June 20, 2022

Safe Spaces Are Not What You Think


Partner at Hirewell. #3 Ranked Sarcastic Commenter on LinkedIn.

Episode Highlights

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“Safe spaces” get a bad rap. To some people, it sounds like a bunch of touchy-feely accommodating to everyone’s sensitivities.

To others, it’s an excuse to make social posts about empathy to the point it becomes virtue signaling clickbait. Fake stories and the like. 

Both crowds miss the point entirely. Creating a safe environment is critical to ensuring your team maximizes their productivity and does their best work.

So what are safe spaces exactly? Hirewell’s Director of Talent Development Liz Koppa joins James Hornick on a special edition of the Talent Insights Podcast, “Safe Spaces Are Not What You Think”

Partner at Hirewell. #3 Ranked Sarcastic Commenter on LinkedIn.

Episode Transcript

I welcome everyone to the Talent Insights podcast brought to you by Hirewell and Sourcewell. I’m joined today, special edition show by our very own Director of Talent Development, Liz Koppa.

Is this your first video Liz? Yeah. Nice. Are you excited? Are you nervous? I’m happy to be here. All right. So I’ll make a real pun out of it. I hope we’ve created a proper safe space for you here because that’s what we’re actually talking about today. Safe spaces, what they are and what they aren’t.

And I wanted to bring you along. I wanted to bring up someone who’s a little bit closer to an expert in this topic than I am. It’s a topic I’ve typically avoided for a couple of reasons. One, on one side I think there’s a lot of people who, when you see it on social media, there’s kind of two crowds.

There’s the one crowd that really over does talking about empathy to the point where it’s like virtue signaling clickbait, and it doesn’t really have any substance. And it just turns everyone like fake stories and people who are just thirsty for that dopamine circus hit. And then on the other side, there’s some people who were just like totally turned off by it.

They’re just like, I’m here to work. I’m not here to pan to your sensitivities and whatnot. And I think there’s a big disconnect because both sides are kind of so far away from what it truly is about- what the whole purpose intent is, which is a very positive thing. It just tunes a lot of people out.

So I was hoping we could have a conversation kind of addressing both of those things, head on like, what are safe spaces, really? What are they not? Because I do think especially like my whole take is in a world where everything is remote, where the place where you live and their place, where you work is the same place,

if you have employees that aren’t in good headspace and they are feeling burned out or they’re taking their personal life to work with them or vice-versa, and then it kind of bleeds over. They’re not going to be optimal. And that’s really what it’s all about is trying to get your employees to a place where they can be successful.

So anyways. I just want to kind of kick it over to you and I can kind of chime in, but what’s kind of your take on it? And how do you see this kind of fitting into like the modern workplace? Yeah, I really appreciate you making room, making a safe space for this conversation, James, as part of our dialogue and our content at Hirewell.

It’s definitely aligned with our values. And I think a lot of companies that are understanding the importance of putting their people first and creating a human first workplace. But to do that, you have to create an environment where all of your employees can show up as their whole human self.

We don’t have to go into the research and the idea of how an engaged workforce is a productive and successful workforce. We know the value of engagement. We know how important it is to have a workplace where people feel like what they do matters and that they get to be fully who they are.

But that doesn’t just happen magically. You have to create that. And as I was thinking about this topic, I was thinking about how the landscape of the modern workplace has really shifted in a major way through and after the pandemic because people are reprioritizing, you know. How they show up, why they show up and what matters. We collectively, as a society, I’ll just speak as a nation, we lived through trauma together. And some of us still are, you know. Whether you lost your job, you lost a loved one,

you’ve had to learn overnight how to be a homeschool teacher for your kids. And suddenly starting to work remote or maybe you were in a job where you had to continue working when the rest of the world shut down, you were an essential worker and you didn’t know how safe it was, but you had to keep going to work every day to support your family.

All of these things that impacted our lives change the way that we think about our priorities and the way we prioritize our health and our wellbeing and our family and our time off and our rest, you know? I think it’s also just when we consider this topic, it’s worth noting that

health and wellness and financial security, the impact on those things was not equal across the board. And our most vulnerable communities were hit the hardest in a sort of collective trauma that we experienced together. But as we’re recovering from that and moving forward as individuals and as humans and as professionals, we’re seeing that the companies that are out there that are doing it right, are keeping up and their values are reflecting those priorities.

