Let's create safe spaces in offices to restore the confidence of untrusting British workers

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Teamwork difficulties mean two thirds of UK workers are struggling

The motor of any successful company runs on great teamwork. Yet, according to research cultivated by Dropbox, teamwork isn’t working in British businesses.

In an attempt to nurture the British work culture, Dropbox teamed up with The School of Life to dismantle these issues and investigate how to restore the virtues of teamwork.

In a brutally honest panel hosted by Dave Coplin, chief envisioning officer at The Envisioners, Zara Whysall, organisational psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, Dr. Brennan Jacoby, a philosopher at The School of Life and Jennifer Brook, lead design and teams researcher at Dropbox, discuss a possible solution.

49% of workers say they don’t enjoy working in a team. How did we get to that statistic?

According to Jacoby, if you haven’t opted for politeness over your true feelings when talking to colleagues, then you would be one of the few: “We often say things that people want to hear instead of pointing out what really needs to be said, and we have misplaced confidence when we should be appreciative of other people’s roles."

Brook believes it is to do with connection: “I love studying the people that have figured something out. When someone has found something meaningful in their work then that’s one piece of the equation. But have people found joy in their job? This can include feeling peaceful from three hours of uninterrupted work each afternoon or taking a walk to reconnect with their creativity. It sounds almost too simple, but people don’t have that comfort in the workplace,” she adds.

We are all individuals, with different perspectives of who we are in and out of work. How do you embrace these differences in people when they are put in a team?

“From a psychological perspective, what I found interesting about that statistic is that although we don’t seem to like working in teams, the brain evolves very slowly and we are wired to be social – we are social creatures. There was an interesting study on social isolation, so when people are split from their colleagues, and it has the same response in the brain as physical pain; this proves we like to be sociable. I think the reason why half of us hate it is because any enjoyment we have in teams is crushed by bad management or not having the tools to collaborate,” Whysall contributes.

“Also, a selection of different personalities means we are negotiating with different team types; what might be perceived as aloof by one person may actually be that person reflecting. You need to overcome any individual agendas with a shared goal. Although I agree that there must be a purpose for everyone – it is a hard job for a manager.”

Whose job is it to make sure that everyone feels empowered?

“The leader,” Jacoby confirms. “Leadership can come from anywhere. It could be a typical hierarchal structure where the boss is at the top and the vision of the culture is very much being defined, but it doesn't have to that way.

"Another Dropbox statistic is that 92% of people don’t like working in teams because of power struggles. Perhaps what is happening here is someone is supposed to be the leader, but they don't go for it as they don't think it's for them. Therefore, someone is nominally in the leadership role; too many people are trying to be leader,” he adds, before challenging the wording of the question. “I take issue with the question ‘where ought leadership come from’ – does it matter where as long as it’s happening?”

Brook elaborates by describing one of Dropbox's studies: "During our observation we observed different teams (the groups that had reported to us that they were exceptionally good at collaborating) and noticed a few different elements. The first was something we call culture making; the culture maker as an entity might be a manager but they could also be someone from within the group that steps up.

"We also noticed the diversity of team types. No two teams worked in the same way, and half of these teams had co-created their culture together. They were having explicit conversations about the values that matter to them and the ways that they wanted to talk to each other. One of them was following a programme called ‘I like, I wish, I wonder’. This is an example of how a group can bring up a difficult conversation," she suggests.

69% Brits say they are not comfortable disagreeing with work. Is this because we are culturally bereft?

Jacoby acknowledges that people can be set to autopilot when exploring ideas: "You should look for assists rather than just who is bringing in the most money. During a conference you should be seeing how many different angles people can present. A manager from Ford once said in a meeting: "If we are all in agreement about this issue then we should be taking an hour to discuss it until at least one person has something to say against it" – we should be following this example."

Often in meetings people only listen to what includes them and then go back to sleep once their part is over. How do we change that behaviour?

“I think it’s all about trust," Jacoby replies. I know that if I was in an atmosphere relaxed enough to think I don’t have to be perfect then I would say more; we need to get to a space where we’re saying you don’t have to get everything right in the first instance. There is work out there about how to work in that space – there needs to be an ‘ok to fail’ attitude, and knowing when to bring in the gatekeeper.”

“We observed a theatre company creating a safe space for risk, and all of a sudden it turned my mind onto the idea that we need practice spaces,” observes Brook. We need a container of safety where you can have dirty socks on the ground and get a note wrong. We need practice platforms.”

If companies were to create ‘safe spaces’ in the workplace, would this compromise professionalism? What are the limits to people creating their own rules?

“Professionalism and freedom work in conjunction,” Brook responds. “In fact, boundaries are necessary for creating a safe space. A safe place doesn’t have to mean wearing an offensive t-shirt or walking in and out of the office at leisure. It could be knowing you need four hours of interrupted work time in the afternoon and getting a huge pair of headphones to tell people that – it’s a great way to set boundaries. Boundaries are important, and knowing what is acceptable and what is not is extremely important, otherwise it erodes safety.”

Whysall agrees that people appreciate boundaries at work: “People like autonomy and freedom but they also like certainty. Having no rules is quite unnerving so we should be adopting the work culture of freedom within a framework. Child psychologists have told us that children feel comfortable with a fence around them and we need to continue to create that atmosphere in the workplace.”

“Politeness has its place. Many years ago we used to think we could teach people how to hold a book or sit in a chair, and the reason was to create a version of yourself that other people can understand,” Jacoby adds. "We talk about the weather because that’s a conversation that everyone knows how to have – it’s not awkward. Professionalism could be a base to create your company but everyone can be their own person."

The panel agrees that we must encourage freedom in offices without compromising work etiquette, to shatter the lack of confidence that shrouds the unhappy worker. Is it possible to reverse our stereotyped ‘keep quiet and suffer in silence’ attitude, or can philosophy be used to develop a safe work environment? – only time will tell.

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