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Why Psychological Safety Is More Important Than Ever During the Covid-19 Pandemic?

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30 June, 2020

Murali Bala
Murali Bala

Software Engineering Leader at amazon

Murali Bala, Director, Software Engineering at Capital One, discusses the importance of psychological safety emphasizing its unparalleled significance during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Problem

As work from home becomes the new normal for many, most of us are scrambling to find new ways to create a stronger connection with our teams. A few months ago, when we were all working under the same roof, it was much easier to collaborate and do a quick pulse check on members and the team as a whole. My favorite part of the day was walking around and meeting my team members, impromptu. I have always been a big proponent of management by walking around strategy, a term coined by management guru Tom Peters. A management style where managers spend some part of their time among employees instead of being confined to their office. By doing so, I got the opportunity to listen to problems and ideas of my skip level associates and understand the ground reality and hear first hand if my folks had any concerns or distress that I could take on. The unexpected transition to remote work caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has changed those interactions and increased a lot of other concerns and anxiety, especially with so many lay-offs and uneasiness around job security and job performance, altogether resulting in major distress among us.

Actions taken

In this unprecedented context, I wanted to fill the missing connections and interactions with my skips via regular 15-minutes sync up meetings. While I continued to have my regular weekly check-ins with my directs, the skip level engineers who used to get my informal face-time didn’t get it anymore. Therefore, my admin would pick three to five engineers a week and schedule meetings with them and after approximately a month or so a new round of meetings would take place. Such sync up meetings are, in my opinion, more important than ever. Especially now, when we are facing different kinds of challenges and stress - increased demands of trying to entertain and educate our children while also holding down jobs, worrying over job security and job performance, etc. In addition, employees are increasingly looking for ways to develop emotional connections during times of social distancing and a prevailing feeling of isolation. So meeting up with skips on regular cadence has become ever so important for me than before.

My meetings are generally very fluid in nature; it’s an open platform where my folks can discuss anything and everything and recreating such space remotely is of paramount importance. These 15 minutes meetings allow me to talk about their concerns and how they are coping with the difficulties of the current situation and learn what I can do -- if anything -- to put off the fire for them. Providing them with a platform to be involved in an open conversation and voice their concerns is a key component to setting up and fostering psychological safety at the workplace.

Also, my teams now have scheduled and added some non-work-related activities to encourage bonding and create a trustful and supportive environment. Every few weeks, we have a virtual happy hour -- we play games, have betting sessions (e.g. when we will be going back to the office), and in general have fun connecting and talking about all kinds of things.

Lessons learned

  • The more you interact with your employees, the more open they are to share their concerns. Being present and focused on the conversation, asking questions with the intention of learning, offering inputs -- all of that contributes to the strong engagement and participation regardless of the current adverse circumstances.
  • When you are connecting with your employees on a deeper level, you build a connection of trust and space where engineers feel safe to share their concerns and aspirations. The last few months have been particularly rewarding for me as I embraced the disadvantageous circumstances to reach out and lay foundations for that deeper, more meaningful, and all-encompassing connection.

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