A few ways that we’re seeing that is work life, work rest balance is actually a real conversation now, especially to your point in a remote work world. Burnout is a word that we hear so often that it really doesn’t actually have any value anymore because the conversation’s done.

We understand that that’s a real thing. And like you said, the lines between work life and home life that used to be very black and white- maybe people had a commute to and from an office. Now it’s pretty gray, right? Your work life is your home life. And so prioritizing yourself, prioritizing your family, your health, looks really different when you’re working and living in the same space.

I mean, there’s been so many things I’ve seen about how people are working more now, you know. I don’t want to turn this into a remote versus a non remote debate, but I think that it’s a- the average person I’ve seen different stats on this are working one to two more hours per day.

They work longer into the night. There’s just not kind of that fix. And whether or not that’s good, whether or not that’s bad or healthy, it’s certainly a real thing now. I don’t think anybody can deny. I think that’s another reason why I want to have this discussion is this is something that I normally was never even talked about.

Yeah. I mean, I think that we are seeing that shift of people learning to balance in a very different way when they’re on and when they’re off. But I also a lot of my fellow colleagues and people in my networking circles that pre pandemic might’ve operated in a much more cutthroat away, might’ve worked a lot more weekends, taking those calls after hours or not set boundaries with their other employee, with their boss, and it was all about the hustle. And then when you are forced to reevaluate how important those things are- I have seen a huge shift in professionals not being willing to sacrifice the things that really matter anymore.

And I think companies need to understand that they need to rise to that occasion as well. And that’s part of the conversation that we’re having about showing up as humans to work and being human first. That means sometimes having your kid crying in the background of your zoom call, right?

Or you’re on a call with a customer service representative and you hear their cat meowing in the background and suddenly they’re a human to you instead of just someone in a call center. And this sort of humanization of the modern workforce is a really powerful shift, I think. And a move in the right direction.

When I kind of started this thing off is the misconceptions about what safe spaces aren’t, I guess is kind of the first thing. Because I think anytime that there’s- there’s the eye roll crowd. At times I’ll admit I was in that, like sometimes I read this stuff out there

I kind of roll my eyes at it too, because I think it’s a little redundant. But there’s a misconception when people were kind of talking about safe spaces. I think that’s really what I want to hit on here first, because kind of dispelling some of that I think might open up some people’s eyes and have to be more receptive to what we’re really talking about.

Yeah and I agree. I think there’s a lot of misconceptions there. And I think that probably the biggest one is thinking that creating a safe space just means accommodating every single sensitivity or make an excuse for a touchy feely moment that gets in the way of productivity or is disruptive.

Or making the workplace all about the personal and that’s not what it is, and that’s not what it should be. It also isn’t associated with any political leaning, psychological safety isn’t owned by Democrats or Republicans. It’s truly a about

being a decent human and actually creating an avenue for your employees to be their most productive and to be their most engaged and to be their most empowered. And sometimes navigating that can be a little tricky and it can look a lot of different ways. But it’s not creating a conversation for the sake of a conversation so that your virtue signaling that you care. It’s actually being present and empowering each individual on your team, if you’re a leader, to be their best self, and to take care of them so you can take care of the business needs as well.

Yeah, I agree. I think that it’s also why it gets conflated, is this a symptom of our times? Like everything becomes a political conversation and there’s nothing political about this whatsoever. It’s just sometimes gets turned into that.

Bringing it back to like a business standpoint, I think is really key for all this. What would you say- from a productivity standpoint, why is this something that like businesses should prioritize and management should prioritize for their teams? Even if it’s just selfishly for the bottom line. Absolutely. I mean, we’re all in a business. We’re here to make money and profit and that’s why people show up to work,

right? Thinking about the entire health and success of an organization, you are only as good as the people in your organization, right? You can only go as far or be as productive or be as profitable as they can get you there. They are your most precious and valuable resource.

And the success of the organization is directly dependent on the success of each individual person within the organization. If you want to see your business go to the next level, you want people who are engaged at work, you want them showing up to work every day motivated,

you want them to feel a sense of autonomy, and empowerment to take whatever they’re responsible for and whatever their role, you know, from the individual contributor to the VP or the C suite, they need to feel the empowerment in that space to take it to the next level and to be their best self as a leader, as a contributor.

And so when your organization is impacted either on a micro level, somebody experiencing a personal issue at home or a macro level where we experience as a nation a crisis or a trauma or a national disaster, something that impacts the emotional or physical wellbeing,

your organization success is at stake if you don’t properly address and handle those crises and allow those individuals or those groups, the opportunity to process and recover from and show back up in a way that they can be their most productive, most engaged and most empowered. I think I have an example for this.

