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How to Create Safe Spaces at Work

There are ways you can lead your organization to create a more supportive environment in which all people are equally able to flourish professionally and personally. Safe spaces give people a place where they can share their ideas without fear of repercussions, and live their identity without facing discrimination or harm.

Safe spaces can help organizations confront and deal with toxic dysfunction and inequity permeating your office. Some of your coworkers might not be comfortable opening up and expressing themselves. They may not feel accepted or respected. They could be experiencing outright harassment or more subtle indignities. Or perhaps you feel this way.

There’s a misconception that people retreat to safe spaces to hide from ideas or people. While some may be used that way, that’s probably not the kinds of safe spaces you want for your organization. You want ones where people actively can talk about difficult, awkward, and important issues that need to be dealt with for your employees to be able to succeed.

Here are ways you can create safe spaces to build more trust and respect between coworkers.

Encourage affinity groups

Affinity groups, also known as employee resource groups, give people a chance to voluntarily meet with others who understand their experiences and share their feelings. Instead of suffering in silence, a workplace affinity group is a place to be heard, to be believed, and to be supported.

These kinds of safe space groups can be organized around just about any shared interest or identity. These can be equal opportunity categories such as gender, race, sexual identity, veteran status, or disability. Affinity groups can also be based on almost anything else employees may have in common, like being a caregiver, commuting by bike, or becoming a better public speaker.

There are possible legal implications and labor laws to consider before getting the organization or management officially involved in an affinity group. Check with human resources.

Manage conversations, not just meeting agendas

Your employees also need to see the best practices they learn in diversity trainings used in everyday interactions. One way of accomplishing this is by adapting what’s called a dignity framework for workplace interactions. Organizational behavior researchers Sara J. Baker and Kristen Lucas explained:

“A dignity framework…broadens the scope of attention from illegal and unethical behaviours that inflict harm to include behaviours that are necessary to affirm human value. While dignity spans all domains of life, it has particular significance in a workplace context.”

A dignity framework offers guidance above and beyond what’s required by labor laws. It makes clear the mutually respectful behavior employees should use toward each other. To bring a dignity framework to your workplace, begin by setting ground rules for conversations and meetings. Your organization’s dignity framework ground rules could include:

  • Treat everyone as a person who matters, not just as a worker, and not just as their job role.
  • Assume best intentions and ask clarifying questions.
  • Depersonalize conflict by discussing behaviors and actions, not by attacking a person’s character.
  • Ask for and correctly use people’s preferred names and their personal gender pronouns.
  • Show respect for others by being on time, by not interrupting, and by listening attentively.

Offer safe spaces in the office, off site, and online

Remote employees and people out in the field need access to safe spaces the same as those working in offices do. Leaving them out of conversations with coworkers can exacerbate their feelings of exclusion and frustration.

Often this will mean offering an online alternative. Pair each affinity group with a companion digital chat space, like Slack or an email discussion list, for everyone to use. Let the group choose moderators who will make sure topics discussed in-person continue in the group chat, and that conversations stick to your organization’s dignity framework.

Invest in software, hardware, and technical support to run a video conference system so remote employees can take part in affinity groups and meetings. Have someone in the room be a proxy for everyone who participates by video to make sure they get an equal opportunity to speak and be heard.

Safe spaces at your organization

What is your organization doing to make people feel respected and supported? Do you think your organization could benefit from creating safe spaces? Share your thoughts in a comment.

Lauren Girardin is a marketing and communications consultant, freelance writer, and trainer based in San Francisco. She helps organizations engage their communities and tell their stories. Her website is laurengirardin.com and you can connect with her on Twitter at @girardinl.

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