illustration-psychological-safety-in-the-workplace Illustration by Rosie Barker @rosiebarkwr

Fostering psychological safety in the workplace

John Sellery explores why office design is a conduit to achieving and sustaining a healthy workforce and business.


As a leader within my own firm, I’ve always placed a premium on psychological safety. However, it requires a steadfast commitment to a people-first mentality, in both good times and bad. It means showing a true appreciation for people’s contributions. It means granting them autonomy to pursue business goals and helping them find joy in their work. All of which ultimately help to shape the company’s financial and reputational health.

But in about the physical environment. How can workplace design impact psychological safety?


The power of choice

Feeling psychologically safe at work is often a byproduct of choice. When the physical workplace gives employees the flexibility to choose their work settings and transition from one to the other with ease, they are better able to manage their emotions, responsibilities and interpersonal dynamics with their colleagues and supervisors. Choice is strategically putting control in the employee’s hands to encourage certain behaviours and protect emotional wellbeing.

Here are a few thought starters:

  • Developing flexible protocols that allow employees influence over where they work and when they begin and end their workdays. These protocols should be clearly communicated formally through a company’s communications channels and, informally, from leadership, leading by example.
  • Giving employees choice and control over the lighting levels and temperature of their workspaces.
  • Providing functional and flexible furniture. This might include high tables for quick, iterative, approachable, high-level thinking or low tables for focused, production, formal, static, not approachable work.
  • Creating private spaces for heads-down individual work or for those who need some time to recoup. Semi-enclosed spaces for “free to speak” collaboration, working together, and ideating. Open spaces for safe, all-in, big picture type of discussions.
  • Using textures and materials that provide various levels of acoustic performance.
  • Planning “low-fi” zones where cell phones and audio notifications are purposefully removed to encourage focus.

By providing choice and flexibility, employees become more present and available, which ultimately increases productivity and the quality of the work.

people in breakout area

When you feel better, you work better

We know that psychological safety is directly linked to physical wellness. During the global pandemic, business leaders are being called upon to further adapt the physical workplace to protect people’s health. If people are healthy and they have the confidence that their physical environment is working hard to keep them that way, their psychological safety will grow.

Some of these steps include:

  • Individually wrapping food and drink instead of serving communally. Common areas where people routinely eat and drink will need to be sanitised as they are used throughout the day.
  • HVAC systems must ensure that supply and return air occur in opposite positions, (e.g. floor and ceiling), and they must decrease air pressure in contaminated areas (e.g. bathrooms and equipment rooms) while increasing pressure in other spaces. Increasing fresh air rates, adding in-duct UV lamping and enhanced catalytic oxidation, and providing readable air quality monitors will all become more commonplace.
  • Sneeze barriers will assist with psychological safety. Plexiglass is becoming a hot commodity to support this process. There is a tremendous design opportunity to introduce these barriers in creative and aesthetically pleasing ways without disrupting workflow.
  • Investing in water filtration systems (e.g. charcoal filters or RO systems) that remove containments. Regular testing of the water in the workplace, and handless water dispensers such as sinks, toilets, urinals, and drinking fountains.
  • Increasing tools and products that encourage physical movement. This might include walking meetings, stationary bikes, boxing bags, Yoga mats, Swiss balls, TRX equipment, and online exercise programs.
  • Developing initiatives that support mindfulness programming. Creating restorative spaces. Providing access to the natural environment, either outside or through indoor planting, has been proven to improve productivity and focus.
people sitting at table in front of colourful rooms

Helping employees feel safe and secure so they can do their best work requires a people-first mindset. It also requires the belief that psychological safety is a key ingredient to organisational success.

To institutionalise it and foster the behaviours that support both physical and psychological safety, companies must adopt protocols and guidance for employees and leaders to follow. These include stringent, well communicated and non-negotiable safety standards, equal access for all employees to tools, technologies, and facilities, and a system of accountability where feedback is valued.

Psychological safety in the workplace is more pressing than ever. Design is a conduit to achieving and sustaining a healthy workforce.

John Sellery

Group Managing Director

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