Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace: How Design Thinking Principles Foster Equitable and Productive Work Environments

In today’s work environment where the nature of work and how it is done is in a constant state of flux and employees are expected to be increasingly effective at work, it is crucial to create a workspace environment that provides stability, is equitable, fosters productivity, and is above all-inclusive. A workspace environment that provides psychological safety is seeded in a people-centric approach and can make all the difference in how employees approach their work and interact with their colleagues. With that in mind, let’s dive into how workplace designs can augment a psychologically safe work environment with case studies of design solutions from Space Matrix.

A workspace environment that provides stability

Psychological safety is the shared belief that it’s safe to take interpersonal risks as a group - it is the secret ingredient to high-performing teams. The absence of psychological safety leads to trust breakdown, groupthink and a drop in creativity, the last thing employers need in today’s business environment that thrives on innovation and creativity. How do you then create an environment of stability that enables the building of shared belief  to take calculated risks and be innovative, which can lead to increased productivity and a more positive work culture?

Design plays an integral role in enabling a psychologically safe environment.  Designing for active and spontaneous collaboration and co-creation that are easily accessible to smaller teams as well as designated spaces for planned collaboration like innovation rooms both provide opportunities within teams and in the organisation as a whole to come together often, ideate and deliberate on problems and co-create solutions together. This enables trust building, amplifies creativity and establishes a shared belief through workplace design.


workstations and collaborative zones in Prudential's workspace in Singapore


Prudential’s workspace in Singapore reinforced its employee-centric ethos and embodied the principle of stability by making the employees a part of the design process for the new office. To help them achieve their "Trust in Change" strategy, Space Matrix facilitated workshops, brainstorming sessions, and activities to better understand the needs of their workforce. These insights were used to create the office design concept of "Embracing Change" 

The outcome was an employee-centric and inclusive workplace with minimal enclosed workspaces, adaptable office furniture, and a unique feature: four cocoon-shaped timber domes that house workstations and collaborative zones. These domes mimic the protective shape of a seed pod, symbolizing the organization's commitment to safeguarding its employees' beliefs and identities. The entire journey of having the employees participate in the design process has led to a workplace where they feel valued and heard thus contributing to the psychological safety aspect of the workplace culture. 


Providing an Equitable Experience at Work

An equitable experience means that all employees, regardless of their background, feel valued, respected, and included. When employees feel psychologically safe and have an equitable experience, they are more likely to trust their colleagues and feel empowered to share their opinions and ideas. This type of environment can lead to more open communication and collaboration, which can drive innovation and increase productivity.

The design of common areas, meeting rooms, and workstations that are accessible and inclusive for all employees is essential. This requires designing with the intent to ensure there is no bias. For example, adjustable-height desks and ergonomic chairs can accommodate employees of different heights and physical abilities. This design approach is not only inclusive but also can be beneficial to employee health and well-being.


An interior view of Northern Trust's office in Pune with contrasting to assist individuals with disabilities in navigating the space


When the financial services company enlisted the help of Space Matrix, the objective was to create a user-friendly space, particularly for individuals with special needs. The office interior incorporates multi-sensory elements to communicate information and enhance the overall work experience, including features to improve accessibility such as navigation aids.

The design recognizes that people have unique ways of experiencing space, which ultimately affects employee productivity and satisfaction. To align with the principle of inclusivity, Space Matrix integrated design elements that provide a comprehensive experience for all, including those with disabilities. The office includes contrasting quiet and busy zones to assist individuals with disabilities in navigating the space, as well as various flooring materials such as carpets, vinyl, concrete, and wood, complete with tactile strips for easy navigation. Braille signage and artwork in strategic locations throughout the Northern Trust office serve as both navigational aids and decorative accents.


Building Resonance with the brand and organisation

When employees feel a strong sense of alignment with the values, vision, and mission of the organisation, they are more likely to be motivated, engaged, and committed to their work. Design is a conduit for building stronger and deeper connections with the organisation. This means that to establish a connection with employees, workplace designs need to go beyond  elements such as the company's branding, logo, colours, and messaging. For authentic and meaningful connections with the organisation, the role of design needs to be more than just putting the mission statement on the wall. Imagine a workplace that is loaded with brand colour and cues from the organisation’s values but the space is planned in a way that employees feel like their every move is being watched. Now imagine a workplace where employees are able to maintain their personal space, have ample choice for carrying out their work activities, control over their environment and spaces to retreat but branding is subtle. Chances are employees in the second workplace form a more meaningful bond with the organisations, are more engaged and have a greater sense of pride in the organisation. 


Different zones in LinkedIn's workspace in Bangalore represented by the company's core values of 'Open, Honest, and Constructive'


Without compromising on brand values, LinkedIn's reflective glasshouse design of its workspace in Bangalore inspired by the principles of being “Open, Honest and Constructive” is also employee-centric. Different zones in the office interior represent the Company’s different core values in a manner that’s subtle enough to get the message across but not overbearing to affect the sense of personal space and freedom that comes with an open office environment. For instance, the brand's emphasis on collaboration was brought to life in the physical workspace through various design elements, such as feature walls adorned with 25,000 mounted pencils, ultra-vibrant yellow pixelated art, and ample green spaces that make a powerful impact. Employees were also a part of the design and ideation and therefore feel a deeper bond and sense of belonging.

Creating a more equitable and productive work environment is not just the right thing to do; it's also good for business. When employees feel psychologically safe and have an equitable experience, they are more engaged and productive. By using design thinking principles and putting their people first, employers can create a workplace culture that values inclusion, empathy, and diversity. Are you interested in learning more about how design thinking can foster psychological safety in your workplace? Contact us today to schedule a consultation with our experts!