by Sue Tomchin
“If you talked to 10 or 20 people who have known me throughout my life and asked them one word they would use to describe me it would be ‘connector,’” says Erica Keswin.
Indeed, Keswin, who has spent 20 years working in organization and leadership development, related so well with colleagues at her workplaces that she’d know about their weekend plans and the names of their spouses and children.
As time went on – and the use of technology increased – she started noticing changes in the workplace. “As technology became more pervasive, I saw a shift in how people were – and were not – connecting at work. There weren’t as many people standing at the watercooler connecting and people were choosing to call into meetings, even if they worked down the hall. Employee engagement numbers were down and turnover was up.”
Research repeatedly demonstrates that people with workplace connections perform better on the job, Keswin, 49, notes. One study out of Cornell showed that firefighters who share meals with colleagues build trust and thus save more lives.
Firefighters’ go-to meal – spaghetti and meatballs – inspired the name of the business that Keswin launched in the fall 2016: The Spaghetti Project, a platform through which she shares the science and stories behind connection at work. She travels around the country speaking at conferences and meeting with companies and community groups, and writes about the topic for such publications as Harvard Business Review, Forbes Woman and the Huffington Post. In fall 2018, McGraw-Hill will publish Keswin’s book: 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.
“One of the lines I often use in my presentations is: ‘Left to our own devices we are not connecting,’” says Keswin. “And that’s all of us, not just young people. We need to be intentional and create systems and processes that honor people at work.”“Send an email to your whole team about a meeting but once you are face-to-face, put your device away,” she says. “It can really hurt relationships if one person is talking and someone else is texting under the table.”
"I am trying to make sure that my kids find the 'sweet spot' between understanding technology and putting it 'in its place,' so they learn how to engage in real conversations."
Starting her own business has been both “scary and exciting,” Keswin says, but from childhood onward she has never been afraid to dive into new experiences. Growing up in Fairfield, Conn., her dad, an attorney, and her mom, a social worker, always encouraged her to try new things. She was captain of her high school gymnastics team and studied abroad both in high school and college.
After graduating from University of Vermont with a political science degree, she wanted to try her hand working as an intern in Washington, D.C. She wrote 100 letters and secured an internship on Capitol Hill.
That summer, she joined a group from D.C. at a beach house and, always interested in learning about people’s jobs, she struck up a conversation with a woman who worked at Booz Allen & Hamilton, a consulting firm. The woman offered to share Keswin’s résumé with colleagues and that ultimately led to a job offer. Soon, she was in Houston working for the senior engineers at NASA designing requirements for the space station.
She realized that to move ahead in her career she needed an MBA. After attending the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern, she worked at two firms devoted to developing business leadership, the Hay Group and Russell Reynolds Associates, where she served as executive director. In 2011, Keswin teamed up with Sherry Turkle, MIT professor, researching the impact of technology on relationships in the workplace for Turkle’s 2015 book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.
As a wife – her husband, Jeff, is the founder of an investment management firm – and the mother of twins, Julia and Caroline, 14, and Daniel, 12, Keswin recognizes the importance of making time for family and causes she cares about. She is very involved at her children’s Reform Jewish day school in Manhattan, Rodeph Sholom School, where she has been a board member for six years and has served as the vice chair and head of the development and nominations committees. Since she missed having a bat mitzvah at 13 (her parents had divorced the year before), she decided to have one at age 30, with her sister, who was 28, and her half-sister who was turning 13.
As a mom, Keswin strives to teach her children about the importance of honoring relationships. “I am trying very hard to make sure that my kids find the 'sweet spot' between understanding technology, but also putting it ‘in its place,’ out of sight, so that they learn how to engage in real conversations. We are even trying to teach them how to talk on the phone, vs. texting, to look people in the eye and shake people’s hands.”
In other words, she is teaching her kids – and the rest of us too – how to value the human touch.