Erica Keswin, HUMAN WORKPLACE TRILOGY: 7 Surprising (and Very Human!) Ways to Keep Employees Connected to Your Company

Erica Keswin, HUMAN WORKPLACE TRILOGY: 7 Surprising (and Very Human!) Ways to Keep Employees Connected to Your Company

Zibby is joined by author and business strategist Erica Keswin to discuss THE RETENTION REVOLUTION, a game-changing playbook for businesses that rethinks the workplace and puts relationships at the center of it all. Erica describes what led her to a career in workplace strategy, and then delves into the importance of rituals, community, intentionality, and human connection in the workplace. She and Zibby also discuss worker retention strategies and the importance of genuine care in company leadership, which Zibby relates to her own experience leading her company!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Erica. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your many beautiful, colorful books which go perfectly with my office right behind you.

Erica Keswin: They do. It looks really good.

Zibby: We have red, yellow, and green, but beautiful shades. Not that this is important, but because I’m holding them up, I’ll talk about it. In my hands, I have Bring Your Human to Work, Rituals Roadmap, The Retention Revolution. Congratulations. Welcome.

Erica: Thank you. Thank you.

Zibby: In your books, you weave a little bit of yourself in as you tell us how to be better at work and workplace and fostering community and retaining employees and creating a great culture and all the things that, actually, I think about all day because I am in it. Can you go back for a second before we dive into the specific advice and explain how you became this type of an expert?

Erica: You did not go, back in the day, maybe not even now, to college to become a workplace strategist. I started in management consulting and loved it but felt like a lot of what I was doing was sitting in a binder on a shelf somewhere. I decided when I went back to business school to focus more on the people side of the business, which I describe as helping companies improve their bottom line, improve their business through people. I worked as an executive coach. I worked at Russell Reynolds in executive recruiting. I helped people develop performance management programs, the stuff that, for many years, and maybe sometimes people still say it now, is the softer stuff. I would say in a post-COVID, AI, fast-paced world, the soft stuff is the hard stuff and the really important stuff. That’s how I got into it. One other short window is, in 1998, I was engaged to my husband, and he asked me to go to Bermuda with him to a conference. I said, “I can’t go. I’m saving my vacation days for our honeymoon.” I had a little square device thing back in the day — this shows my age — called a BlackBerry.

I was like, oh, cool, I could go with my BlackBerry and sit on the beach and work and help him see clients at night. I remember sitting in Bermuda. I said out loud to myself, “This is the life. This is the coolest thing.” Fast-forward literally almost ten years to the day, I added this other handy-dandy device. Ten years later, I added this iPhone for the apps but didn’t get rid of my BlackBerry because, for those listeners who had one, it was the best phone. I added a couple of kids to the mix. I’m walking around with my BlackBerry and my iPhone. In contrast to that moment in Bermuda, I remember saying out loud to myself, “I can’t believe this is my life, trying to figure out the impact of technology on connection.” Those really are the two things that then motived me to really begin to look at the — I’m not anti-technology. I’m in Florida. You’re in New York. I’m seeing your beautiful office. We’re hanging out and having a great conversation. I also believe that we need to put technology in its place and connect in real life, which hopefully we’ll do one day soon.

Zibby: Yes. Actually, I’ll be in Florida in March.

Erica: Okay, good.

Zibby: When I was in business school, these were the organizational behavior classes. Is that right?

Erica: Correct.

Zibby: I actually got so into this myself that I looked into doing an MBA/PhD program in organizational behavior. I was like, this is amazing. You talk about the people at work. I did a whole study that got published. I was so into it. Then I was like, what happens next? I don’t know. I didn’t have a clear model for what would happen to that next. You figured it out, so bravo to you.

Erica: Thank you. I love how you held up the three books. It’s now the Human Workplace Trilogy. That’s what I’m calling it.

Zibby: That has a lovely ring to it.

Erica: There you go.

