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ATD Blog

Leading People Back to a SAFE Work Environment

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

After years of turbulence, companies are attempting to a return to a sense of normalcy and build a post-pandemic future. As a part of this rebuilding process, some companies are trying to shape new models of working, which might include permanent remote work, hybrid work arrangements, or a return to the traditional office. But with an uncertain future and organizations continuing to develop workforce strategies contemporaneously, employees are looking for safety.

Enter psychological safety, which is based on Schein and Bennis (1965)’s organizational change research and refers to an “individual’s perception of the consequences of taking a risk.”

To understand the importance of psychological safety, we must reflect on our experiences from the previous two and a half years and recognize the different stressors employees have experienced. For instance, many people have perceived their personal health and safety to be at risk. Meanwhile, frontline workers in organizations economically impacted during the pandemic have been concerned about their job security and salaries. Likewise, employees that were able to continue to work have dealt with massive amounts of change, such as the switch to remote work to extended hours.

This near constant upheaval has taken a toll on employees’ mental health, with many workers reporting burnout and signs of long-term stress. Indeed, the American Psychological Association acknowledges that burnout and stress are everywhere. With all these factors impacting employees’ perceptions of safety what can organizations do?

Many organizations want their employees back in the office (reportedly up to 50 percent of companies). But after so many changes and challenges related to the world of work, managers and organizations cannot expect employees to return to something that resembles a pre-pandemic normal.

Remote managers are experiencing a lack of trust, concerned with whether workers are doing as much work from home as they do when they are in the office. Meanwhile, workers are less trusting of organizations as a result of all the changes they’ve had to endure.


Organizations and employees cannot avoid change. Instead, they should embrace this opportunity to create a new standard for everyone. By rebuilding psychological safety within their organizations, leaders can positively impact organizational outcomes and employee experience.

To help organizations rebuild psychological safety within their organizations, I recommend that they focus on creating a SAFE environment:

  • Support—employees must perceive support from the organization as a whole
  • Alignment—employees must feel alignment with their managers and the organizational mission
  • Fellowship—employees must feel fellowship with each other and develop team cohesion
  • Experimentation—employees must be allowed to experiment and potentially fail

Organizations can build a SAFE environment by focusing on relationships between stakeholders in the organization: leaders and managers, individual contributors, teams, and the organization. By making sure the workforce knows that people are supported by the organization, employees can experience feelings of trust.


To start, remind employees how their work aligns with the organization’s mission. In addition, nurturing a sense of fellowship or a feeling that individual contributors are part of a team can help employees feel connected. Finally, given the amount of change we’ve seen over the past few years, allowing employees to experiment and feel ownership over their jobs is a key factor to retaining employees and giving them a sense of ownership of their work.

To implement these factors, a transformational leadership approach is effective. Transformational leaders can inspire greater motivation and performance among their teams, especially during times of change. By focusing on inspiring employees about the future of your organization, you can help them to feel safer within your organization.

By keeping the focus on transformational leadership and the SAFE model, your organization will be poised to maintain an engaged workforce that’s prepared for the future of work.

About the Author

Dr. Sy Islam is a co-founder and vice president of consulting with Talent Metrics. He has more than 15 years of experience providing data analytic, training, and organizational development support to organizations in a variety of workplace settings. He received his PhD from Hofstra University in applied organizational psychology.

Dr. Islam’s consulting work was recognized by the Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology, when he won the Scientist-Practitioner Presidential Recognition Award for his focus on science driven practices in training and talent development.

Through Talent Metrics, he has consulted with fortune 100 companies like IBM and teams like the Florida Panthers. He has also served in leadership roles with ATD NYC and ATD Long Island. His book, Leaders Assemble! Leadership Lessons from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was published by Emerald Publishing, June 2022.