New Work: Why the workplace needs to be a safe space

February 15, 2022

In many ways, New Work thrives on dynamism. Concepts such as work-life integration aim to achieve a harmonious coexistence of personal and professional life. Individuality – and being able to live it – is one of the most essential attributes of New Work. In the modern working world, we no longer want to be just employees who go to work, we want to act and be perceived as individuals. In light of the continually blurring boundaries between work and private life, we also have to develop new ways to cope with displaying our emotions at work.

Emotions are human, yet inappropriate at work?

There are often situations in life where emotional reactions are unavoidable. As humans, we simply don’t come equipped with an on/off switch, which would let us decide whether we want to feel something or not. Especially when we’re dealing with emotions which have a negative connotation, such as sadness or worry, it’s normal to not shake them off the moment we open the office door - they’ll still be sitting on our shoulders while we’re seated at our desks. In spite of this, showing emotions at work is viewed by many as unprofessional. However, there are many reasons why this view deserves a critical assessment. On one hand, suppressing our emotions is an unrealistic expectation when we take into account how much time we spend at work. An eight hour workday means that one third of our day is spent at work, which is more time then we get to spend with our partners, family or friends. Is it really possible – or perhaps more importantly – does it make sense to suppress our emotions for so long? On the other hand, many New Work environments place great emphasis on maintaining a collegial and relaxed working atmosphere. A few drinks after work is almost always on the roster at a lot of newer companies. The point of such activities is for employees to get to know each other better and to feel more united, strengthening cohesion among the group. These after work get-togethers should create positive experiences and memories, which will also have a synergistic effect on work collaborations. Yet why can’t sadness, anxiety or disappointment be openly shared, too? We also need to question the long term consequences in store for us when we suppress our feelings over a greater part of our day. Wouldn’t it be better if it were permissable to display not only the positive emptions, but rather our full range of feelings at the work place? There’s of course no one generic answer to this question. For some people, it may truly be a relief to express their emotions openly, to be able to talk about them and address the emotions of others. However, that’s not the case for everyone. Some people find it extremely difficult to acknowledge their own emotions even to themselves, so baring them to others at the workplace would be unimaginable. Even if people deal with their emotions differently, one thing is obvious: our emotions accompany us to the workplace – whether we like it or not. Which is why there need to be work environments which also provide an emotional safe space, where every individual safely has the right to claim this space as needed.

New Work and the changing world of work: safe spaces 

Luckily, there’s already a significant change in progress at some workspaces in regards to dealing with emotions. Speaking openly about feelings at work was once considered tactless, inappropriate or out of place, yet it’s now being viewed in a more sophisticated manner. More people have come to the conclusion that an employee needs to be perceived as a complete being – and that occurrences in their private life can also have an emotional impact on their work. This indicates how holististic approaches are becoming more evident at the workplace. Companies are giving their workers more space for their emotions and the freedom to take care of their emotional well-being. This is not a completely altruistic move, since it’s assumed that well-adjusted employees are also able to perform better. Nevertheless, it’s becoming more common to see companies paying attention to the psychological safety of their employees by creating emotional safe spaces. A safe space is a place where every employee can feel secure. The work environment is transformed into a space where people are accepted and understood as individuals, and can freely express themselves as such.

How can a workplace become a safe space?

Safe spaces flourish on openness, respect and acceptance. It’s the only possible way to create spaces where employees can develop themselves both professionally and personally. It has to be understood that these spaces are where ideas and emotions can be expressed without fearing negative repercussions. A safe space doesn’t just suddenly exist, developing such a space takes time. That’s also why there are no 3 magical steps for turning an office into a safe space. It depends a lot more on the realization that not only hard skills, but also soft skills are of essential importance in a work context for creating a safe working environment. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that interactions on equal terms – also encompassing emotions – have to be possible for all employees throughout an organization. This realization is also currently being reflected in holacratic work methods. While there are undoubtedly many ways to turn a workspace into a safe space, how this can best be done ultimately depends on the individuals who work there and their particular requirements and needs. However, the first step is always realizing that we, as human beings, need a safe place at work where we can truly be ourselves – and the desire to create this space together.