Rethinking Relationships & Why They Are Great For Business: Meet Erica Keswin

A self-described “connector,” Erica Keswin is forcing us to rethink our human and digital relationships. After all, in an era where we’re more likely to send a text or email to engage at work, the digital world is only making us more disconnected.

As a workplace strategist, consultant and keynote speaker, Keswin has worked with some of the most iconic global brands, helping them improve their performance by honoring relationships in every context.

You’ve likely read her insights in her regular Forbes column, or in publications like Fast Company, O Magazine, Entrepreneur, and Quartz. She delves deeper into the topic of the importance of relationships and balancing the high-tech with the human touch in her debut book, Bring Your Human to Work: 10 Sure-Fire Ways to Design a Workplace That’s Good for People, Great for Business and Just Might Change the World, which was released in September 2018.

We chatted with Keswin about her platform, the Spaghetti Project, her book, Bring Your Human to Work, and how to navigate the delicate dance of boundaries and communication in this highly digital age.

What was the “a-ha” moment that led to you launching the Spaghetti Project?

I was doing research on the topic of technology and how people connect at work, and I came across a study out of Cornell University, which was done by a professor named Kevin Kniffin. Kevin was getting his advanced degree at Cornell, in the area of organization. Now his father was a firefighter, so he studied firefighters and firehouses — that’s how he grew up, after all — and he found that the firefighters who were the most dedicated to that long-standing tradition of “the firehouse meal” and sitting around the table and building trust, saved more lives. There was this increase of performance. And so I started interviewing firefighters and watching TV shows about firefighters, and I found that as you might know, the stereotypical, go-to meal for firefighters is spaghetti and meatballs. So hearing that story and talking to the firefighters led me to launch the Spaghetti Project, a platform devoted to sharing the science and stories of relationships at work.

I love the Spaghetti Project’s mission: that with just a meal and a chat, any group’s goals, mission and values can get the power-up they need, and create a sense of community at the same time. But I find that in the corporate world, many employees deal with a long to-do list (and not enough time!), as well as a flood of emails labeled “urgent.” This can make stepping away from one’s desk to eat a challenge, let alone sharing a meal with coworkers!

What would you say to this type of corporate culture? Why is it detrimental in the long run?

Look I agree. Especially if I need to go pick up my kids after work — and even if people don’t have kids, they’re dealing with stuff, right? Everybody has stuff. But I do think that if you choose to bring your lunch back to your desk every day, and never connect with your colleagues, it does begin to impact your career. A lot of it is driven by technology too, because technology has infiltrated every aspect of our lives.

We used to get home and that was our “home time,” and now that there is no division between work and home because technology is 24/7, we have to think about our day in a more strategic and intentional way. So this is something I like to say although it’s sort of cheesy, but it resonates: left to our own devices (excuse the pun!), we’re not connecting. So the idea is to say, “I need to be intentional because I know that really connecting with other people, and not always via text and email but actually getting up and walking down the hall (even though I know that might take longer), is important.”

I urge people, especially women, to be intentional and ensure that they are what I call “matching the message to the medium”: so don’t always fall to the technological response, and make sure there are days when you pick up the phone, walk down the hall or even get on an airplane if you need to.

I love the key takeaways in your book, Bring Your Human To Work. What inspired you to write it?

So I’ll share two stories to explain.

1- It’s funny that I’m back in Bermuda as we’re chat today, because the first part of the story happens here, as I was here this same month, 20 years ago. It was 1998, I had just gotten a Blackberry and my fiancé — now husband — had a conference here, and I remember I was able to go with him and work from the beach, and see him at night and schmooze with all his colleagues, but that was 1998 — this was a very new idea. And I remember saying to myself while sitting on the beach, “This is the life! This is the coolest thing. I could be here and be with my fiancé and be in Bermuda for a business trip like this, but also be working.” It was so cool!

And then fast-forward 10 years, I was living in Colorado for a year, and I still had my Blackberry (which I loved!), but also had an iPhone, which had just come out — and my kids were 6, 6 (I have twins) and 4 — and the contrast 10 years later of trying to juggle these two devices and figure out where they fit in was huge! I’ve always been a relationship person and a total connector, but I was beginning to see how it could hurt and take its toll on relationships. So I contrast the Bermuda “this is the life” moment with being in Colorado 10 years later with “I can’t believe this is my life.”

