OPINION9 August 2021

Focus on psychological safety

Covid-19 Inclusion Opinion People

Seeing colleagues in the office will not simply unwind the impact of 18 months apart, and a strategy for staff psychological safety is necessary. By Ben Shimshon.

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Ask a group of researchers how they got into the insight industry and invariably many will say “by accident”. Ask them what keeps them in the industry, and they’re almost certain to mention the interesting work, the brilliant colleagues, or both. Covid-19 has revealed how it’s the combination of the two – doing fascinating work together alongside other talented and passionate people – that makes working at an insight agency rewarding.

‘Agency life’ is, at heart, about work that is varied, fast-paced and challenging, done as part of a team with others who are equally motivated by doing a great job for clients. During the pandemic, the work has been some of the most interesting, important and current we’ve ever done.

But some of that togetherness has been harder to come by. And that’s meant that the hours, pace and pressure are much more intensely felt, tiring, and less fun than if we weren’t working remotely.

Across the industry agencies will have put a huge amount of energy and thought into keeping everyone physically and mentally well through the pandemic. BritainThinks is no exception.

If I’m honest, a lot of that effort has focused on ameliorating the worst impacts of Covid-19 on the team. We’ve put out a lot of fires, welcomed a lot of new people and supported some individuals through really tough situations. For our new joiners in particular, life over the last 18 months hasn’t felt anywhere near as ‘connected’ as we’d like.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, organisational psychologist Constance Noonan Hadley highlights the rise in loneliness at work, accelerated by Covid-19. She observes that as businesses start to return to the office, we can’t simply expect that seeing one another ‘IRL’ will unwind the impacts of 18 months apart.

Rather, there needs to be a deliberate strategy to support and facilitate ‘psychological safety’ between colleagues – those deep bonds of trust and collaboration that allow for risk taking and creativity, and ultimately allow work itself to be a fulfilling, enjoyable and fundamentally social part of life.

Like many agencies, we’re now embarking on a journey towards hybrid working that aims to combine the benefits of remote and in-person working, and to offer colleagues more flexibility and autonomy than ever before. But our real focus is on culture and togetherness.

Alongside practical and technological adaptations – new ‘core hours’ to facilitate non-peak travel; new cameras, headsets and furniture to support blended face-to-face and remote meetings – we’re going to be investing a huge amount of time and energy (re)building those safe, supportive and fun colleague relationships that make working together so rewarding for agency researchers.

There are a few principles we’ve come up with to guide our efforts: 

  • Make culture together – we don’t want to reinstate our old culture. We want a new one that’s just as good. Everyone’s part of building that, starting with collaboration around values.
  • Gather to talk – whether online, offline or both, deliberately create opportunities for colleagues to talk to each other beyond their client work. Dedicating company time to sharing who we are and what makes us tick.
  • Gather differently – fostering lots of cross-cutting teams, peer groups and informal interest relationships among colleagues, online or in person. Get out of the office as much as possible.
  • Look out for one another – the shift away from remoteness is hard, and harder for some than for others. Create lots of safe ways to raise issues, flag concerns or mention when you feel worried about a colleague. There should be no pressure on anyone, but no one left out either.
  • Liberal use of cake – Viki, our chair, loves a foreign term for an everyday practice. Her latest is ‘Fika’ – the Swedish approach to gathering for a chat with coffee and cake. Everyone can bond around cake.

Ben Shimshon is co-founder and managing partner at BritainThinks