The AltoPartners Guide to Diversity and Inclusion : Safe Spaces – Could these be the missing ingredient in your DE&I programme?

October 20, 2022 Share this article:

Safe Spaces

It’s hard to think of a less safe space than polar ice. Yet Dr Ed Coats, polar explorer and adventurer, managed to create one on polar expeditions. He and his team would gather in their tent, surrounded by snow in the freezing polar landscape, to discuss whatever was on their minds. They created a safe, open and honest environment for people to talk.

Workplaces might not be polar landscapes, but they can sometimes be hostile and frightening, especially to people who are not part of the organisation’s dominant culture. AltoPartners looks at how companies can provide “tent time” (safe spaces) so that people can safely share their thoughts and ideas. It might only take ten minutes, but it’s a powerful habit to cultivate.

What is a safe space?

A safe space is one free of bias, conflict or criticism, where you can be yourself and find mutual support and community. For most people, their safe space is their home, but it could also be a favourite park, a reading corner in a bookstore or even a much-loved bar or coffee shop. On that basis, few would consider the workplace a safe space.

According to Quartz at Work, a core component of diversity and inclusion efforts should be to acknowledge and support employee identity in the workplace. If some employees don’t feel they can be themselves at work, that may explain why many diversity programmes fail.

Wait, so is this a physical or metaphorical space?

Both. Safe spaces are created (psychologically) and provided (physically). It’s about making employees feel comfortable and accepted at work.

A safe space, however, should not be confused with a “chill zone” – the place where employees take breaks. Safe spaces often take the form of more formalised groups. Invitae, a company which works to bring comprehensive genetic information into mainstream medicine, has several initiatives aimed at providing safe spaces. These employee resources groups (ERGs) hold community table talks which are a series of informal conversations hosted by ERGs to foster community and allyship among employees and discuss relevant issues. The ERGs support these groups:

  • Woman in Tech
  • Latinx
  • Pride (Rainbow Connection)
  • Peer Soul Support (Mental wellness)
  • Black Genetics
  • Veterans In Genetics
  • Aznpac & Friends (Asian and Pacific Islander)

Is this a new thing?

Not really. The concept of a safe space has its roots in business resource groups (BRGs) or affinity groups. Developed in the US, these have been around since the 60s as a tool to address racial tension in the workplace. The concept is also used extensively in academia.

So, what’s changed?

The concept is now recognised to be crucial not just for minorities in the workplace but for all employees. As The HR Director points out, anyone – no matter who they are or how invincible they feel – would benefit from the solace and comfort of a safe space from time to time. Additionally, companies are increasingly aware of the multiple biases faced by specific employee groups, and that one size does not fit all.

Where is the big opportunity?

Companies have the opportunity to redefine diversity and inclusion around the notion of intersectionality: employees who identify as black and trans, for example, may not feel comfortable speaking out in a group that denies or excludes one of those identities. Similarly, a young single mother in admin may feel that she has nothing in common with a group of young women interns. The aim is to factor in a variety of variables ─ including tenure and role ─ to create multiple forums where employees feel safe enough to weigh in on solutions to business challenges without fear of criticism or social sanction.

How would that work?

One way is to create new cross-functional opportunities for employees to engage in problem-solving that acknowledge that they may have more than one identity at work. These groups are useful for exposing hidden biases and identifying problems unique to people facing multiple, simultaneous biases that may overlap: race, gender, age, class, nationality or ability. Once biases are identified, they are easier to manage. If there is no name for a problem, you can’t solve it.

Still not convinced you need a safe space strategy?

Apart from the fact that employers have a duty of care to ensure that employees are physically and mentally safe at work, creating safe spaces where employees can speak freely provides invaluable insight into how to recruit, train and mentor talent that you would like to retain. These groups could also be tasked with problem-solving: how do we reach more older mothers? How do we talk to Black, gay men more effectively in our marketing campaigns? These groups will have unique perspectives that a monochrome Exco team may not. And, drawing on lessons in education and adult learning, safe spaces boost innovation: people who feel marginalised are unlikely to volunteer suggestions or raise difficult issues in a general workspace, such as a team meeting or a town hall gathering.

Creating effective safe spaces at work

While there is no single playbook for creating safe spaces, consider these strategies when it comes to making employees feel more comfortable at work:

  • Make physical and mental space for equal and open discussions.
  • Give employees a choice in when, how and where to meet to discuss issues around inclusivity. Ditto when it comes to having difficult conversations.
  • Be transparent about your intentions and what you hope to achieve by creating a safe space. The aim is to ensure mutual learning and to promote acceptance through a better understanding of how colleagues work, and their individual and collective challenges that can be applied across the business.
  • Provide everyone with the rules of the game by setting clear boundaries and expectations upfront. This includes dealing with issues of trust and your responsibility as an employer as well as your duty of care to all employees.
  • Even if you have formalised ERGs or a regular morning check-in with your team, it’s still a good idea to carve out a physical space for employees to use as a quiet zone or timeout. This may be a formal area where employees can zone out for a bit and gather their thoughts, or it could be an informal but acknowledged safe space where people can be left in peace after a difficult conversation or a stressful episode – such as the kitchen or the reading room.
  • Allow ad-hoc anonymous suggestions for improvement.
  • Suggest the use of facilitators for particularly sensitive and difficult discussions.
  • Make the safe space concept part of your onboarding process.
  • Show up, listen deeply, and engage collectively to imagine the way forward.
  • Authentically engage – it’s not just about mitigating risk and reducing discomfort.