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Psychological safety is one of the corner stones for successful teams as Amy C. Edmondson has advocated in her foundational book “the fearless organization.” A virtual team in this respect team is no different than a team that is co-located. The challenges however for a virtual team to build psychological safety are different. So how then to enhance a psychological safe environment in a team that is dispersed across several locations around the globe?

Psychological safety refers to the perception that one can speak up, take interpersonal risks, and share ideas without the fear of negative consequences. In general, the key elements from Edmondson’s work on how to promote psychological safety are:

  • Framing the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem
  • Acknowledging one’s own fallibility
  • Modelling curiosity and asking lots of questions.

In a virtual team the challenges for successful collaboration are multiple. Next to the more obvious technical ones like having the right tooling and well-functioning connections and the logistics of differing time zones, there is the lack of physical proximity. People working together from the ends of a glass fibre line, are missing all the opportunities of being able to read the full body language when something is said (or not), discussing a topic while getting a coffee at the machine and so on. This does something to the ability to bond as a team and with that to psychological safety.

So, to promote and foster psychological safety in virtual teams, the challenge is to bring the people closer together that might be thousands of miles away from each other. How to do that?

The power of Virtual Coffees

One of the key elements is getting acquainted on a deeper personal level by having meaningful conversations and exchanging personal information that is surpassing the mere daily chat (however important this is.) It will lead to more empathy and growing mutual understanding amongst the team members and lessens the risk of misconceiving each other’s intention and behaviour.

The crux in building these deeper personal bonds is to reserve some time for it in a regular fashion. It doesn’t need long conversations. Shorter but regular ones are more effective. Depending on the context of the team, you might want to build it up slowly. Do not jump straight away into the traumas experienced during childhood. This approach could be the perfect recipe for killing all appetite to do this another time…

Take it slowly, do it regularly, use different formats and have it prepared and facilitated. And then, just do it, learn and build the psychological safety in your team. It might even forge a bond between people that well outlives the actual existence of the team…

This is what we call Virtual Coffees. We have been there, done it. It helped us survive as a team of agile coaches during the Covid crisis. It helped us even to write a book about it while we were no longer direct colleagues: “The Virtual Coffee Experience. 52 formats for meaningful connections in teams.”