Career Advice

Happyer Exclusive: Mental Safety in the Workplace, with Agorize

min read
Wani Azahar

In this exclusive interview, ​Happyer​ picks the brain of its Head of HR (APAC), Deepika A, who was not only the recipient of “Excellence in HR Practices” and “Best Employer Brand”, but also cited as the “Top 501 HR Leaders in the world “ by a Global HR forum in their 2020 awardees list. Here’s what this HR leader has to share on an important issue in the workplace — Mental Safety.

Agorize is a global top player in the open innovation ecosystem with a 140-strong team across the globe and almost 40 across three locations within Asia — Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo.

Happyer (H): Before we start, could I know a little more about yourself (name, designation, company, staff strength and key responsibilities)?

Deepika A (D): I am Deepika, Head of HR in Asia for Agorize. I was Agorize’s first global HR hire and the fifth to join in Asia. As a global top player in the open innovation ecosystem, Agorize designs innovation programmes to connect large corporations to the best of rising industry solutions from startup entrepreneurs and student talents.

Our work has brought us in partnership with a proud portfolio of clients such as Amazon Web Services, Singapore Airlines, Hong Kong Science and Technology Park, Swire Coca-Cola, Enterprise Singapore, LVMH, and many more.

My most important goal is to build a solid team and scale-up sustainably for the company’s future.​ One of the main responsibilities I had from Day 1 was to grow the team at the same intense pace as the business and to form the company culture, without compromising, alongside our CEO, Mathieu Toulemonde.

H: What were some of the key objectives for this year, and how has the progress been?

D: One of our top objectives this year was to set a regional people-oriented strategic direction and translate this into effective organisational plans for best employee experience and create a “team first” culture.

Company culture is inevitable, rather than letting it take its own shape, we consciously worked to lead and shape it from the very beginning.​ We have an amazing team of high performers and in reciprocation, ​we accept everyone 100% with not only their strengths but with their flaws and vulnerabilities.​ We had a Glassdoor rating of 5 by October and were grateful to receive two awards for “Best Employer Brand” and “Excellence in HR practices” by a global HR forum.

In order to scale-up the team with like-minded people and open other regional offices in Asia, we successfully closed our Series B funding with USD$15 million in February. This helped further propel Agorize Asia from the humble beginnings of 3 members to over 30 in HK, SG & TKY since first arriving in Asia. In a team of 18 different nationalities we not only have subject matter experts, but above that, a strong team mindset full of passion with humility and genuine interest in each other’s success, nourished by a very strong foundation of trust.

H: With your extensive expertise in HR, what were some of the key concerns/trends you’ve noticed in the past year (including mental safety)?

D: There are certainly quite a few buzz words trending in the market; I want to focus on mindfulness and happiness. I and Mathieu crafted our strategy from a psychological perspective in the workplace.

Everyone believes in the concept of happiness at work but ​wegave ourselves a bigger goal of creating“customized happiness” for everyoneand by that I mean creating a “mentally safe”environment where people feel emotionally safe expressing their ideas, questions, mistakes, and vulnerabilities with conviction and trust​. We created an environment where people can clearly feel that it’s really okay, to not always be okay.

H: Talking about “mental safety”, how does this differ from mental health or mental wellbeing? If there’s no difference, how would you define “mental safety” and why does it need to be on every HR’s agenda?

D: Mental safety is a broader agenda that goes deeper into a firm’s culture. It’s about creating a Safety Circle (mentioned by Simon Sinek) around the people in the company so that at least the internal struggles are minimized, meaning people can devote more time and energy to driving the organization forward and stay on top form.

Our work can get stressful and it can affect our ability to cope with stress, altering our patterns and rest. By having this space of mental safety, people feel 100% comfortable in showing their vulnerabilities even in the peak of stressful periods. ​We don’t expect people to be full of energy all the time because that’s unrealistic, but we manage those stressful situations in a humane way​ so that we feel comfortable in saying: “I am swamped so please don’t ask me anything,” or “I am swamped, can you get me a coffee and let’s step out for some fresh air.”

As a result, we feel more accountable and results follow. In the process we don’t need to spend time or energy in putting on faces when we leave home for the office.

I personally think that this has to be on every manager’s agenda and HR needs to make sure to facilitate this mindset flow to everyone.​ The aim of HR is not only to hire the right people but to make sure they perform and they are nurtured, which we do by creating a “mentally safe” environment so that everyone accepts each other without insanely false expectations.

H: On that note, what can companies do to identify mental illnesses in the workplace?

