Category: Optimising Performance
Content type: Insight

Returning to work safely – Learning from Elite Sport

As businesses are navigating a return to the workplace, safety is foremost in everyone’s minds. And while the focus is necessarily on creating a physically safe, bio-secure environment, paying attention to creating psychological safety is critical AND maintain (or even re-establish) an emphasis on productivity and performance.

We’re privileged to work in elite sport, which has been a forerunner in returning to the workplace. We’ve observed (and supported!) how they’ve gone about re-creating a physically and psychologically safe high performance environment over the last couple of months.

So we’re sharing 4 key things that we think are imperative in a safe return to a high performance workplace:

  1. Connect and Communicate

From the beginning of lockdown through to the present, the emphasis has been on connection and communication, understanding how every staff member, athlete and player is coping, and then rapidly providing support to help address emerging issues. This is communication in listening mode, rather than by broadcast or diktat, which increases individual psychological safety, and provides an environment in which people can better respond in uncertain times.

Connecting includes seeking regular opportunities to meet as a team, and focus on wellbeing, as well as attending to what the team is there to deliver. This has been in the shape of weekly video calls, social gatherings (which have included cooking sessions!) and ensuring different sub-teams have connected on their own. The result has been that many sub-teams have returned to training more closely connected than before they started, creating a strong safe and high performance culture for their return.

  1. Consult

The organisations we’ve been working with have been consulting early about proposed plans for coming out of lockdown, through athlete representatives, and steering committees made up of all levels in the organization. This has built athlete, coach and staff trust in the plans and increased buy-in to the approach. It can be time-consuming, but our experience is that it saves time in the long run. Keeping that level of consultation over the coming weeks and months will be critical to maintaining a culture of safety and performance.

  1. Provide as much Certainty as possible

In times of most rapid change around lockdown, certainty can often be in short supply. We’ve seen how effective early sharing of intentions and plans has been – which has included when things are not known.  It helps people be clearer about the changes they are being invited to consider and make, and feel they have a real choice. It’s a policy that’s continued as training and (for some) competition has resumed.

  1. Reinforcing Informed Choice

Every athlete has actively opted into the return to training and competition. There have been group briefing conversations and 1-1s with the team psychologist to check people’s understanding of the set-up and their available options. It’s been reiterated throughout that athletes will not be penalised if they do not opt in – and that’s been backed up by early demonstrations of this.

Giving choice and autonomy ultimately fuels psychological safety at a time of risk and threat. This can be challenging for more hierarchically minded leaders, who may feel that people should just get on with it. Our strong advice is that giving people choice at this time is vital – it helps people manage the many parts of their lives, leading to a more committed and performance focused work force.

There’s a clear interplay here between creating physical safety, psychological safety and a performance focus.  As you lead your business or team into the next phase of change, take a moment to reflect on what you’ve done differently from the approaches described above, and your team and business outcomes so far. Is there anything you need to change or course correct? What learning could you apply to the next phase of change?

If you’re interested in learning more, and being supported as you lead through ongoing volatility and uncertainty, our Leading in New Worlds Programme starts on 30th September. 

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