Can one build a business with psychological safety included by design?

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Miriam Lahage, Co-founder and COO of Aequip

Finishing up the sixth week of working in the new Aequip team structure, I continue to be impressed by the relentless focus on what matters most in driving our product forward, building the Behavioural Analytics Engine. The weekly sprint cycles, the meeting rituals, and the asynchronous communication have been refined with the objective of increasing productivity. We are closing Sprint 5 today, and continue to deliver 65 to 70% on a very ambitious collection of sprint stories.

We had a new joiner this week. Dr. Rupert Gill, Head of Behavioural Insights and Trials at HMRC, has joined on a ¾ time basis to work with us to develop the Behavioural Analytics Engine. It is a testament to the HMRC organisation that they see the value in supporting Rupert getting stuck in on a project that is applying behavioural science principles in a fast-paced environment like Aequip. I appreciate the opportunity to learn from him throughout the project.

Rupert Gill
Dr. Rupert Gill, Head of Behavioural Insights and Trials at HMRC, is on Team Aequip.

The 15 minute morning stand-ups continue to act as a good touchpoint that are fun, engaging, and help many of us to get a good start on our day. (I say many of us because some folks have been working for two or three hours by that time!)

We operate with core meeting hours from 9:30-2:30, and do our best to keep a few days meeting-light to balance active collaboration and asynchronous communication. You know you are achieving the right balance when people are glad to be in a meeting; team members are getting together with a clear expectation of the objectives of each meeting, and come away with clear decisions. A quick retrospective at the end of the sprint has helped us to refine our ways of working.

As an extrovert, I have had to adjust to the solitary nature of working from home. I admit that it is a challenge for me not to be able to pop into a colleague’s workspace for a quick brainstorm. Asynchronous tools like Slack have been valuable to stay in touch and get a quick answer to a question that could turn into a blocker, but it is just not the same. I imagine that the introverts in the team are thankful that I can’t just pop by…

One of the innovations we developed was setting up conference rooms on Zoom. We open up a Zoom link early in the morning and create breakout rooms that serve as conference rooms for the team. It saves us the back and forth of picking a channel and sending a link, removing one more bit of friction to the workday. 

The ability to jump into a meeting room for a quick catch up, or 1:1, or brainstorming session, has been a way for the team to feel comfortable and connected even though they have never met in real life. And just like in real life, we share calendars so that one can crash a meeting if they so desire, just enter the conference room and ask to sit in. It is as close as we can get to the water cooler right now.

The cross-collaboration that I am witnessing reminds me why employees in big companies hate the silos and the hierarchies that get built. The next great idea could come from someone whose role might be adjacent to the work or even unrelated. The notion that everyone’s ideas are welcome, that no one feels belittled by having a contrary opinion, and that it is a safe environment to make mistakes and learn from them, are all hallmarks of a place that supports and preserves psychological safety. 

Psychological safety is one of the fundamentals in the way we at Aequip approach the work. As a company we believe that if more people could feel psychologically safe at work, their sense of belonging would increase. Their sense of being included would increase. Being valued and included at work are strongly correlated with personal wellbeing. 

At Aequip, psychological safety is our bread and butter. We believe everyone has value. Aequip exists to give everyone the same chance to truly thrive, starting in the workplace. We talk about belonging, connectedness, wellbeing, psychological safety, climate of diversity, and inclusion every single day, multiple times a day. Are we living up to our high ideal? And how do we cope with the fact that sometimes a start-up can be moving so fast that we just miss the mark? 

The only way Aequip could possibly navigate these challenges is to do it authentically, which for us means in public. Transparency is key. We’ll keep you posted.

Miriam Lahage has more than 30 years of leadership experience at global companies such as TJX, eBay and Net-a-Porter. Miriam was most recently CEO of Figleaves, where she led a product, digital, and organisational transformation. She is Co-founder and COO of Aequip.