So I’ve told you this one before, because we did have this discussion a while ago. But for the sake of everyone listening, we’ll kind of lead everyone in. So those of you who follow us closely, you’ll know Nia. She’s active on our social media. She actually produces all of our videos and podcasts and whatnot.

She and I have usually a meeting like every day, pretty much, just kind of a touch base or check-in. And a few weeks ago, I know she took an extra day off, so she was off Monday. And then on the Tuesday I had something at our normaled scheduled time so I had to cancel. So it’s like Wednesday before we get to talk to and start that week.

And first thing I asked her, so how was the long weekend? Because I knew she was excited. She’s going to see this concert and she’s like- I could tell she was like apprehensive and like, there was a big pause and she’s like, well, I have to tell you. And long story short, she got carjacked on that Saturday.

So Saturday, gets carjacked. Loses her car. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, it’s still the first thing on the top of her mind. And it’s obviously a really traumatic experience that she went through, but it’s also the kind of thing when you realize, if something five days later it’s still the first thing on the top of your mind,

you’re not going to like- no matter who you are, you’re not doing your best work, you know. You’re not going to be in that kind of space where things are optimal. And it’s just, it comes down to like how do you help someone kind of get back on track when they’re kind of still dealing with these types of things. Now, the same time too

I’m not a psychologist. You know what I mean? I’m not equipped to, like, I don’t actually know how to diagnose these things for real. But so we just kinda talked through it and I mean, she can tell you, the fact that she even brought this up and felt comfortable coming to me, I’m like, okay that’s a win, I guess. Because I could definitely see situations where people might not.

I guess the jury’s out, she’ll have to be the one who tells us like how well I did kind of managing all of it. And then within a day or two, I know it was still kind of on her mind, but she was kind of back in the swing of things kind of work-wise.

But just by kind of having that conversation with her. How I did? I don’t know, but I think it’s a prime example of like, these are the types of real life things that people are going to go through. And if you’re able to make a little bit of a difference, you’re able to make things 10% better as a leader just by being able to talk with someone, putting everything else on hold.

You know, asking them about it, making sure that they’re okay. Seeing if they have anyone else in their life they can talk to, the logistics around how they dealt with a crisis after the fact, do they have a good handle on things? Do they need more time off to like deal with- in this situation, the cops or the insurance company or anything else like that?

I think those are things that are important. So hopefully I did okay. At the same time, I know I’ve heard horror stories from candidates over the years who’ve had similar situations like this, where their company didn’t give them extra time off to deal with these types of things in the background, which probably is adds like tremendous levels of stress.

So I don’t know. I think that in this example, really the most powerful part of your story is that you meet often with Nia and when you ask her,” how are you doing or how was your weekend?” she knows that you mean it, that you actually care, that you want to hear where she’s coming from. And for some employees that will make or break their loyalty to a company, is just knowing that they can show up

and they actually are cared about as a human being before an employee. And for other people there’s lots of people that live much more privately. They don’t want to bring their personal life to work. They don’t want to share the intimate details of their weekend and that’s totally acceptable too.

But what they need for an a safety perspective is when they need to call in or say, “I need another day” or “I need someone on my team to help pick up the slack because I’m a little off and I don’t want to share about it” that’s the safety and the support that they need too, right? So this isn’t just about making the workplace a therapy session all the time or asking everybody to bare their soul and cry and share vulnerable details of their life.

The concept of psychological safety is really creating an environment where every person in their unique way and with their unique needs feels comfortable asking for what they need from their team, from their boss, from their organization to be their most productive, because it is about the business.

It is about delivering results. But you can’t do that when you’re completely undone either from a personal event like Nia experienced or there were probably people affected by the recent events in our country. Pick one of the tragedies in the last few weeks that we’ve experienced as a country that don’t feel safe or that need to stay maybe home with their kids from school for a couple of days and take a second to process in their own way.