Zibby: I started with Bring Your Human to Work. I don’t know if this is the right order. I think it was. Anyway, I started with Bring Your Human to Work: 10 Surefire Ways to Design a Workplace That Is Good for People, Great for Business, and Just Might Change the World. I have all these things dogeared. Some of the things I’m doing with my company. Some of the things I want to do with my company, and I’ve not. In fact, after I read the book, I emailed my whole team. You talked a lot about culture and communications and inclusivity and how to really live the message that you’re saying. In the book, you talk about how JetBlue sets out this great example of how they even make training something that becomes high-touch and sort of ritualized and all these things. I emailed the whole team. I was like, “You know what? There’s this event coming up.” I hadn’t invited the entire team. That was stupid because I invite the team all the time to everything. Why this important event, because of space, we’re not going to bring them? I emailed everybody. I was like, “You know what? Forget space. We’ll smush. This is our company. We’re in it together.” That was directly because of you, so thank you.

Erica: I love it. It’s an example of living the values. I talk about, the litmus test is when you’re in a fork in the road. You want to bring your values to life, whether it’s the company, the department, or even just if you’re listening to this and you have a team of people. You’re trying to decide, do I invite my whole team to this event? Do I hire this person? Do I fire this person? Do I have this person on my podcast? Whatever it is, your company values, your personal values should help drive you. If they don’t, you either have, maybe, too many values and you can’t figure out which end is up or they’re the wrong ones. I love that example because it’s practical. You’re like, this is who we are. If we need to smush, we’ll smush, but that’s more important than saying, okay, we’re going to make the decision based on the space. No, we’re making the decision based on our culture and who we are and who we want to be.

Zibby: The framework that you set made making that decision seem very obvious and intentional. That’s the other thing that I feel like you put in the book so much, is thinking through. Everything you do not only contributes to the culture, but really communicates so much more than you even think to the employees and what it means to be a part of the business or the company or the team or whatever it is and how little things become huge things. That’s the difference between making robotic worker bees versus bringing your whole self to work and connecting on a deeper level, which of course, then actually ends up improving productivity, right?

Erica: Right, and retention. You have people at all different levels who got to go — I don’t know what this event is, but this great event. They feel connected and part of the whole. The next week when they’re at some cocktail party or exercise class and someone’s like, “Hey, I know about this job in some other company,” that person is less likely to say, “You know what? I wasn’t invited to this event.” “I’m really happy where I am.” You’re right, you did start in the right order. Bringing your human to work, creating a human workplace, living the values is not only good for people, but also good for business. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.

Zibby: Interesting. Another thing — not to say I did all of your things because there are many that I would like to implement, like leading by example, dealing with it, tracking it. I’m not good at tracking anything. I loved your idea of the — we read books all the time at work, so I feel like instituting a book club at our company, people would be like, are you kidding? We read all day, every day. All these are great ideas. When I started this company, I was like, I don’t actually want to work in a company. I want to have it just be fun. We all have lunch in my house every day. We leave our office, and we come to my house. We sit around a big table and have lunch. We don’t talk about work. Sometimes it comes up. Mostly, we’re like, what’d you do this weekend? What’s going on? Tell us about your wedding. I was like, why do I do this? Should I stop doing this? I was like, but I really like this. Your book was like, this is why you should keep doing this. This is how it’s helping. That was also really great.

Erica: I’m sure you saw it’s a theme in a bunch of the books. That’s the gold standard, I will say. Congratulations to that. You were doing that anyway. A lot of my work is inspired by a study out of Cornell that was done by a guy named Kevin Kniffin. He was taking those organizational behavior classes, getting his PhD, which I did not. He was looking at, what makes one team higher performing than another team? He decided to study the firefighters because his dad was a firefighter. He grew up in the firehouse. Long story short, what he found was that the firefighters who were the most dedicated to the ritual of the firehouse meal, of sitting around the table and building trust and shooting the breeze as humans, they saved more lives, literally. Okay, we all are not firefighters. We all are not saving lives, but we all are doing important things. To me, this was a goosebump moment.

I knew this intuitively, that there is a correlation between connection and performance. Then this study really, really changed my life. What I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is, this is the business case for community. Yeah, we could all take a break and sit and eat. The case for community is — it might take a little longer. We’re going to leave our offices. We’re going to sit around the table. We’re going to hear about the wedding, hear about this. Even a senior leader in a law firm the other day said to me — I’m working on this mentorship program for them. She said, “It’s just human nature. If I have an associate who’s messing some things up and maybe things aren’t going well, but I know this person and I care about this person and I know who they are, I’m going to take more time to teach them. I’m going to cut them a little bit more slack.” It is just human nature. Excusing the pun.

