Accountability Fosters Psychological Safety in Remote Teams

Summary: We’re contemplating what it takes to foster psychological safety in remote teams. Our position is that eWyse’s accountability culture is the best setting to overcome the challenges of remote work.

It is our strong belief that work culture conditions the level of psychological safety in remote teams. The term “psychological safety” is not new – as Lechner and Tobias point out, this is Edgar Schein’s term from the 1960s, which has more recently been studied by Amy Edmondson (2022: 4).

Psychological safety is often emphasized as THE factor of successful teams and appealing work cultures. In a nutshell, psychological safety is being okay with your authentic self and knowing the other team members are, too. Everyone can freely express their opinion, take risks, and they know they are valued.

In remote teams, psychological safety could be more researched. We’re embarking on a journey of introspection: in our 100% remote team, we ask ourselves what it means to feel psychologically safe, what the layers of psychological safety in remote teams are, and how it can be fostered.

Psychological Safety Inspired by Empple

Inspired by Maja Nedučić and Dr. Jelena Pavlović biangle at this year’s (2023) Empple festival, we had a chat about psychological safety at eWyse.

Here’s the backdrop: as the announcement of this biangle at the conference, the audience was asked the following question: “Is there anything you wanted to say last week at work, but you didn’t?” We decided to ask our team the same question. As the panelists suggested, the answers would indicate the level of psychological safety among teams.

Psychological Safety at eWyse

When asked “Is there anything you wanted to say last week at work, but you didn’t?”, most of us at eWyse stated “no” (70%), meaning we said what we wanted without hesitation. This still leaves us at 30% of yeses. The reasons for our yeses varied from “I didn’t find the right moment” to “after a few days I found it irrelevant”.

From this, we learned that our team is humble, deliberative, and at times self-conscious, but we still feel safe to talk about this and nurture the culture of feedback. We’ve also learned that psychological safety in remote teams such as ours depends on interpersonal relationships more than we find it obvious.

Once we started to dig deeper into the realm of psychological safety and remote work culture, a number of questions started emerging. Let’s explore different perspectives in the following sections.

Psychological Safety in Remote Teams Calls for Accountability Culture

The angle of the psychological safety we inspect here is the challenges of fostering it in remote teams. Let’s focus on interpersonal relationships.

In a study “How to create psychological safety in virtual teams” by Lechner and Tobias, it was determined that day-to-day processes took more effort by virtual team members. The most challenging ones are asking for help, “building trust and relationships, reading someone’s emotions, understanding cultural differences, and having conversations in general” (4).

The study confirmed what we were speculating about earlier: fostering psychological safety in remote teams requires more personal engagement. Just think about it – if you’re a member of a remote team, how much do you actually talk to your co-workers about things that are not job-related?

From my experience, you don’t schedule calls with colleagues to talk about what happened to you at the store the other day. One will most likely share this with a colleague they work and spend the most of their day with (virtually, of course). This may lead to the formation of the so-called “bubbles”, the term Lechner and Tobias use in their study.

Accountability Culture Helps Balance Relationships in Remote Teams

It seems to me that “bubbles” are natural; they would most likely happen on-site, too. But there is no equilibrium when you’re a member of a remote team. Or, to be more precise, it is harder to achieve this balance, because we are devoid of chances to run into our colleagues from another department in the hallway. Or in the kitchen, while making coffee. (Lechner and Tobias also talk about this.) This is where accountability steps in.

In remote teams, it is in these instances that accountability gets a chance to thrive. We must invest more personal effort to nurture our relationships and show and receive empathy. For example, on one occasion, it took me days until I finally made time to contact a colleague about their health condition – and I know exactly why this is so:

  • I have to decide I want to write to them,
  • I need to pause my working tasks and make time to type my thoughts,
  • and preferably do it while they are online.

So much to think of at once, isn’t it? Chatting over computer monitors or next to a coffee machine is much more spontaneous, much more natural. Easier.

The same goes for scheduling meetings or activities – are they online, how many follow-up messages will arrive if a meeting has to be rescheduled, how long will it take for someone to agree, am I too annoying or pushy if I keep on pinging them about an unaddressed topic/question/task, and sooooo on.

Self-consciousness gets in the way. On the counterpart, accountability makes up for it, making a difference.

Remote Teams Delay Reactions Regardless of Psychological Safety

The reasoning from our conversation at eWyse “after a few days I found it irrelevant” made me think why we sometimes hold back our thoughts. Inevitably, one wonders if they would be said out loud in an on-site environment.

They would, I reckon. Again – because it is easier. In direct communication there are fewer filters, we are more exposed. The person next to us can read us in more ways than just our words, thus it is harder to mask reactions.

Remotely, we digest reactions and emotions, we sit on them longer than we would in on-site situations, and are free to buy as much time as we need to recalibrate them. This may be neither positive nor negative for us and/or our colleagues — frankly, I am still making my mind up about this.

There are two results, in my opinion:

1. We let things go (and should be aware that we may regret it later);
2. Our reactions are postponed and thus less intense.

Again – not sure if this is good or bad, but it surely is not as dynamic as it would be in direct communication.

Psychological Safety Meets Extremes in Remote Workplaces

Down the line of delayed reactions, we now have a different angle: in situations where there is a filter between our experience and expression of a reaction, psychological safety meets extremes, in a way.

On one hand, we feel safe because our experience of other people’s reactions is not as direct as it would be in person. On the other hand, is this genuine safety then or is it rather an imitation/representation/simulation of safety?

I would argue that “bubbles” work in favor of genuineness. The more we work with someone, the closer we become, and the communication becomes more direct. The result is the growth of psychological safety.

We’re Human, We Slip, And That’s Fine: Psychological Safety in Making Mistakes

Handling mistakes in the workplace is a work culture thing.

When we took a short survey, it turned out that all of us feel safe to make mistakes here. And, even though we’re working remotely, it’s interesting to find that the support that one gets in those spirit-breaking moments is instant, never delayed (and I mean never!), and strong. I guess remoteness couldn’t get its tentacles here :).

So, to elaborate on my statement above – handling mistakes is a work culture thing, and I wouldn’t say remote teams experience them differently than on-site teams. If you’re the one erring, you’ll feel equally bad regardless of your desk location.

Conclusion: Teams, Sofas, and Psychological Safety

Psychological safety in remote teams is vital to team cohesion, just as in on-site teams. Remoteness poses certain challenges, as much as for interpersonal relationships as for responsibility, work ethics or any other aspect of work. Thus I would argue that accountability culture is the setting in which these challenges can be overcome.

An accountable team member will show greater self-initiative and share the collective responsibility: they know that you get what you give.

Culture in remote teams is much like your party host’s sofa: either it’s so comfy and inviting that everyone will want to squeeze in, or it’s so rigid and unpleasant that once you sit you’ll immediately look for an excuse to get up and away from it. And you’ll find another seat to squeeze into.

Find a company that shares your values. If you’re lucky enough, they will nurture accountability and invest efforts to create a safe space for yet another team member, and ultimately you will gladly squeeze into a sofa with them when you meet in real life.

Author: Tamara Tomek

Sources: Lechner, A. & Tobias Mortlock, J. M. (2022). “How to create psychological safety in virtual teams”. Organizational Dynamics, 51(2), 100849. doi: 10.1016/j.orgdyn.2021.100849

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