It’s safe to say that remote work is now well and truly embedded into most workplaces.
Yet, whilst most workers would likely celebrate the ability to work from home, according to new research from Behave, HR is currently grappling with the impact that remote work has on employee psychological safety.
Decoding psychological safety
The report unveils a shared struggle among HR leaders to define psychological safety. Surveying over 200 senior HR decision-makers, the findings reveal a diverse array of interpretations, making it challenging for organisations to combat the issue.
Just 16% of respondents are clear on what psychological safety really means – as “an environment where employees balance comfort and discomfort to take well-calibrated risks”.
Those in education had the best understanding (38%), whilst the finance sector (13%) lagged well behind in its understanding. Once the concept was defined for them, HR leaders were very clear that it is critical for their organisation’s success.
Unsurprisingly, given this worrying data, measuring psychological safety is also reportedly a key hurdle for three-quarters of HR leaders, as the concept remains vague due to contradictory definitions. And, the struggle to effectively define and therefore combat psychological safety is taking a toll on employee engagement and productivity.
Is remote work a catalyst or a barrier to psychological safety?
It seems that HR is divided on the answer to this question too, likely due to the confusion around the concept. The research shows that 32% of HR leaders perceive remote working as a key obstacle to maintaining psychological safety.
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More than 80% of HR leaders believe that psychological safety is going to become more important for organisations. This rises to 89% in organisations with more than 500 employees, suggesting that the bigger brands will lead the charge on psychological safety.
However, for this to be enacted credibly, organisations need to align behind it. A staggering 88% of HR leaders are seeking more support and commitment from their fellow leaders in ensuring the wellbeing of their people
Between January and December 2019, around one in ten of the of the UK workforce had worked at least one day from home in the previous week and around one in 20 reported working mainly from home.
This increased substantially during the pandemic, to a peak of around half of workers (49%) in Great Britain working at least one day from home in June 2020; 11% of the workforce worked at least one day from home and 38% worked from home exclusively.
As pandemic restrictions were lifted, these numbers have gradually decreased again, but remain higher than pre-pandemic numbers.
In September 2022, around 22% of the workforce had worked at least one day from home in the previous week and around 13% worked from home exclusively. There is variation in the overall trends in flexible working, particularly based on seniority. Managers and supervisors are more likely to work from home sometimes or always compared to non-managers and non-supervisors.
Whilst there’s no data to evidence that this disproportionality would have an effect on the psychological wellbeing of those working remotely, it’s safe to assume that managers are exposed to greater levels of stress, which could affect the research.
So, hybrid work stands as a significant concern for HR leaders, not only as the search does seem to evidence that remote working can affect psychological safety, but also as it seems the defining finding is that HR cannot agree on what psychological safety truly is.
Whilst this issue needs addressing, improved access to digital technologies to support remote and hybrid working, along with increased dialogue with those working remotely may well have a positive impact in the long term.