Buckle up! Psychological safety first for remote Scrum Teams

Hi! I’m Sarah Rose, an Agile Process Leader at Alley, a Certified Scrum Master, and a builder of remote team dynamics across continents and the expanses of the internet. Unlike many in the agile community, my background is in education — specifically cultivating psychological safety on teams as a foundation for peak performance.

But enough about me. Your company is #suddenlyremote and you’re wondering how to remain connected and maintain psychological safety when you’re faced with new challenges of physical separateness. Whether your workplace is remote permanently or temporarily, psychological safety is elementary in the experience of high-performing teams. Without psychological safety, the consequences would be far-reaching and destructive to the individual and the organization. But cultivating psychological safety is hard work, especially on remote teams.

At Alley, we tackle this challenge every day. We are a psychological safety first workplace. This means we prioritize supporting interpersonal risk-taking because we understand its valuable role in helping us create quality products. How, you ask? Read on and I’ll share some of the basics.

What is psychological safety and how do we build it at Alley? 

Amy Edmondson identifies psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Although perceived “interpersonal risks” will be subjective, at Alley we use research-based methods to strengthen the psychological safety of our Scrum team environment. For example, team members who respond considerately and constructively when coworkers express unfiltered viewpoints, opinions, disagreement, vulnerability, etc., over time, encourage each other to freely express themselves more often.

Similarly, Alley culture supports interpersonal risk-taking by consciously creating holding environments. What are holding environments? Holding environments are contexts for growth and learning, the success of which require specific understanding of members’ current developmental strengths and limitations, as well as communication skills, and “support the examination of deeply held assumptions and new ways of social interaction.” At Alley, some examples of holding environments include our coaching program, our communities of professional practice, and our daily Scrum and scaled Scrum practices.

You may already incorporate similar holding environments into your regular workplace practice — if so, continue when you go remote. At Alley, we’ve found that various team members excel through different communication and learning styles, including visual and auditory learners. For example, some people easily take to the more deliberate, intentional text communication of Slack, while others feel more comfortable with face-to-face conversation on a Zoom call. Because of the variety in your team members’ preferred communication and learning styles, establishing these kinds of holding environments will become even more crucial for supporting your team members and building psychological safety once you’ve gone remote.

You might be thinking, “But meeting time is limited! How can I possibly support the developmental strengths and limitations of my team in the allotted time?” Intentionality and focus are the answers. Time is money — especially meeting time, when the whole team is gathered in a videoconference. At Alley, we think critically about what needs to be pulled from our team members’ brains before the meeting, then craft questions to help each other share information, connect, problem-solve, or take the time to invest in our humanity. Scrum gives our teams the autonomy and flexibility to create enough structure with enough freedom to make our time over Zoom meaningful. The impact of developing these skills within holding environments such as Scrum practices is that it helps our team members gain a deeper understanding of themselves in relation to each other, our work, and the world around them. 

Why should I care about Psychological Safety? I’m just here to make money 💰

Across a variety of industries, including software, athletics, and education, psychological safety has been identified as a precondition for team learning and team performance, as well as a factor directly correlated with organizational outcomes.

Consistently reinforcing psychological safety through holding environments cements a foundation for supporting behaviors that cultivate team peak performance, instead of reinforcing dynamics that block its full potential. Clearly stated, “unsupportive organizational climates pose a threat to individual identity, curtail individual confidence, and jeopardize individual self expression” while psychologically safe climates create “perceived freedom in the expression of true self,” that is, whether an individual feels confident in expressing his/her ideas and beliefs without fear of negative consequences to self image.

In addition, strategies for improving psychological safety, employed carefully, can support equity, amplifying marginalized voices at work. Research suggests that a more equitable workplace is a more successful one. For example, 2013 study results published by the Colorado Women’s College at the University of Denver found that women in leadership improve the organization’s overall impact, employee retention, and profitability. Additionally, a study by Credit Suisse revealed that companies with more women in executive or board positions “exhibit higher returns on equity, higher valuations, and higher payout ratios.” Psychological safety is an important and powerful foundation for supporting equity, developing high-quality products, and promoting the success of a more diverse cohort of leaders at your company.

The same path to psychological safety is not equitably offered to all 

Perceived psychological safety is intimately connected to the inclusivity of the work environment and the psychological safety that has been reinforced over an individual’s lifetime. Marginalized and historically oppressed groups perceive varying degrees of safety, depending on how much difference they feel in comparison with the rest of the team, based on the intersection of their identities (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, age, or sexuality).

Furthermore, some individuals experience encouragement to reject traditional gender barriers,  and in response to this rejection, have found an opening of opportunities throughout their lives. In contrast, some individuals become accustomed to code-switching as a mechanism for excelling in inequitable systems that historically favor white men. Therefore, I have found it imperative to move away from individualized definitions of specific gender barriers. Instead, I have chosen to explore psychological safety on Scrum teams and at Alley as a whole through an inclusive, intersectional, group lens.

Remote work has the potential to make work more accessible and more inclusive to a diverse range of team members, especially if you have expanded your recruiting pool to fully remote team members who may never set foot in your headquarters. However, beyond simply operating as a remote company, it can be challenging to welcome remote team members, support their growth, and retain those team members by building psychological safety. If your company finds itself remote, this is an opportunity to build or rebuild your workplace culture by establishing a foundation of psychological safety through an intentional lens of intersectionality.

Taking the next step, together

Now that we’re grounded in what psychological safety is and its implications for remote work, we’re ready for the next step.

How might you use the framework of a psychological safety first company to support the intersectionality of overlapping identities that your remote team members hold? What are some powerful strategies you can use right away?

In my next post I’ll detail research on women’s unique and intersectional experiences in leadership and at work, as well as share ways other organizations are improving equity in the workplace. I’ll provide strategies that might spark some insights about what you can do to promote psychological safety in your own workplace.

As we continue moving forward together, I invite you to hold this contextual framework close, while you create (and lead!) your own workplace where team members feel increasingly safe to take interpersonal risks. At Alley, we are invested in supporting your growth and look forward to learning with and from you along the way!


This is the fourth of a five-part series, Locked out of the Scrum Room, on taking an agile practice remote:

Because we are a remote company and an agile organization that generally follows Scrum Inc’s Scrum at Scale program, we think we could be useful to other agile organizations that are finding themselves temporarily working from home during this challenging time. We’re happy to answer questions and provide guidance and assistance as we are able.

We are also devoting pro bono time to assisting nonprofit organizations in this transition, whether they use Scrum or not.

Let us know if we can help, or check out our e-book on remote work.