|The Tenth Annual Game Design Think Tank
Project Horseshoe 2015
|Group Report: Creating Emotionally Safe Workplaces in Game Development|
|Participants: A.K.A. "Safety Dance"|
|Patricia Pizer, Where’s the Fun?||Julie Haehn|
|Josh Diaz, Arena.net||Crystin Cox, Arena.net|
|download the PDF|
To explore what is meant by an emotionally safe workspace, show the benefits of such a workspace, and advise on how to achieve one in a game development context.
The idea of an emotionally safe space is relatively new to workplace culture. The last 15 years has seen a significant increase in our understanding of group dynamics, motivation, and social structures. These learnings have begun to reveal the impact of social dynamics on a team’s performance, particularly their ability to work and think creatively, as well as a group’s ability to grow and diversify. There is growing evidence that establishing an emotionally safe workspace can increase efficiency, reduce turnover, and lead to more creative collaboration. While game development relies on creativity, collaboration, and the ability to adapt quickly, game development workspaces have been plagued by a bad reputation for hostility, homogeneity, and exclusion. We found an abundance of anecdotal evidence and work experiences in game development that indicates a lack of emotionally safe spaces in game development studios of all sizes and types. We surmise that game development leadership, and game developers themselves, have a poor understanding of emotionally safe spaces and how to construct them. This paper aims to establish a baseline definition of emotionally space workspace and offer instruction on how to create and identify such a space.
What is an Emotionally Safe Workspace?
In the simplest terms an emotionally safe space is any place in which individuals are opened and vulnerable. This vulnerability is practiced without fear of social or professional punishment creating an environment of honesty and respect. Emotionally safe workspaces create within their members an ambient sense of belonging and empathetic connection. However, these spaces are not conflict or debate free. In fact, a key component of emotionally safety in the workplace context is the ability for team members to engage in constructive criticism and feedback. An opened sharing of ideas, even ideas on which team members passionately disagree, without fear is essential. Emotionally safe workspaces allow for debate, conflict, and mistakes while still supporting open communication.
Why Should You Care?
It can be easy to see why emotional safety is important for personal relationships but why should game developers care about it in the workplace? Game development is a collaborative, creative, and fast paced endeavor and game developers are passionate creators frequently pushing themselves and technology to the limit. Team productivity and creative success are of paramount importance to game development. Furthermore, as a burgeoning and competitive medium, game development must support a diversity of viewpoints in order to continue to grow and avoid stagnation. Successfully creating an emotionally safe workplace could have significant benefits for not just individual teams, but for the industry as a whole.
Finding ways to attract the best talent and creating an environment in which they can do their best work together is a high priority for game developers. Many companies spend large sums of money creating modern office spaces, offering food and comforts, and putting together compelling benefit offerings to achieve their goals. Yet the emotional health of game developers is rarely a focus despite the growing evidence from behavioral science that feelings of belonging and safety are key to performance. Studies have found that high performing teams share communication traits such as all team members talking in roughly equal measure, and team members talking directly to each other regularly (https://hbr.org/2012/04/the-new-science-of-building-great-teams) . This sort of high performance communication can only exist when there is trust and belonging. If one or more team members feels disconnected, or that communication with the team is a high risk action, the team’s cohesiveness is lost and productivity suffers. Lack of belonging also leads to turnover. In fact, one study found that the lack of a sense of belonging was a key contributor to women exiting mathematics fields (https://www.asms.sa.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/why-girls-opt-out.pdf).
Prospective and current game developers opted out of the industry all the time. The reasons most often given are dissatisfaction with working conditions, many of which stem from a lack of respect and belonging. On the surface this might seem like a good thing; e.g. if everyone that feels they don’t belong leaves, we will be left with only those that do feel they belong and performance will increase. Unfortunately, homogeneity is the enemy of creativity and teams that fail to diversify, especially in high tech and other competitive industries, suffer significantly. Studies looking at gender diversity, inherited diversity, and acquired diversity (citations: 1 2) all showed tremendous benefits both financially and creatively for teams that had them. Subsequently teams that did not have diversity had lower project success, less profitability, and increased difficulty in reaching new markets. Both research and anecdotal evidence from game industry members make it clear; you need diversity and great communication and a proven way to foster these qualities is through an emotionally safe workplace that can grow belonging and trust.
How Can You Create a Safe Workspace?
“I feel sorry for anyone who is in a place where he feels strange and stupid.”
As a team lead, discipline lead, or manager the practical work of creating an emotionally safe work environment rest largely on your shoulders. While a supportive executive team and HR team are important, the day to day management of teams and especially of their creative work is the biggest factor in determining if team members feel safe. The most important thing to remember is that as a leader in your organization, team members are looking at your actions and words to determine what is and is not okay. Model the behavior and ideals you want your team to display and correct behavior or language that doesn’t align with those ideals quickly and consistently. Below are some practical steps you can take to create a safe work space.
What about individual team members themselves? A team is, by definition, made up of the sum of its members so of course the actions of those members has a large impact on how emotionally safe a workspace can be. Most team members want to have a trusting and respectful relationship with their co-workers and many actively desire more diversity on their team. However, increased diversity and discussions of emotions in the workplace can be uncomfortable or even scary. The desire not to offend can lead to limiting communication or resentment. Below are some practical steps that individual contributors can take to creating and sustaining an emotionally safe workplace.
How Can You Identify a Safe Workspace?
“There is no one can convince you otherwise when you've finally found where you belong. The whole experience of belonging somewhere also gives a good sense of well being.”
One of the best ways to encourage an emotionally safe workplace in game development is for game developers to value it and take it into consideration when selecting a team to work with. But interview processes rarely allow a candidate to get a deep understanding of the company’s culture. Below are some practical actions you can take to discover if the company you are considering has a safe workplace.
Identifying an emotionally safe work environment before accepting a job can be difficult but if emotional safety is important to you don’t be afraid to ask about it.
“The desire to belong is in every mind.”
The idea of emotional safety is nothing new, but its place in a work environment and specifically game development is still not well understood. This paper aimed to set a baseline definition for emotional safety in the workplace and offer practical suggestions for how to achieve and maintain one such environment in a game development team. This paper was the result of dozens of anecdotal experiences related to the authors at Project Horseshoe 2015, as well as our own decades of experience in the game development industry as team members and managers. Our work was heavily informed and supported by psychology research, business research, surveys, books, and articles some of which are linked to in the paper itself. Below is further reading and resources on the topic for those that wish to go further.
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