Zibby: You’re absolutely right. This is so important. I feel like I need to talk to you more about this. Everything we’re doing that I want to do is creating community, and community around books. To me, that’s the heart of why we live and breathe and love. This sounds so hokey, but that’s it, the connections we make to other people.

Erica: Yes, we should talk about it more because what you do — you have your community inside your company, but then you are creating — we got connected ways. I have a friend who was at one of your events, I think in Miami. You’re creating this broader community, which, again, is good for people individually. I think a lot about, again, the impact of this technology, the good, the bad, and the ugly of loneliness and isolation on the bad part, but obviously, we know there’s a lot of positives. I think that the stuff that you are doing around your broader community is making people feel more connected and is saving lives in a different way.

Zibby: I don’t mean to turn this to what I’m doing, but I just feel like using the tools in your toolkit and almost giving myself a quiz — these three books were like, okay, how did I do in this? How did I do in that? I feel like it’s a really good litmus test for anyone leading anything, honestly. You can apply it to a family. You can apply it to anything. Rituals of the family, what do we do? Do we do Friday night dinner? What are the things we do every year, every week? It’s important. Then you’re bonded.

Erica: Rituals give us a sense of psychological safety, a sense of belonging, a connection to purpose. My kids are in college now. I didn’t cook when they were home. Taco Tuesday was our family ritual. You’d have the smell on Tuesday. It’s a longer story for another day. On March 14th when we started quarantining, which was a Thursday, that next Tuesday, we had left New York City. It was Tuesday, so we made tacos. My mom had been really sick. She passed away in April of 2020. Things were crazy. I remember we had tacos that night. My kids were younger, teenagers. They walked in the kitchen with their shoulders like this. I could see just this — rituals are very connected with your senses, smell and taste and all of those things. These little things matter. I bet walking into your house for lunch there’s just this feeling of coming together.

Zibby: I love that, oh, my gosh. That’s the Rituals Roadmap. We also have The Retention Revolution, which of course, ties in. It all ties into everything, the importance of keeping people and making them feel special and reducing the cost from a business perspective of having to replace people all the time and all of that. Basically, what you’re doing in all of your books is how to treat people and make them feel really valued. That’s really what your whole thing is about.

Erica: It’s funny, I was on a podcast, and someone said, “If you had to boil it all down, what does it come down to?” I just stopped in my tracks, and I said — I get curious what your reaction to this having read the books is. I said, “You need to care about them. Show them that you care about them.” Let’s not overthink this, whether it’s inviting them to that meeting, whether it’s taking a minute if you know someone’s having a bad day. It’s showing them that you care about them. The last thing I want to say about the retention book, it’s interesting because in this new generation, we hear a lot about, it’s so hard in Gen Z and managing people in this new generation, which my kids are in, this new generation. They do think about life and work differently. One of the takeaways in this book is that you want to onboard people in a certain way and make them feel connected to your organization early and often. You could do everything right as a leader, and there are still going to be people that leave. The Retention Revolution is shifting from this idea of golden handcuffs and chaining people to their desk and maybe just paying them so they really feel like they’re stuck and can’t leave to, you know what, I am going to get them on board and give them these great experiences while they’re there or help them to develop up, down, and sideways.

Often, especially, I’m sure — you don’t have a huge company. There’s not as many rungs in the ladder, so we need to get creative about how we help people grow. Then the day that they come and they say, “You know what, Zibby? I am moving on,” we all need to take a deep breath and refrain from the “You’re dead to me. Don’t let the door hit you in the behind,” and think about ways to keep people connected. When you stay connected, when you keep people in your ecosystem, you might get somebody to come back as a boomerang. You might get somebody to refer their friend. You’re going to get somebody to buy your book. They become a brand ambassador. I could imagine, what about if, down the road as your company grows, that maybe there’s a monthly or maybe a quarterly book club for current employees and maybe people that used to work for you to keep your own Zibby Owens ecosystem connected? I just wanted to throw that in there because it’s retention with a little bit of a different spin or a different lens. We are not in the days of IBM and General Motors where people stayed fifty years and then graduated with a plaque and a pension.

Zibby: True. I like that idea. That’s interesting. I’m not sure anyone would go for it, but I like it in theory. I like it in theory.

