Millions of people work from home now because of the coronavirus pandemic. As soon as work went virtual, many leaders began to wonder about how psychologically safe employees were likely to feel in such an environment. Psychological safety, the feeling of trust and confidence that people tend to sense when they are in supportive work environments. It is also important when raising new ideas, concerns, and questions without fear of ridicule, punishment, or repercussions.

There is reason to be concerned –
When members of virtual teams’ voice new thoughts, there are fewer social cues that they can look for to judge how they are doing. A person offering an idea for their virtual group to consider does not see the approval in a colleague’s eyes, or the boss nodding along. As a result, there can be considerable insecurity and isolation — a lack of psychological safety — in the virtual work environment.

Fortunately, while video conferencing technology makes the perception of visual and nonvisual cues difficult, it also offers ways for users to overcome these challenges. The tips that follow can help.

It is important to allow anonymity, wherever possible

Video conferencing platforms like Zoom come with a hand-raise feature. It allows any participant to display a raised virtual hand to attract the attention of a meeting leader. In virtual meetings, meeting leaders often ask participants to use the hand-raise feature to signal their positions on different questions. People, however, tend to be wary of taking a public position on issues for fear that it could cause a superior to be unhappy with them.

Fortunately Zoom and other video conferencing platforms allow participants in meetings to make their opinions known anonymously. Using inbuilt anonymous poll features can help every participant express how they really feel about a question with a high degree of psychological safety. They will be happy for the opportunity to signal their position while they remain safely anonymous.

Use breakout meeting rooms to make meetings feel more intimate

Large meetings of 40 or 50 participants can make it hard for everyone to say what they need to feel heard. Some may feel they never get a chance to speak, or face loss of self-confidence when it comes to voicing their opinions to the entire group. Conveniently, however, video conferencing platforms come with a breakout room feature.

The breakout room feature allows small numbers of meeting participants to huddle together separately from the main meeting, air their ideas in relative privacy, talk about ideas that they consider worthwhile, and conclude which ones are good enough to bring to the attention of everyone else. The breakout room feature helps participants enjoy the psychological safety of intimate group dynamics even as they work inside a larger group.

Use video only where necessary

Virtual meetings in which you get to see video of everyone else can be easy to engage in. Excessive visual stimuli, however, can be distracting. Not to mention, having everyone stream video can strain the bandwidth of the internet connections that participants use, and create disruptions that cause cognitive stress. Such stress can hurt the psychological safety that workers feel.

Meeting leaders can help with these problems by encouraging meeting participants to use the feature in their video conferencing software that has only the person doing the talking streaming video. Everyone else remains on audio alone, to encourage deep listening.

It is also a good idea to have participants set their video conferencing app to hide self-view mode. When this feature is engaged, the speaker does not see their own image. It can be a good way to minimize self-consciousness.

Things to do leading up to virtual meetings, and after

As important as it is to be thoughtful when making use of the tools available on video conferencing platforms, it can also help to try a few simple actions outside of meetings.

Team leaders should study the tools available to them to understand how they might affect the group dynamic. It could also help to assign a facilitator to each meeting. It is the responsibility of the facilitator to observe how well participants engage in meetings, and to offer suggestions for improvement, wherever possible.

A lack of psychological safety can make a virtual meeting a lonely place for participants. They may want to try greater participation, but, in the absence of social cues, may be afraid that their opinions will not be received well. It is the responsibility of team leaders to encourage greater psychological safety to make virtual meetings more productive. With regular use the ideas here can become habitual and will help managers and their teams have far more productive virtual sessions.