The importance of psychological safety in digital teamwork

By Bård Fyhn

26 March 2021 14:10

The importance of psychological safety in digital teamwork

Working in a team is not always easy. It did not get any easier after we were not allowed to meet face to face. But what does research tell us about digital teamwork that can help us in the ongoing corona pandemic?

In my article “Waiting for the host to start this meeting…” in the journal Necesse in June 2020, I summarize the research literature on three areas related to digital teamwork and its importance for psychological safety: 

1. Communicating digitally in a team 

2. Cooperating over physical distance 

3. Letting our colleagues into our homes (through our screens) 

I end with important ingredients for building psychological safety in teams. The paper itself is in Norwegian, but what follows here is a summary in English:

Communicating digitally in a team 

That we communicate is more important than how we communicate. Digital communication can be effective when we are used to it and be suitable for certain tasks. However, we do not seem to be ready to throw away traditional forms of cooperation quite yet. 

For example, we have limited opportunity to interpret each other's body language and behaviour through screens, which may limit our feeling of safety to contribute fully.

Our preference for being able to meet face to face may seem to remain strong through the digital revolution, because of the informal information that occurs in those meetings and its positive contribution to our job satisfaction. Many of us simply enjoy going to work, regardless of the actual work tasks. 

Cooperating over physical distance 

Physical distance can contribute to psychological distance. This limits our relationships.  If teams enter a period low on psychological safety, it might be challenging to build such safety solely through digital communication. 

For teams that have to rely on digital communication, it seems important to facilitate face-to-face meetings at the start to build psychological safety. 

However, teams that meet regularly face to face can largely maintain psychological safety through periods without such meeting points. This is important to know when working with tasks that require a high degree of interdependence and common mental models. 

Letting our colleagues into our homes (through our screens)

In a sense, the distant became the near. Suddenly my colleagues are in my living room instead of in the usual meeting room at work. Even though we meet over screens, they see a little more of who I am at home. 

To be authentic and confident on where we have each other has clear advantages on psychological safety and effective communication.

However, most of us would prefer to maintain a certain boundary between our private- and work-life. We have an inherent need for a certain distance when we feel others are getting too close. My authenticity should not come at the expense of your ability to be yourself and should contribute to the healthy interaction our collaboration depends on. 

How to build psychological safety 

  1. Leaders who see the individual and engage actively with their colleagues.
  2. The experience of autonomy, co-determination, and orderly role clarifications. 
  3. A supportive work environment and good relationships. 

Digital teamwork can have advantages such as increased efficiency, and disadvantages such as limited communication opportunities. I encourage teams and team leaders to address how the pandemic has affected their cooperation and make conscious choices about when and how digital solutions are appropriate for their future work. 

Meeting face to face has its clear advantages, and teams that have the opportunity to do so may reap the benefits of using both forms of collaboration. 

We can grow on challenges – if we dare to take advantage of them and reflect on their learning potential. Facing the challenges the pandemic has brought on us together as a team, can strengthen both collaboration and psychological safety.

Access this research here:

Bård Fyhn. «Waiting for the host to start this meeting…» - Psykologisk trygghet i digitalt teamarbeid. Necesse Volume 5 (2); page 117 - 128; 2020

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