Erica: You want to make sure that people leave gracefully. That’s a whole separate thing. Look, if someone cheats or steals or is really not a good person, that’s different. So many times, people will say, it’s not you, it’s me. They’ve moved on for whatever reason. It’s keeping them connected to the culture.

Zibby: I don’t want anybody to leave. Nobody is allowed to leave.

Erica: No one’s allowed to leave, if you’re listening to this.

Zibby: I feel like I could actually have a better book club of past babysitters because with four kids who are now — my older kids are sixteen and a half. Sometimes they’re like, “Let’s talk about all the babysitters that we’ve had over the years. Remember that person who, we just knew her for five days? What was her name?”

Erica: At my girls’ bat mitzvah, we had probably six babysitters that flew in from all over. They’re never leaving. We are in touch with them all the time. They now have kids. It’s awesome.

Zibby: Yes, we have that too. I actually just got an email yesterday from a babysitter who only worked for us for this one summer for probably two months, but we kind of stayed in touch with her. It was nine years ago. She just reminded me. She was like, “I have this friend who’s an executive assistant. I have no idea why I’m even sending this to you, but she’s in New York, if you know anybody.” I was like, “Maybe I could use an executive assistant.” Now I’m going to interview her.

Erica: This would be a great idea for a book. Could you imagine having either a book club or a get-together with all the past babysitters?

Zibby: It’s like a reboot of The Baby-Sitters Club.

Erica: There you go.

Zibby: Do I want them all together talking badly about me? I don’t know. It’s the risk you run. Erica, are you working on more? How many colors are we putting in this little series here?

Erica: This is the Human Workplace Trilogy, so trilogy is three. Who knows about a future book. What I am doing is really trying to help organizations bring these ideas to life and make it real, which is really exciting. I have a project in New York City where a company is literally redoing their entire office from having two hundred and fifty different offices to fifty. They want people to use the space differently. I’m working with them to create rituals. How do you get people to move around the space? How do you think about new and exciting ways to come together, especially when you’re not in the office every day? You mentioned the word intentionality. I’m kind of obsessed with thinking about intentionality right now. I have, in one of my slides — maybe I wrote about it in my newsletter this week. It was, the absence of intentionality is a recipe for resentment. That really is something that I’m focused on. If you have a company and people are coming in from all over the Tri-State area — from Montclair, New Jersey; to Connecticut; to Westchester — and coming into New York City and everybody’s coming in and sitting in their own offices and not talking to each other all day, that lack of intentionality is a recipe for resentment. They’re going to be like, why did I commute? What am I doing? Doing things like breaking and having lunch or doing an all-hands meeting or doing a strategy session, these are the things you need to do, especially when you’re not coming in every day.

Zibby: It’s so true. We come in three days a week. Actually, the workspace is another thing that I had to change because we moved into this office, but there were two areas you could sit in. We used to all be in one area. After a couple months, I was so irritated. Everything was just off. I was like, I think it’s because all these people who I used to see all the time, they’re sitting — it’s not that far, but I’m not interacting with them.

Erica: It’s different.

Zibby: We changed it all and put way more desks in one room. Now we’re all in the same room again. I feel much better.

Erica: Space matters. As you know, that’s a chapter in the book too. That’s intentionality right there. You’re doing it.

Zibby: Do you think people do care? Do you think that the clients you’re working with — not anyone specifically, but are they doing it because, okay, fine, this will increase my productivity, or do they actually care? I feel like people can tell if it’s authentic or not. I actually care. I really do. I really, really care about my team. If I were just doing some of the things in your book to increase performance, I feel like people would know that.

Erica: They do. They do know it. It feels like a box check. You can get away with it for a little bit of time. We’re all busy. This stuff is not rocket science, but it’s also not easy. It does take time to do well. You can fake it for a little bit. Eventually, if you really don’t care, it’s pretty obvious.

Zibby: Going back to your point, you have to care.

Erica: You have to care.

Zibby: Amazing. Awesome. Erica, thank you so much. So much great advice here for any type of person who is trying to organize any type of group, a teacher, a mom, a CEO. These tactics are about how to make the people in your life feel valued. That is so, so important. I think the books are fabulous. Particularly, the first one where I have so many things highlighted for what I could do better, I’m going to keep that close to the vest. Thank you.

Erica: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure.



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