Equality Expert

Erica Keswin

Workplace Strategist, Author, and Founder, The Spaghetti Project

“You can’t be a relationship-based culture, or a human-based culture, if you only employ one kind of person. To me, a human-based, and a diverse, inclusive culture go hand-in-hand.”

Please tell us how you started studying workplace relationships and how the Spaghetti Project came to life.

I spent most of my career in the human capital space. I began to see the impact technology was having on how people connect at work. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

I came across this study out of Cornell University, by Kevin Kniffin. His father was a firefighter, so when he was getting his advanced degree in organizational work, he studied firehouses and firefighters because that’s what he knew best. He found the firemen that were most dedicated to the longstanding tradition of the firehouse meal had higher levels of performance and saved more lives. What do firefighters stereotypically eat? Spaghetti and meatballs. That's how I got the name of The Spaghetti Project.

With that, I began asking companies about people’s ability to connect inside their organizations. I had a desire to create a roadmap to help leaders and managers design a workplace that honored relationships and leveraged all that's amazing about technology. It became a 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 comes out in September from McGraw Hill.

What is the importance of investing in workplace relationships?

This is not an altruistic endeavor. Companies that invest and honor relationships with their employees, with their customers, with their business partners, find it's good for people, it's good for business and it's good for the world. These things are not mutually exclusive.

First, on a human level, when people connect, oxytocin—which is their feel-good hormone—goes up. Cortisol, which is their stress hormone, goes down. And when we think on a societal level, the biggest health risk facing our country, per the Surgeon General, is isolation. It's not smoking, it's NOT sitting, it is isolation.

We spend a lot of our days at work. When you connect with people in passing, or in a meeting, assuming they're not on their phones, your body has a physiological response and you feel happier, and consequently you are more engaged at work.

The second bucket is that honoring relationships is good for business. There is a famous Gallup study that found that when you have a best friend at work, which is someone you talk about non-work related things with, you are more productive and more engaged, and less likely to leave. We know how expensive turnover is from a business perspective so leaders have to curate ways for people to connect.

The last piece is that millennials are changing the workplace. There's a bit of a misunderstanding that millennials want things different things than previous generations. The data shows that millennials’ big ask—that they want to work for a purposeful organization—actually increases with age. It’s just no one even felt they had the freedom to say they wanted their work lives to have meaning. Work was work. But now, because millennials will be 75 percent of the workforce by 2025, companies are acknowledging they need purpose at work. If they don't, they can't attract talent, or clients.

What is the impact of technology on our relationships? How do we manage given that technology is everywhere in the modern workplace?

Let's think about communication along a continuum. On one end we have instant message and text, and then email, picking up the phone, walking down the hall, all the way to getting on an airplane. These are not all created equal. As a society we are defaulting to that technological end of the spectrum.

I urge people to pause and think strategically about their goal and then match the message to the communication medium. You are more likely to leverage what's great about technology then, but also put it in its place. If I was running 10 minutes late for a call, I'd send an email, but I wouldn't recommend doing a project together over text. It’s important to notice the nuances.

Ask Her:

What's the first thing you do when you wake up?

I think about how long I can wait until I look at my phone.

Who is your business idol?

Adam Grant.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

Connecting with people.

What’s your guilty pleasure at the end of a long day?


What advice would you give your daughter at her first job?

Don't call into a meeting from down the hall.

“You can’t be a relationship-based culture, or a human-based culture, if you only employ one kind of person. To me, a human-based, and a diverse, inclusive culture go hand-in-hand.”

What is a relationship-based culture?

In a company with a relationship-based culture, there is a through-line that when trying to make business decisions–what new product to sell, who to hire, etc.– they do it through the lens of putting relationships first and foremost; relationships with employees, customers, business partners, and themselves.

How does a relationship-based culture contribute to creating an inclusive work environment where everyone can achieve their full potential?

You can’t be a relationship-based culture, or a human-based culture, if you only employ one kind of person. To me, a human-based, and a diverse, inclusive culture go hand-in-hand. I’m not saying it is easy, but it goes back to intentions. In my book, I describe such companies as playing the long game.

This means first, focusing on sustainability. We used to think about sustainability and we would equate it to saving the planet. But a human workplace has to include human sustainability, which means having real diversity and inclusion. But we have to move beyond the old definitions though. We often think about race, gender, sexual orientation when creating heterogeneous teams, but what about education? Did you go to a four-year school? A two-year school? A technical school? Personality? Work experience? Technical background? You need to think on all these levels if you want a group, a team or an organization that is truly diverse.

Intentional work practices are also important to play the long game. What is your company’s view on workplace flexibility? Parental leave? Bereavement leave? All of these programs and policies make it so everyone can thrive at work.

The third component is enlightened supply-chains. We need to ask not only who are the people in our company and how diverse are they, but also who are you doing business with? If you're holding the companies you interact with to a higher standard, then you have even more far-reaching effects.

About Erica Keswin:

Erica Keswin is a workplace strategist who has worked for the past twenty years with some of the most iconic brands in the world as a consultant, speaker, writer and professional dot-connector. Her forthcoming book, Bring Your Human to Work: Ten Sure-Fire Ways to Design a Workplace That is Good for People, Great for Business, and Just Might Change the World, will be published by McGraw Hill in the Fall of 2018.

Keswin is also the founder of the Spaghetti Project, a platform devoted to sharing the science and stories of relationships at work.