And I think that, that’s why safe space is an overused term, but it doesn’t have to mean a closed room or a group conversation or trying to be a psychologist. It can be a private conversation. It can be a group discussion, but it can also be a day off work or maybe just saying, “Hey, we’re going to do no video

this week. We’re going to just give everybody a break from that” or letting somebody work more flexibly or have some temporary time to work remotely, if you are in the office. There’s lots of variations. And the goal of all of it is the success of the business, because it’s the success of each individual. And we know we’re in the business of working with great clients and great candidates. If you are a candidate looking for work, you want to work for an organization

that’s going to prioritize your humanity above your productivity. And so that will empower you to be a more productive person to contribute more to the success of the business. And in a candidates’ market right now, the companies that are going to suffer are those that are not educating and empowering their leaders to take care of their people because they are their most valuable resource.

You hit us a lot right there. So I want to summarize a few things. Some quick takeaways. Like you were saying, depending on kind of the circumstances, so things like private conversations. Making sure you’re an environment where talking to your employees enough and asking how they’re doing and showing that you actually care about their answers enough, where they feel comfortable having those kinds of conversations with you.

Because if that’s not happening and they don’t, you’ve already lost. You’ve already doing something wrong. Taking time off. Making sure they know that they can. That one kind of drives me crazy because there was actually someone else on our team was talking about a place they worked at previously.

I don’t know if you’ve heard this example, Jeff and I used it. We’re talking about one of our shows. But someone actually was like on their bike that hit by a car and was so preoccupied with getting to work on time because everybody who’s a little bit late gets yelled at habitually and they don’t really take any excuses. But having an environment where that shouldn’t even cross someone’s mind if they have like some sort of like accident like that, it’s the last thing they’re worried about.

Flexibility for remote. Part-time, even if you’re an onsite environment, I get it. Some of these companies out there. Some of it’s by nature of what they do, others it’s by nature of they’re more preferring on hybrid. I would prefer and

I think most people like a no questions asked when someone says, “Hey, I really need to work remote today” is also a good one. Trusting your team enough that when they say that it’s not just some BS, like you should have enough trust in them that they actually need that kind of time

One tactic that I’ve seen that can be really effective, especially if an entire team is feeling the weight of something or just having some video free meeting space, where you still are showing up, being productive, having collaboration. But just giving people a second to not have to be on in that way.

And so intermittent video free breaks in the schedule can be really powerful for people too and it’s a really simple thing to do. I love the camera.. Mine’s always on. Even when you’re not in a conversation? You’re just looking at- when we end this, I’m just going to leave mine on. So the rest of the day,

I’ll be looking at myself as I’m doing work on my other monitor, so. And you’re safe to do that, James. I- if you need to look at yourself all day, every day, that’s great. If that’s what makes you a productive part of this company, go for it. Yeah, bring my whole self to work just to watch myself work.

Anyways, so that was a good talk. I think this will be interesting. I’m excited to kind of get this one out there and I think there’s a couple of different bits there, where I definitely want to kind of feature some of these things on social because I think people get a lot out of it.

So thanks again, Liz for kind of putting this together. This was all you. I’m way out of my depth on this kind of stuff. So I appreciate it and so does everyone else out there.

One last thing from like a tactical standpoint, because this might help a lot of companies out there. What are we doing specifically? So Hirewell’s an organization, you’ve been leading a lot of these initiatives up with some others. What’s kind of our playbook and what we’ve kind of set in place to make sure people have the psychological safety they need?

Yeah. That’s a great question, James. At Hirewell, it’s definitely one of our values and our priorities to make sure that we put our people first. From their first day, all the way through their entire career journey with us. Our leaders are empowered with some resources that have given them talk tracks and suggestions and different scenarios where they can put themselves into their employee’s shoes and show up to create those spaces proactively.

We’ve also had our leaders going through some really awesome leadership development training, teaching them to be empathetic listeners, and to be the ones empowering everyone to succeed. Our CEO is proactive also about addressing issues as they come up and making that conversation a safe one to have as an organization as well.

We’re not going to get it right every single time, but having that as a priority for us and really living our values from the top down in that way, I think you can see in the way that our employees talk about this organization and the way that they show up to work and the success that we’re seeing, that they really are feeling and experiencing and living that human first culture.

And I think you, you left out the most important one. We have you. So there’s- there’s that too.

Yeah. Anyways, thanks everyone for tuning into the Talent Insights podcast. Part of the Talent Insights series, which is always available for replay on talentinsights.hirewell.com as well as YouTube, Apple podcast, Google podcast, Spotify and Amazon. Liz, thanks as always. Can’t wait to have you on again, some time talking about something else.

Hopefully sometime soon. I hope that your first experience on video here at Hirewell was a positive one. Everyone out there we’ll see you soon.

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