So that launched me on this journey and questions around, “What is the impact of technology on connection at work?” My focus was at work because as a human resources workplace strategist, that was always my focus, and purview into the work world.

And my question was: does it impact us as people, and also what’s the impact on our business?”

2- The second story I’ll share came to be when I started working on the book and doing the research. So I’m a big Starbucks fan, Starbucks is in the book, I go to Starbucks every day, and got to know my barista at my local Starbucks on Broadway, right near my apartment. Over the years she got to know my kids and what my regular drink was; she would have it ready as I was coming in (this was before the app launched!). Four years ago my daughter became obsessed with the Starbucks pumpkin scones and my barista Ashley finally said to her, “It’s great that you like these pumpkin scones but they’re seasonal.” My daughter, Caroline, probably had no idea what she meant by that! So finally we had our last one, and the next day I went and got my latte and I’m walking down Broadway, and my daughter had nothing because there were no more pumpkin scones. Next thing I know, I hear someone literally screaming my name, running down Broadway — this does not happen often in New York City at 7:30 in the morning! — and it was Ashley the barista. So I thought I must have left my wallet in the store (again, this was before the app). She finally caught up and said to my daughter, “I know there’s no more pumpkin scones and you’re probably so bummed, but it’s now November and it’s holiday season, so we have this gingerbread. I thought this might be something you would like!”

This was in a time where we were connecting with people more and more over technology, but yet here was this person who I’ve known for probably eight years, who literally came out from behind the counter, chased me down Broadway, and in that moment this idea of bringing your human to work came to be.

What are some easy ways to disconnect after work and on weekends and basically set boundaries while still being perceived as a team player to coworkers and driven employee to senior staff?

It’s about having conversations. I think in a perfect world, the boss or CEO gets it, and they set these rules of the road. When I do keynotes, one of the slides I have is a picture of a sheriff, and I say to people, “We forget that this technology is only 10 years old. Last summer was the 10-year anniversary of the iPhone.” This is the Wild West. Nobody really knows what they’re doing, especially as it relates to looking at this in a work context. It’s just new new new.

Some CEOs and managers are getting it. One manager told me that she says this to her team: “Okay everybody, I have three kids, so from 6pm to 8pm, I’m not on email. If you need me, send a text or even call me, but just know that I am not actively checking my email. But I am actually back on my email at 10pm and I’m a night owl, and more importantly, you guys don’t need to check your email at 11pm, unless you’re working on something mission critical.”

If these points are unclear, then everyone defaults to being “on” and checking their email, and that leads to burnout. And from a bottom line perspective, that leads to turnover. And so top-down, we have to be clear about the expectations. And from a bottom-up perspective, if you don’t have one of those bosses who is proactively having those conversations, then you need to bring it to them. And you’re not saying, “I don’t want to work hard.” You just need to say, “I want some clarity in when I’m allowed to disconnect.”

It can be challenging for women in the workplace to be perceived as strong if they tend to display some emotion. How would you advise a woman to be authentic, while still maintaining the perception of being level-headed, even-keeled, and in control?

I think that question assumes that if you’re being authentic and emotional, that you’re not in control. And there’s a difference between showing emotion and being hysterical. So I think people actually like when you are willing to be vulnerable. Especially when it comes to millennials and Gen Z, they want to work in a place where there’s meaning, purpose, where people are real. And I don’t think it’s a woman thing, I would encourage everyone to be open to being real and even being vulnerable.

Tell us about a #movethedial moment in your life, where someone made a huge impact in your career and helped you.

I would say during my time in both of my consulting roles, I had two managers that put their own egos aside and let me take the lead. They almost gave me as much rope as I could handle. Both of them (I included them both in my book in terms of acknowledgement) were willing to say, “All right, Erica, why don’t you kick off the meeting?” And they gave me those small leadership moments very early on, which gave me the confidence to say, “All right, you know what I can do this,” and took on a little bit more and a little bit more as a result, vs. when you’re in meetings with more senior people and you almost wait to talk and it gets uncomfortable, right? You haven’t said anything and 20 minutes have gone by, and then you feel like when you finally open your mouth, every head is going to turn to look at you. Someone proactively giving you that voice early in a meeting or early on when working with a client, is really important for a leader to do.

Guest writer: Karin Eldor, Women @ Forbes

articleVeronica Yao