The key to fostering a healthy team is creating a sense of “psychological safety,” said Bhavna Chhabra, engineering director and site lead for Google’s Boulder campus. “A psychologically safe team is a team where the people … feel like they can admit mistakes and be able to admit when they don’t know something. [It’s] being able to ask for help,” she said. “If you don’t have an environment where failure is OK, then people won’t take risks.”
At a place like Google, promoting innovative thinking and risk-taking is crucial, but Chhabra’s framework for a healthy team applies beyond tech companies. “It’s also about being a dependable team that delivers on time,” she said. “[And] a team that allows for a diversity of viewpoints and is inclusive of people who are different from them.”
Chhabra, a University of Colorado Boulder grad, took charge in Boulder last month, but she’s been with Google since 2016. She now oversees a 1,300-person team and her role has shifted to nurturing an engaging office environment. She spoke about fostering collaborative environments and healthy teams with the Denver Business Journal’s Jensen Werley during a fireside chat last week at From Day One’s Denver conference.
“I try my best, no matter how busy I am, I take the time to meet with anyone, get to know them, show I care about them,” Chhabra said. Keeping employees happy and developing a creative, inclusive environment starts with leadership, she added. Every six months, employees evaluate managers in performance reviews. (There’s also an in-depth annual survey.) The results—and what Google finds from crunching data—are folded into the manager training program. This is important, Chhabra said, because in order to scale these sorts of systems, leaders need to make sure “managers embody those attributes” that have been deemed critical to maintaining “optimal team structure.” She also keeps an eye out for team members who personify the company’s values and would thus make good leaders themselves. “We can’t try to solve everything,” she said. “We distill it [the surveys] down to the most important [issues] based on data we received and try to do something about it.”
Recently, Google leadership heard from its employees that managers weren’t valuing citizenship enough—how individuals were lending a hand both on campus and within the broader community. Now, “we reward people that are doing extra work to help their teammates,” Chhabra said. Google offers several other morale-building programs: classes around values that are fundamental to the company; an online forum where employees can post questions anonymously; and a focus on results-based performance. “We don’t care when you’re coming into work and leaving. What we care about is that you’re getting your work done,” she said. “We’re respectful of work-life balance.” (A related note: Google’s research found that “healthy teams are not impacted negatively by co-location,” Chhabra said, meaning that everyone doesn’t need to be working out of the same space to effectively collaborate.)
That’s not to say Google has it all figured out. Chhabra underscored concerns about developing a more diverse workforce within the company. Google publishes an annual diversity report; last year, 92% of new hires were Asian or White and only 33% were women. Releasing this information is “the ultimate in vulnerability,” Chhabra said.
All of this work toward keeping employees happy isn’t just corporate altruism, however. Healthy teams are also smart for business. “A healthy team retains employees,” Chhabra said, emphasizing the high costs of training and turnover. “Healthy teams deliver on time. Healthy teams innovate. Healthy teams have fun.”
Fostering this sort of workplace invites more engaged employees, which then allows for teams who are better equipped to collaborate, innovate, and produce. “We’ve created an environment where people feel OK with being themselves. They’re coming across as not just employees but human beings,” Chhabra said. “It comes from this atmosphere of encouragement … of psychological safety.”
Read more of Google’s research on work and innovation at rework.withgoogle.com.
In breakout sessions that followed, Santiago Jaramillo, CEO and co-founder of Emplify, spoke about how to build a winning employee-engagement strategy. And Mike Bailen, vice president of people at Lever, talked about achieving a transformative hiring strategy and what new research reveals about key metrics to focus on.
Daliah Singer is an award-winning, Denver-based freelance journalist. She has written for NBCNews.com, The Guardian, BBC.com, Outside, Travel & Leisure, and others. Follower her on Twitter at @daliahsinger