tips that worked for us:

7 ways you can build psychological safety on a remote team

1. Switch your Point-of-View

Managers and leaders tend to focus only on what we want.

We prioritize our viewpoint because we think we know what it takes to get the project completed successfully. (Otherwise, why would we be in charge, right?)

But this can be a problematic way to work in any situation.

Instead, I found it incredibly powerful to turn my POV around. Instead of looking at a project or a planning session from my ideas and needs, I asked: What does my team need to be successful? What are their preferences?

This includes:

Taking risks becomes less scary when you know leadership understands your needs and experience.

How to apply this on your remote team:

Try to meet with each team member individually. Ask them about how things are going, what they’d like to see change, and how you can help. Tell them this is just between you two and that you’re trying to make it a better working situation for everyone.

Keep track of their preferences and use them to build a project schedule and workflow that works.

2. Lead by example

Psychological safety isn’t a policy you can mandate. It’s a behavior change that needs to come from the top down.

As much as you want to always speak up, correct people on the spot, or shut down ‘dumb’ ideas — don’t. You need to show that you can be open to new ideas and non-judgmental when it matters most.

How to apply this to your remote team:

Leading by example often means following the S.U.A.L. principle (“shut up and listen”). But there’s more to it than just silencing your inner critic. Here are a few rules I try to follow:

It’s important to remember that these rules need to be followed by everyone. Team members shouldn’t be interrupting each other or pre-judging ideas. Start with what you can control (i.e., your own actions), and the rest will follow.

3. Welcome more feedback (and not only the good kind)

Feedback drives innovation. But as leaders, we often only let feedback flow one way (from the top down).

On remote teams, giving feedback – both good and bad – becomes even trickier. Feedback in a shared doc or a comment on an open ticket can come across as an attack (or get missed). Plus, your team doesn’t always feel like they have the opportunity to, or can give feedback to you, which is an essential part of fostering psychological safety.

Everyone should feel like they know when, where, and how to give feedback — from the newest employee to a senior project manager.

How to apply this on your remote team:

Let feedback flow both ways. Schedule regular meetings — such as during your retrospectives — to critique your process and workflow.

These meetings can sometimes be tense or awkward, especially if they’re full of negative feedback. But it’s up to you to guide them in a positive way and show everyone that their concerns are being heard.

You should provide different mediums for people to give feedback. Not everyone feels comfortable speaking up in a meeting. At the end of your retrospective, send out a link with a recap and tell your team that anyone who didn’t have the opportunity to say what they wanted can add their thoughts to it.

4. Celebrate effectiveness over efficiency

Project managers often get stuck in “ticking off tasks”. But the goal of psychological safety, is to let your team work outside the box and find innovative solutions.

This is where the lack of visibility for remote teams becomes such a huge issue. Many team members feel like they’re only recognized for the work they ship. So, instead of looking for new ways to approach a problem, they prioritize squashing 50 bugs.

Sure, those bugs need to be dealt with at some point. But if everyone chooses to focus on high-visibility work, the more nuanced but critical tasks that drive your product forward get ignored.

How to apply this on your remote team:

Don’t judge people solely on what they complete in your project management tool.

While sprints need to be completed and software needs to be shipped, you also need to call out innovative and interesting work. Be proactive about showing success stories that aren’t just grunt work. Call out team members who are experimenting and let them talk about what they learned.

The more your team knows it’s OK to balance near and long-term work, the better chance you’ll hit a moonshot idea.

Psychological safety is only one (albeit, the biggest) aspect of creating strong, healthy, and motivated teams.

5. Flatten your team hierarchy (especially in meetings)

Your team structure probably doesn’t allow for much psychological safety. And if you’re remote, this is even harder as someone needs to guide video calls, organize work, and keep everyone accountable.

But that sort of rigid structure kills psychological safety. Instead, you need to allow regular opportunities for everyone to be at the same level. Where ideas can flow without prejudgment or scorn.

How to apply this on your remote team:

One of the easiest ways to flatten your hierarchy is to share responsibilities.

Don’t let the same person lead every single meeting. And during sessions, make sure to allow space for people who aren’t as outspoken to share their thoughts.

6. Set ground rules for how teams interact

Psychological safety can often feel like it’s about throwing out the rulebook. You’re turning your back on some management 101 ideas like how to run meetings and control the flow of feedback.

But in order to be successful with this transition, you need to let people know what’s acceptable and not. Team members will (rightfully) get frustrated if they feel they can speak up sometimes but not others. Or, if they aren’t being celebrated for smashing out tasks and pushing the project forward.

How to apply this on your remote team:

Be open and transparent about what you’re doing and why. Talk to your team about the importance of psychological safety, what it is, and how focusing on it might change the way you normally work.

There’s bound to be a few road bumps along the way — and everyone on your team might not make it — but you’ll end up in a much better position.

7. Give people meaning and purpose

This final tip is slightly off-topic. But I found it was one of the most important aspects of getting everyone on the same page and building the psychological safety we lost when we moved to remote work.

Meaning and purpose motivate and excite us. If your team doesn’t care about what you’re building — or worse, doesn’t know — they won’t engage or will become combative and disruptive instead of open and accepting.

Think hard about how you tie your work to the bigger picture. Does everyone know your product strategy and business goals? Can they see how the work they do today directly helps customers and users (through OKRs or other goal-setting tools)? If not, you need to fix that.

How to apply this on a remote team:

The easiest way I found to give people purpose is to make it as clear as possible. For us, that meant becoming the masters of our project management tool. We use Planio just as our customers do, helping us to understand what is needed and how to keep improving with us and our customers in mind.

In Planio, you can add categories, your own custom fields and sprints to each issue, clearly connecting even the smallest tasks to the bigger goal.

Issues for a sprint shown on the Roadmap

But again, this isn’t just a technology problem. Purpose and meaning need to be lived. Be transparent about business goals, successes, and failures. The more everyone feels like they know which direction you’re heading, the more they’ll want to help steer the ship.

The other factors that create strong teams (remote or not)

Psychological safety is only one (albeit, the biggest) aspect of creating strong, healthy, and motivated teams.

As you work to build more safety and openness, don’t forget about the other core factors of great teams. In my experience, that includes:

That’s a lot to balance as a leader, developer, or stakeholder. But with the right processes, culture, and tools, you can build the best team possible.

When it comes to technology, we built Planio to support these kinds of teams. Our project management tool is used by thousands of teams who love the simplicity, clarity, and customization it offers.

So, why not give your team a leg up by trying Planio for free for 30 days? We can even help you migrate your current projects over, so you spend less time fiddling around with tools and more time supporting your team and projects.