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Erica Keswin: “Speak in a human voice”

Be Real. Speak in a human voice. Leaders who can be real and even vulnerable by sharing what is going on in their lives (the good, the bad and the ugly), will create a culture where employees feel more comfortable sharing what is going on in their lives. Have Some Fun. These days can feel long […]

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Be Real. Speak in a human voice. Leaders who can be real and even vulnerable by sharing what is going on in their lives (the good, the bad and the ugly), will create a culture where employees feel more comfortable sharing what is going on in their lives.

Have Some Fun. These days can feel long and heavy. Be creative, have some fun and lose the guilt! From online scavenger hunts to mixology classes, to executives holding a story hour to read books to the children of employees are all ways to create connections and “hang out” with colleagues at work.


As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erica Keswin, a bestselling author, internationally sought-after speaker, and founder of the Spaghetti Project, a roving ritual devoted to sharing the science and stories of relationships at work. She helps top-of-the-class businesses, organizations, and individuals improve their performance by honoring relationships in every context, always with an eye toward high-tech for human touch, and was named one of Marshall Goldsmith’s Top 100 Coaches in 2020, as well as one of Business Insider’s most innovative coaches of 2020. Her best-selling 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 was published in 2018 by McGraw-Hill. Her next book, Rituals Roadmap: The Human Way to Transform Everyday Routines Into Workplace Magic will be published by McGraw-Hill in January 2021.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

In 1998, I got my first phone, a blackberry. I was engaged and my fiancé (now husband) asked me if I could join him at a conference in Bermuda. I didn’t have any extra vacation days, but I did have this new device. I joined him, worked remotely from the beach during the day and attended conference events in the evening. I remember saying to myself, Wow, this is the life.

Cut to ten years later. I still had my blackberry but had added an iPhone to the mix. I got totally addicted to all the little red lights and notifications, and I began to see my relationships suffer from all of our obsessions with our phones. That’s when I thought to myself, “I can’t believe this is my life!”

This ten-year tech revolution changed everything about the way we relate to each other. As a long time workplace strategist, I decided to focus my attention — both personal and professional — on the power of finding the sweet spot between tech and connect, and the impact of honoring relationships at work and in our lives (and who can even tell the difference anymore?)

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

After I started working with companies on helping them find the sweet spot between tech and connect, I came across a study that changed my life. It was a 2015 Cornell study by Dr. Kevin Kniffin showing that firemen who eat together have higher levels of job performance (they save more lives!). This revolutionary study inspired me to launch The Spaghetti Project, a roving ritual devoted to sharing the science and stories of human connections with global brands, communities, teams, and individuals. As a hats-off to the firemen and their go-to firehouse meal, I named my business the Spaghetti Project.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Since COVID, I’ve been giving a talk called How to Bring Your Human to Work When You Can’t Go to Work.It’s meant a lot to me to be able to work with people during this incredibly challenging time and to offer strategies for being intentional to staying connected to one another and to their work’s purpose. The human workplace is one where we honor relationships — with others and with ourselves. This is even more true during the pandemic. We just have to be more creative. Rituals are very helpful, and can help us create community even over Zoom. I am also excited to share my newest book, Rituals Roadmap when it is released in January.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

Actually, this is the exact reason I wrote my first book, Bring Your Human to Work in 2018, the same year this study was published. People were (and still are) unhappy at work because leaders are struggling to keep employees engaged, connected to a larger purpose, and living by real, authentic values.

The focus in my work has been working with companies to get their values off the walls and into the halls, and align those values to every aspect of life at work — this is what it means to bring your human to work. Rituals come in handy here and they don’t have to be big or fancy or cost a thing. Something as simple as everyone chiming in (or out) at the same time every day, or sharing a regular lunch date, or playing a game at a set time or everyone doing push-ups together can change a culture dramatically.

It’s these kinds of simple but powerful actions that can make people happier at work. This kind of purpose-driven workplace is, of course, more important than ever right now.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

This isn’t what I think, it’s what I know.

Here’s the data: Unhappy employees are less engaged, have lower productivity because they’re absent more due to stress and sickness. All of this negatively impacts the bottom line, i.e. profitability.

A July 2020 survey of more than 1,500 respondents from FlexJobs, fielded in partnership with Mental Health America, found that 75% of employees say they’ve faced burnout at work, with 40% saying they’ve experienced burnout during the pandemic specifically.

To put it bluntly, burnout is bad for business.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

From my most recent talk on How to Bring Your Human to Work When You Can’t go to Work, here are five things we can all do right now to improve work cultures:

Be Real. Speak in a human voice. Leaders who can be real and even vulnerable by sharing what is going on in their lives (the good, the bad and the ugly), will create a culture where employees feel more comfortable sharing what is going on in their lives.

Check-In. “It’s been 8 months, do I still need to keep checking in with my employees before every meeting?” is a question I often get. The short answer is “yes,” but it doesn’t need to take up 20 minutes of a 45-minute meeting. Go around the Zoom and ask people to provide one word to describe how they are feeling in that moment. This provides a quick way to take the pulse of the group and gather insight that managers and colleagues can follow-up on later.

Maintain Old and Create New Rituals. Rituals provide employees a sense of psychological safety and belonging and a connection to purpose, especially during turbulent times. The Houston-based Black Sheep Agency continued its Friday Champagne Ritual to share weekly wins remotely and Udemy continued its Lunch Roulette where employees sign up to have lunch and connect with colleagues in other areas of the company. Udemy pays for the local take out because they value that hour to connect, and because they have a culture of eating together that they want to maintain.

Give Back. Data shows that giving back to one’s team, community and family has a very positive impact on individuals doing the giving and on business. Mack Weldon, the men’s innovative clothing brand, has donated over $400,000 worth of essentials to NYC front line workers and used its innovative antimicrobial fabric to make great masks that also give back. Not only is this the right thing to do, but as CEO Brian Berger put it, “That’s how we build customer equity.”

Have Some Fun. These days can feel long and heavy. Be creative, have some fun and lose the guilt! From online scavenger hunts to mixology classes, to executives holding a story hour to read books to the children of employees are all ways to create connections and “hang out” with colleagues at work.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture.” What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Honoring relationships is good people and great for business, and when we do that, trust me, work culture will change!

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

Honoring relationships is always my number one priority, and I like to collaborate rather than dictate and go it alone.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

The Spaghetti Project is a roving ritual that helps companies, groups, communities and organizations connect to one another (ideally over a meal of spaghetti and meatballs) and be more productive at work. I’m incredibly proud of the way the Spaghetti Project has inspired people in a variety of industries and contexts. And it’s fun, delicious and totally accessible.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is, “Chance Favors the Prepared Mind,” by Louis Pasteur. I never leave anything to chance. Like many successful women, I’m always early and looking ten steps ahead. Foresight is key.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The best rituals are simple but incredibly powerful. From the firemen to all the ways companies stay connected to my morning cup of Starbucks, rituals are the tools of the human workplace. I’ve been blown away by the impact of — for instance — sharing a meal together on a regular basis (yes! Even virtually). It’s not rocket science, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Because left to our own devices (which also happens to be the name of my new podcast) we’re just not connecting.

Can you tell I think connecting is the most important thing?! 🙂

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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