D: Just be present, vigilant & human​ to see the signs which could vary from a drop in performance to a drop in laughter or in punctual attendance. People can act in totally opposite ways to what they are feeling, For example, a few years back I had a colleague who became hyperactive, then suddenly in two minutes of genuine conversation, I got to know that he had a messy break up that weekend. We supported him immensely and he showed his highest performance during those next few months.

H: Taking a step further, how can companies or leaders support staff that suffers from mental illnesses?

I’m not an expert in human psychology, but I’ve learned there are simple do’s and don’ts to support staff

  • Spot the behavioral difference and if you are not capable of handling that, ask a senior manager to have a chat with the person. ​Never ignore what’s in front of you or what your colleague can’t.
  • When you ask “how are you?”, you ​listen genuinely​ with eye contact.
  • Take away or take over a bit of their workloadwithout making a big deal out of it ​and your mentally upset colleague will be forever grateful. And after a week of challenging productiveness, the next week would be their best in terms of performance.
  • Keep it simple and genuine in the office, comforting eye contact, appreciation or a gentle hug always goes a long way.
  • If it’s something long term then some professional help always helps, and as a company, we will do all we must and beyond to support any teammate in their professional & personal crisis.

H: On a more personal level, what does Agorize do to encourage mental safety at the workplace?

D: At Agorize, our people are our strength and we create a cushion of mental safety for everyone by embracing all the many different “I’s” that form the “We”. We are aware that our values inform our culture down the line and these must come from the top-down; both in our words and our actions. Leaders are trained to be open about their vulnerabilities so that even our most juniors can see and imbibe their behavior. Our career progression is the same whether you are an extrovert or introvert, male or female or everything between. We hire people for their attitudes, never for their backgrounds.

Let me give one example, earlier this year we began to give flexible clock in time to our female employees experiencing their periods and we started stocking female sanitary napkins for convenience. Male colleagues were open to express themselves about this privilege and in an open session we discussed and resolved it. In the end, despite the option, our women in the office didn’t take advantage since they knew someone else had their back if the monthly routine was too much for them.

H: Other than management/leaders themselves, how can employees support each other to drive mental safety at work?

D: If everyday employees can see a culture where everyone is trying to help each other to succeed, then that mentality becomes the norm, it becomes part of the company DNA. In such an environment, employees can resolve issues within their own individual dynamics. Trust, fairness, empathy, humility (a lot of that one!) are our mantras to create mental safety. We even do psychometric tests and share everyone’s personality types internally to help people understand their differences more rationally.

H: If an employee is suffering from the lack of mental safety at work, what’s the first step that you recommend them to take?

D: These circumstances are unfortunate but they happen. Discussion can’t begin if an employee doesn’t feel safe to start the dialogue. My humble and sincere advice to that employee would be to find the right person for them to talk to in the firm and share it openly.

Change projects, change teams if possible, eventually communicate in the presence of multiple stakeholders. Make sure it’s not something that could be the result of some misalignment. But if even after trying everything possible, if its not giving you emotional & mental safety then it’s time to look outside for places where you can find your right fit since life is too short to be mentally unsafe on a daily basis. ​In many workplaces, mental safety is not even a discussion topic, but this is our top priority and our way of making people accountable at Agorize.

H: For those learning about a company, how can a candidate identify a workplace with good mental safety habits and practices?

D: We are a tech company and I personally have been handling the whole gamut of talent onboarding and management for the last ten years. My advice is to ​trust your instincts​! Did you feel yourself at the interview? Interviewers are brand ambassadors of the company so you should gauge the reception when you outline your personal needs e.g. working from home now and then since you have kids. My personal parameter to check about the cultural fit is by checking the company’s retention rate and offboarding practices.

H: Circling back to HR on the whole, what do you think HR professionals can do more to promote mental safety?

D: One of my learnings as HR is the need to build trust but keeping that focus on results.

Mental safety doesn’t have a clear KPI, it’s within every KPI as a piece of every success.​ To nurture this environment, you need the leadership team on board- ambassadors of the mindset. Don’t just talk about it, act on it, give people trust and flexibility. As HR, be an agent of change, be persistent. Keep your eyes and ears and heart open.

Despite being a top player in the open innovation space, as a company, we keep it simple and human and run high on emotions. HR professionals need to keep performance in mind but with an extra marathon in parallel by staying true to the ‘human’ in human resources to create the basis of mental safety. And that unique culture becomes the backbone of any company.

About Agorize
Agorize is the leading platform for open innovation challenges. Bridging businesses and a global community of 5 million innovators, they offer a suite of solutions including SaaS, connecting to relevant communities, and organizing challenges. They’ll be participating in the upcoming Dream Jobs event — get to know what them and what it takes to be part of their team!

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